The International Steam Pages

Hans Andersen’s Land

Robert Hall writes about Denmark's lesser lines - a location map :is included at the end.

I find fascinating, the railways of Sweden; and of close-by Denmark. The latter country comes across overall as an appealing and benign place, inhabited by likeable people fond of the good things of life – I have difficulty recalling ever encountering from anyone, a negative opinion of Denmark or the Danes. Things were different a millennium or so ago; but “that was then, and this is now”. ( It would seem likely that if the long-ago Danes’ adversary, Alfred the Great, had ever been told about railways, he would have earnestly desired to have his kingdom served by a system of them – but historically it would not be the right time, for many centuries to come.)

My first-hand experience of Denmark has certainly been agreeable; and (not a difficult feat) considerably greater than my ditto of Sweden. My one and only visit to the country has been on a “mini-cruise” from Britain, in company with then-girlfriend. This ended up yielding nearly forty-eight hours in Denmark: more in fact, than at first envisaged. Bad weather in the North Sea enforced delay to, and then cancellation of, the return sailing from Esbjerg; transfer to, and casting-off from, Hamburg, were substituted. Our Danish sojourn allowed for sampling of travel on the State Railways, on the complete day which participants had to their own devices. We opted to go from Esbjerg to Odense and back (wintertime, everything under a thin coat of snow). At Odense, per harmoniously arranged deal, girlfriend and I split up for a couple of hours; I to visit the national railway museum located in the city, she to go to the Hans Christian Andersen museum -- “him of the fairy tales” having been born in Odense.

I find myself in harness at times re this article, on “The International Steam Pages” , with Keith Chambers, who has spent much more Danish time “in-country”, than I have. My thanks for information, to Mr. Chambers for pieces of his on this site; and likewise – for a native Danish perspective – to Christian Cederberg.

Denmark is a land of unspectacular but pleasant scenery: universally low-lying, flat in parts, wide areas of gentle rolling hills in others. And water everywhere: the country is an intriguing geographical jigsaw puzzle of numerous islands of various sizes, plus a small chunk of the European continent – fretted by a great number of bays and reaches of the sea, plus large inland lagoons, and some freshwater lakes. All straits formerly occasioning separation “mutually” between the main islands, and likewise them vis-à-vis the mainland, are now bridged for rail and road (likewise the narrow stretch of water between Denmark and Sweden). For a long while in past times, conservative Danes disliked the idea of bridges across these straits – relishing the seemly and “not challenging the Almighty” slow pace of links by ferry; but the modern way of doing things has fully won out.

This landscape was, at the zenith of railway development in the earlier twentieth century, amply rail-served throughout. Overwhelmingly on the standard 1435mm gauge; unlike its fellow “Northlands”, Denmark was never a big player on the narrow-gauge scene. Narrow-gauge sections existed, but were always rare. An interesting and unusual trait of the Danish rail milieu was that whilst the country’s main-line skeleton belonged to the state railways (DSB) from early on; very many rural local lines were not DSB property, but belonged to a multitude (at maximum, fifty-some) of private companies, nearly always on the 1435mm gauge. These were full railways, if sometimes lightly constructed; overwhelmingly, not roadside tramways. Some were systems, of considerable length in certain instances, with various junctions with DSB / other private railways; some were short terminal lines. “At peak” in 1931, the total kilometrage of private railways exceeded by nearly 300 km, that of the DSB. Railways, state or private, served the mainland and all the nation’s chief islands, and a few unexpected smaller ones. While there were instances of private railways being taken over by DSB, such happenings were rare.

The country’s geography, and how the railways fitted in, just looks so intricate and fascinating. Denmark’s slice of the European continent – the peninsula of Jylland (Jutland) – goes a long way north, and then meets a body of water: the Limfjord, appearing delectable from the map; which though mostly narrow, runs from coast to coast, and cuts off the country’s far-northern end as a large island of its own – Vendsyssel, counted administratively as part of Jylland. Vendsyssel was in happier days gridded with private lines, under several different ownerships, spanning wide areas between the DSB at Thisted in the west, and Hjørring and Frederikshavn in the east. All that now remains in service hereabouts, private-railway-wise, are the short line Hjørring – Hirtshals (owing its survival to the inauguration of a ferry route to Norway); and the longer one from Frederikshavn to Skagen at the very tip of Denmark – opened as metre-gauge, but widened as long ago as 1924.

Wonderfully in my view, there was a private railway on the “long (50-odd km) but thin”, and fairly obscure, island of Langeland: a micro-system starting from Rudkøbing the capital, and encompassing the island’s southern half. Abandoned in 1962, but for this author, weirdly tantalising.

Another such “odd one” (and I gather, a big favourite of Danish enthusiasts) was the Amagerbanen, from København (Copenhagen) onto the small island of Amager, adjacent to the nation’s capital, and across the island to Dragør. One of those situations of not so much “gone beyond recall”, as “transmuted, but...” Way after the “context local line” end of passenger services, and freight ditto for most of the route; a remnant of the line, including the street running in København with which it started its course, stayed in use for DSB-operated freight. That is now, no more; but on the other hand, the København Metro’s line to the city’s airport, now occupies much of the Amagerbanen’s former route.

It must be admitted that from pictures which I have seen of Denmark’s private railways, their stock and general “feel” would appear not on the whole to have differed vastly between one company and another; however, to have had the chance to travel extensively and at leisure by rail around Denmark, say 60 or 75 years ago –far enough in the past, for steam still to have been relatively commonplace (obviously, “skirting” World War II and the German occupation) – is for this author, powerful dream-and-wish-fodder. Such a paradise of standard-gauge private railways would be difficult to find a match for elsewhere in Europe. One is tempted to feel that Colonel Stephens ought to have been a Dane; save for the impression strongly received, that the Danish private railways were a lot more efficient and in better shape than the Colonel’s ramshackle collection of lines.

Usually in Western Europe, tidings for the lover of small railways have over the past most-of-a-century, been sad; and so it has been, mostly, in Denmark. “Could have been worse”, rather on the level of the guy being left after the battle, still with one limb out of four, and one eye. Denmark’s standard-gauge privatbaner would seem to have started to dwindle around 1950; the period of their “great dying” was the 1960s, and the majority of those which remained active forty years ago, are still running today. To best of current information, and in “former times” context, a “round dozen” private railways out of the peak-time fifty-ish are still in commercial service. They operate now, overwhelmingly for passenger traffic; only a couple see freight action of any kind. There has been in recent times, a great trend toward amalgamation of diverse lines, under one regional managerial “umbrella”. Surviving private railways are on the mainland (Jylland), and on the islands of Sjælland and Lolland. A very few more private-railway sections see preservation activity. Private trackage still active in either mode, is shown on the accompanying map.

Denmark’s railways have never gone in for electrification, other than for suburban services around København. Diesel traction – both locomotives and railmotors / multiple units, often built by Danish firms such as Frichs of Århus and Triangel of Odense – put in an early appearance on both state and private railways, but steam was not completely displaced for some decades; in fact, DSB steam continued in regular commercial service, albeit in small quantities, for a couple of years longer than did steam on British Railways. 

DSB’s steam stock was interestingly varied, until quite a late date; featured some handsome machines, including classes of a fair degree of antiquity. Europe’s last locos of the “Atlantic” (4-4-2) wheel arrangement in regular service, are believed to have been DSB’s P class. The “last generation” of Denmark’s express steam locos was represented by the E class four-cylinder compound Pacifics. Ten of these were bought from the Swedish state railways in 1937, made redundant in their homeland by electrification. The Danes, favourably impressed by this type, built another twenty-five of the same design shortly after World War II; the Pacifics replaced on express duties, earlier 4-4-2 and 4-6-0 types. Freight tended to be handled by 2-6-0s and 2-8-0s, with a number of German class 50 early-WWII “semi-austerity”-type 2-10-0s – acquired after the war, via Belgium. Larger tank locos handled outer-suburban duties, smaller ditto took care of shunting and trip working.

The private railways were served steam-wise mostly by tank locos, of a wide variety of wheel arrangements – a few tender engines. Steam railcars saw use on a few lines, but – as in most parts of the world where they were tried – were not highly successful, and usually short-lived. Diesel railcars / railbuses and – less commonly at first – diesel locos, were seen on private railways initially in the 1920s, and appeared there in increasing strength over the following decades. From photographs seen, some of the earlier diesel-powered stock was fairly weird-looking. On the private railways, railcar – occasionally even, railbus ! – haulage of goods workings, was not uncommon. Acquisition second-hand by private railways of ex-DSB motive power or stock, is thought to have happened rarely if at all. A pleasant national custom in steam days, was that of metal “collars” around the locos’ chimneys, painted in the national colours: on the DSB, up-to-down red-white-red, on the private lines white-red-white. Private-railways regular steam working is thought effectively to have finished by the end of the 1960s.

Some dozens of Danish steam locos, from both state and private railways, have been preserved – a fair number, in working order. Steam specials are quite frequently run over DSB routes; and there are occasional summer-weekend steam tourist trains on some of the surviving commercial private trackage on Sjælland.

Such self-contained preserved steam lines as Denmark has, are predominantly on private-railway territory. The “Premier line” of such, has to be the Maribo – Bandholm operation on the island of Lolland. Some 8km long, and curiously enough, Denmark’s first private railway, opened 1869: physically isolated, until the also-private Lollandsbanen began to link Maribo to the outside world in 1874. Preserved steam operation began on this line in 1962, at which date the line had long been a freight-only branch of the Lollandsbanen. Thus at the time of writing a fifty-year-old preservation scene, running between the “main line” at Maribo, and Bandholm harbour – no more freight traffic on this branch, as of the past twenty years or so. Has five steam locos, variously ex-private, or industrial, railways: mostly 0-4-0Ts / 0-6-0Ts, one 2-6-0 tender loco. Various diesel motive power also in the line’s fleet.

The country’s other two, in this author’s opinion worthwhile, preservation operations, are on Jylland. The Mariager – Handest Veteranjernbane runs for 16km between the two places named in its title. It was once a part of the Mariager – Fårup – Viborg private railway, whose western portion was abandoned in 1966; at that time, Mariager town council took over the line’s eastern section from Mariager to the main-line junction at Fårup, for freight traffic; arranging for freight to be worked by DSB. Handest is the first station out of Fårup in the Mariager direction; the preservation society negotiated with the town council, and began steam passenger working between Mariager and Handest circa 1969 / 70. (Freight workings as above, ended in the early 1990s.) The undertaking owns steam locos as follows – a 2-4-0T and a 2-6-0T originating from other private railways, and an ex-DSB class F 0-6-0T. Steam works the trains between Mariager and Handest whenever possible; the venue also has an assortment of diesel locos and railcars, of various provenances. At times anyhow, connecting passenger workings have been provided by preserved railcar, between Handest and Randers (DSB).

Based on Aalborg is the Limfjordsbanen, the surviving first 19km from that town, of theAalborg – Hadsund line, a constituent of the one-time Aalborg Private Railways. Trains run between Aalborg and Grønlandhavn; four-wheeled stock, hauled whenever-may-be by the line’s no. 34, a 2-6-0 originating from a different part of the Aalborg Private “empire”.

As observed earlier, Denmark was always very much 1435mm territory, making little use of the narrow gauge. And such public n/g lines as there were (metre-gauge almost without exception) nearly all disappeared the greater part of a century ago – either abandoned, or converted to standard gauge. 

A considerable element of Denmark’s restricted narrow-gauge action, was actually only “quasi-Danish”. Nord Slesvig, the now southernmost part of mainland Denmark was -- though overwhelmingly Danish-populated -- German territory from 1864 (taken as “spoils of war”) to 1920: a province of Prussia. It is considered that as part of the endeavour to consolidate its hold on the annexed area, Prussia (a notable light-railway user and proponent) saw to it that around the turn of the 19th / 20th centuries, extensive metre-gauge light railways were inaugurated in the region, provided with large numbers of stations, copiously staffed by German railway personnel -- presumably, with families in tow. These lines grew up in three separate systems, on the mainland and the adjacent island of Als; one system, that centring on the town of Haderslev, being especially dense and intricate -- it included seven separate lines. Incidentally, the Haderslev network became very early, a keen internal-combustion-railcar user – Denmark’s first.

The Treaty of Versailles occasioned the handing back of Nord Slesvig in 1920, after a plebiscite, from German to Danish rule. The area’s metre-gauge railways thus passed into Danish administration – not for enormously long; they were all closed, or in one instance standard-gauged, between 1926 and 1939. The general picture got, is that this was not the result of any strong desire to be rid of the German colonisers’ horrid little railways: just the more mundane factors -- affecting at the time many countries and their rural lines -- of economic depression; mounting costs of maintaining the lines; increasing wages (particularly for the numerous stations / staff put in place by the inaugurators, in their wisdom); and ever-increasing competition from road transport.

One vestige of this “Germano-Danish” narrow gauge scene, which survives today. The small network serving Sønderborg and the island of Als bought in 1927 from the German builder Vulcan, three handsome and modern 2-6-2Ts. Only a very few years later, in 1932, this metre-gauge system ceased to be; part abandoned, one line converted to 1435mm gauge. The three 1927 2-6-2Ts were sold on to metre-gauge lines in the then extreme east of Germany; which after 1945, was annexed by Poland. The Prairie tanks thus entered Polish State Railways stock, and continued in service for the following three decades or so, on the rather little trackage in Poland which long continued as metre-gauge. One of the trio (Vulcan works no. 3867/1927) is still in existence today, in Poland’s metre-gauge museum at Gryfice – near the Baltic coast, and as the crow or seagull flies, not hugely far from Denmark.

For some reason, this particular Nord Slesvig narrow-gauge scene has always appealed to me, occasioning wishes that either I had been born earlier (and in a favourable geographical location), or that it might have lasted much longer. With the general perception on the part of “normal people”, of railway enthusiasts as being rather strange, if not actually unhinged; I occasionally feel the flicker of a suspicion that just possibly, we are indeed crazy people who spend much of our time in a fantasy alternative universe – that these delightful rail venues which we dream about and moon over, have in fact never really existed. Perhaps their only existence is in the collective imagination of gricer-kind -- people have dreamed them up out of nowhere, and written about them; and photographs, maps, and all other supposed evidence, are in fact elaborate fakes confected by our more creative fellow-addicts.

In the light of such thoughts which sometimes slightly trouble me; I occasionally feel rather absurdly reassured when I come across a mention of a particularly obscure and enticing railfan-type venue, in a completely “mundane” non-railway context. Proof, as it were, that these places do truly exist, and that I’m not a total nutter inhabiting a dream-world. A location on the one-time Haderslev group of metre-gauge lines in the area concerned, is a case in point. One of this system’s junctions was at the village of Gromby. I once read, in a totally non-railway-related book, about a long-ago unpleasant event (mercifully, without an actually ugly ending) involving the kidnapping by a psychopath, of the parson of Gromby – per the circumstantial detail, it had to be this Gromby, not a village of the same name elsewhere in Denmark. So, to any who share my occasional worry about this whole thing perhaps being pure delusion – take heart... 

The part of Denmark where public narrow gauge rail action continued longest, by a handsome margin, was the island of Bornholm. This reputedly delectable isle and beloved holiday destination -- an approximate rectangle some 30 by 20km, way out in the Baltic and geographically much closer to Sweden than to the rest of Denmark – played host for about the first half of the twentieth century, to an island-spanning metre gauge system. A slight touch here, of “Isle of Wight / Man syndrome” – multiple different railway administrations on an, in this context, ludicrously small island. As at maximum extent, Bornholm had three different lines, supposedly under the control of three separate companies. In fact, the companies’ independence was largely notional, and things took place under the aegis of one overall undertaking, De Bornholmske Jernbaner (DBJ). One line on Bornholm paralleled the island’s south coast, from Rønne the capital, to Neksø; the other two took off northwards from this route.

In Britain and a lot of Western Europe, very much that was lovely on the branch-line and light-railway scene perished in the decade following World War II. Bornholm’s two north-running branches were abandoned in the early 1950s; the Rønne – Neksø line lasted, often under threat of closure, for another fifteen years, succumbing at last in 1968. (A bad year, that one.) In Denmark, just as envisaged to be in Sweden -- a country with not a huge population for its size, and without a strikingly large railway-enthusiast “community” – the late 1960s were too early for there to be a chance for any preservation movement to rescue this relatively out-of-the-way line.

It has to be admitted that such a longed-for preservation initiative on Bornholm, would have started out with 100% diesel power. The island system’s original roster of sweet little tank locos – chiefly 2-6-2Ts – began to be eroded away early on; DBJ started taking an interest in diesel railcars, and placing orders accordingly, in the mid-1930s – plus a single diesel loco for freight work. This trend “went from strength to strength”, including the acquisition of a few railcars from the Haderslev lines in Nord Slesvig, when this system finished its career at the end of the ‘thirties. DBJ’s railmotor-orientation increased further, including adapting goods stock for railmotor haulage. Bornholm’s last steam loco was withdrawn in 1953. Well – this author can delight in totally-diesel narrow-gauge lines: would give the proverbial arm and a leg, for a brief time-machine visit to the West Clare in 1960. If preservation on Bornholm had only happened – they would have had ample opportunity to acquire metre-gauge steam locos from other countries in Western (and a little later, also Eastern) Europe: that very same thing has taken place in reality, multiple times, between sundry metre-gauge preserved outfits.

Such a thing wasn’t to be. So far as is known, there was no equivalent here, of Henry James (vis-à-vis that literary gent and the Isle of Wight’s railways), ranting and raging in the early years of the twentieth century, about the desecration of Bornholm’s delicate beauty by money-craving yahoos building nasty little railways all over the island. If there in fact were such an objector on aesthetic grounds – but lacking the acclaim which old Henry had for his numerous well-respected highbrow tomes, and thus perhaps confined to writing apoplectic letters to the Rønne local newspaper -- I hope he’s happy now. 

One short and strange line on Sjælland was remarkably long-lived, and in the situation of absence of other narrow gauge in Denmark except on distant Bornholm, provided some narrow-gauge enthusiasts with a much-needed “fix”. This Fakse Jernbane inhabited a grey area intermediate between the industrial, and public-railway, realms. It was located at one extremity of the 1435mm gauge private Østre Sjællands Jernbane (ØSJS), a system still in commercial use, nowadays part of a “conglomerate” of various private lines. With the unusual gauge of 791mm, it originated in the 1860s as an isolated industrial line linking a large chalk quarry a little way inland, to the sea at Fakse harbour. With the opening in 1879 of the ØSJS route from Køge, negotiations resulted in three-rail track being installed from the meeting-point of standard and narrow gauges close by the quarry, for the 4km down to the harbour. Køge, incidentally, is nowadays a standard-gauge preservation venue under the auspices of the Dansk Jernbane-Klub; locos preserved static, and also some in working order for occasional specials.

For many decades, the standard-gauge ØSJS trains were basically worked between the “junction” and the harbour by Fakse Jernbane narrow-gauge locos, with match wagons as intermediaries. Roles as to haulage over this three-rail section got blurred as time went on, but handling of standard-gauge wagons by narrow-gauge locos thereon, continued to happen until the ultimate abandonment of the narrow gauge, at the surprisingly late date of 1983. Diesel traction finally took over the FJ completely in 1973, after gradual phasing-out of the line’s small steam fleet, which largely comprised 0-6-2Ts built by Krauss. In Britain in the time-span concerned, preservationists would very probably have come galloping to the rescue of this little gem, for it to be perpetuated in an active-and-working way. As observed elsewhere, the demographic for such matters is rather different in Scandinavia. I understand that four of the Fakse Jernbane’s steam locos are preserved, but none in working order – where they could run, would in any case be a problem.

I must express appreciation of the source from which comes most of my historical information about Denmark’s private railways: the book “Bygone Light Railways of Europe” (text available in English) by the late Ole Winther Laursen of Århus . This gentleman’s exploration of his country’s private lines, from the early 1950s on (at which time their decline was setting in), is set out in wonderful detail in the cited book. I must take issue with him over just one thing. In describing the one-time private lines of an area a little way west of his home town, he writes of this Danish region as “comparable with the English Lake District, hills and meadows, lakes and rivers offering the visitor...” I’m sorry, Mr. Laursen – staunch Danish patriot that you no doubt were; but, just no. With Denmark’s highest point being only 170.86 metres above sea level, that comparison simply does not hold.

Robert has supplied this sketch map of Denmark:

Rob Dickinson