The International Steam Pages

To the G.D.R. for (a little) Steam in 1990

Keith Chambers writes of a visit made when there were still two Germanys, but only just. For those unfamiliar with the Harz system there are maps at the bottom of this page. These were drawn for Robert Hall's article musing on his own trips to Germany.over the years. Note the two related terms - "dampfspender", a stationary boiler and "heizlok", a withdrawn steam locomotive capable of moving itself but only used for heating carriages.

On 27th August 1990 I travelled by train to Magdeburg from Berlin after arriving on a Pan-Am flight from London Heathrow earlier in the day. These were the days of bucket shops where space on trans-Atlantic flights was filled where the flight made more than one stop in Europe. It had proved difficult trying to find somewhere to stay for the night in Berlin so I had headed to Magdeburg as it was in the direction of where I was headed, the Hartz Mountains. I had read an article about them in the Guardian newspaper some years earlier and since then had always wanted to visit them. There was another reason of course. They were crossed by a steam worked narrow gauge railway system. I knew that I had missed my chance to see working standard gauge D.R. steam but D.R. still operated a number of narrow gauge lines and the system in the Hartz was the most extensive so I had decided to go before it was too late. The latest news wasn’t good. Diesels were arriving on the Hartz system and other narrow gauge systems were threatened with immanent closure or in one case, electrification. It was also the only time I would ever stay in the German Democratic Republic because a little more than a month later it ceased to exist as a political entity when Germany was re-unified.

Staying in Magdeburg proved to be lucky. Had I not stopped off there I would have not seen the poster in the booking hall at the main station advertising an open week at Bw Magdeburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the ‘Eisenbahn Magdeburg-Leipzig’. On the following morning I made my way there to see what might be on show. It was well worth it. On display was a cross section of DR steam power of the classes that had seen the demise of standard gauge steam over the previous few years, sixteen locomotives of fourteen classes. And one was in steam. 50.3662 clanked up and down the depot yard for the benefit of visitors.

By midday I was on a train to Halberstadt where I would change. The train soon passed another shed, Magdeburg Buckau, where 50.3552 was in use as a dampfspender. This was the second such locomotive I had seen. On the previous evening I had noticed 52.8171 similarly employed when passing Brandenburg shed. It was sunny and I was enjoying trundling across this part of Germany with a book to read and looking out for steam locomotives. Some time later we eased into Oschersleben. Here the part roundhouse also had a dampfspender alongside, this time 50.3684. Then I noticed two more of these 50.35 class in a goods yard adjacent to the station but partly out of sight. I made a mental note for the return journey. Some time later I was standing on the platform at Halberstadt. I was waiting for a connection to Wernigerode where I intended to stay for the night. As I sat in the sunshine I noticed something that had been lost on railways in the U.K. The DR was still a labour intensive railway and a number of staff were busy on the platforms doing jobs that had all but disappeared on British Rail. There was a wheel-tapper making his way along a row of coaches standing in an adjacent platform. Platform staff wheeled trolleys, one with a small pile of parcels.

Then my train appeared and I was off to Wernigerode. I arrived in the early afternoon sunshine. I crossed to the narrow gauge platforms having already seen a wisp of steam. 2-10-2T 99.7231 was just arriving. It soon ran round its train and waited to return towards Nordhausen.

The passenger coaches were reminiscent of one of the old British Railway liveries of red and cream. I strolled along a platform and found the locomotive shed. It was brand new and another 2-10-2T no.99.7245 stood outside. Shortly afterwards two more of the class coupled together came on shed. Steam was obviously alive and well. I walked to the next station, Westerntor, which I knew from maps was not far and was the site of the locomotive works. I arrived there and found another 2-10-2T in steam and shunting. One of the line’s 0-4-4-0T Mallets was dead alongside the works and ominously one of the regauged diesels was present. The works yard was littered with coaches and wagons and I wandered around taking photographs and generally enjoying myself. I was brought down to earth as I clambered across the balcony of an old coach. A member of DR’s staff had seen me and made it quite clear that he wanted me off the site. My understanding of German is basic to say the least but I did catch something about coming back tomorrow and when I went around to the works entrance some time later discovered a sign which gave times that works visits were possible.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Wernigerode and finding food, drink and accomodation. The following morning I spent a few hours watching the action around Wernigerode and then decided to travel the length of the system to Nordhausen. Some time later I was standing on a coach balcony watching a steam locomotive pull my train up into the mountains. At Drie Annen Hohne was something else I had hoped for – a Mallet in steam. It was 99.5902 and had presumably just brought a train in from the branch that joined here. Typical of junctions there was a flurry of activity as trains arrived from all directions. 

Some time later we arrived at the other junction on this route at Eisfelder Talmühle. This station was purely a junction, its main purpose being for passengers to change trains. It was in a wooded valley in the ‘middle of nowhere’. Again trains had obviously arrived simultaneously from different directions and there were three or four steam hauled passenger trains including my own. There were also a number of rollwagens present which suggested that standard gauge freight wagons were still transported into the Hartz on them. I soaked up the atmosphere of a scene that I was certain was about to disappear forever. I travelled on to Nordhausen and had time to explore the narrow gauge shed there before heading off to find somewhere to stay for the night. Nordhausen (Nord) shed contained three steam locomotives; two 2-10-2Ts and a third loco of a different type, 99.6001 a 2-6-2T and the only member of its class on the system. It was in steam as were the other two.

Satisfied with my day I went in search of accommodation for the night. I found a town map and located three hotels on it and all seemed close by. I soon discovered that they were all closed. There seemed to be nowhere to stay. I decided that I would go to the main station and catch a train to another town. There was one leaving soon to Sangerhausen, so I caught it. On arrival at Sangerhausen things didn’t look good. After trudging around for a considerable time I returned to the station. There was still a train leaving at around midnight bound for Kassel across the border in West Germany. I bought a ticket. Interestingly it was one of the standard CIV airline type tickets of the period which were issued for all international journeys in Europe. My plan was to go to Kassel, sleep on the train and then get the first available train back to Nordhausen trying to get some more sleep. Not ideal but at least I would keep warm. And that is what I did and arrived tired in Kassel at some ungodly hour. There was a return train within an hour or so. I went to purchase a ticket back to Nordhausen from the solitary ticket window that stayed open all night. Again a CIV ticket but here I learned something that would come in useful when I returned to travel on DR trains after reunification. The journey back with a ticket purchased in West Germany was more than double the price. There was selective pricing, a policy which continued for a few years. By the time my train left it was getting light and not long after entering the GDR again we passed a mine at a place called Bleicherode. There were sidings around a pithead and as we passed them a steam locomotive came into view, shunting a row of wagons. It was a very handsome looking 0-6-0F. The mine which I assumed was a colliery was actually a potash mine. I arrived at Nordhausen and was soon on my way back to Wernigerode steam hauled again. I needed to be back there in time for a works visit. 

I made my way to the works. At one of the allotted times the small group of us who were waiting outside were allowed in for our visit. The works was small of course but here I was inside a loco works still overhauling steam locomotives for a nationalised railway system. Predictably 2-10-2Ts were receiving attention, three of them, 99.7222/36/43 for the record while  7246 was outside shunting. 

There were two Mallets, the one I had seen previously outside and a second inside. These were 99.5901/6. But finally were 0-6-0Ts 99.6101/2 both under repair and the only the two members of the class on the system. 

The third Mallet which I had seen the previous day was shunting carriages nearby.

I paid a final visit to the shed and then caught a train to Halberstadt. I had to be back in Berlin by the evening. At Halberstadt I made my way to the shed. In the yard were three class 50.35s (50.3520/57/606) but I got no further. Again I was told to leave. I had not had time to travel on the other lines of the narrow gauge system but I did have time to approach the line from Eisfelder Talmühle to Gernrode from the opposite end by taking a standard gauge train from Halberstadt. This also gave me another opportunity to view Halberstadt shed as I passed. At the rear of the shed was a row of withdrawn steam locomotives but one in particular caught my eye. It was a former heizlok/dampfspender with large driving wheels and carried the number 16 on its side. It appeared to be a pacific. My journey by rail was actually only as far as Quedlinberg and I cannot remember how I expected to get from there to Gernrode. The station at Quedlinberg was unkempt and had clearly seen better days. I remember tripping on some loose tiles on the platform. There was an air of depression about the place. There was nobody around to ask about onward travel to Gernrode. A man stumbled out of the booking hall and fell to the ground. At first I thought he was another victim of the uneven platform but soon realised that he was very drunk. I went to help him up and instinctively spoke in English to him. He looked totally bewildered. Outside the station I tried to fathom out the bus information. I couldn’t and because time was pressing found a taxi. A short time later I was at Gernrode station. I wandered across to the narrow gauge shed. Outside in steam was a solitary steam loco, 2-10-2T no. 99.7233. Otherwise all was quiet. There were standard gauge platforms here as well and despite the inactivity of the place it was fascinating. I then made my way back to Halberstadt by bus and train and soon was on a train to Berlin. One more surprise waited. We pulled into Nienhagen station at the same time as a passenger train in the opposite direction. It was steam hauled. 50.3708 pulled in with what appeared to be a timetabled passenger service. I do not know to this day whether this was a special train, a plandampf or whether this Halberstadt allocated loco had been pressed into service in an emergency. I do know that despite regular standard gauge D.R. steam having already ended there were reports and rumours of locos being used as late as 1994. I had one more steam related task - to identify the two locos at Oschersleben. We pulled in there some time later and I had planned exactly what to do. The moment the train stopped I dived off the train, across a platform stood in front of the two locos, took a photograph, memorised the numbers and leapt back on the train again all in the space of about ninety seconds. Getting back on the train was essential for two reasons. It was the last train of the day to Berlin and my bag was on it. The locos incidentally were 50.3631/3684. I arrived in Berlin in the evening and looked for a place to stay. “Everywhere is full” was the reply to my question at the tourist office “unless….” Some time later I knocked on the door of a large building in Charlottenburg where the tourist office had arranged for me to stay for the night. It was a squat and shortly afterwards I was sharing a communal meal and gaining an insight into the radical politics of Berlin.

This had been a wonderful few days. The period of time when I visited seemed to have a very distinct feel and I am glad that I experienced it. There was a real feeling of change in the GDR for obvious reasons but it was palpable. The D.R. had a charming feel about it, slightly run down in parts but reasonably punctual and operating as a service rather than a business. Standard gauge steam had gone but evidence of it was everywhere, not just the dumped locomotives but the infrastructure such as engine sheds and dripping water cranes at stations. Narrow gauge steam was very much alive. My visit prompted me to return after re-unification to sample the D.R. again as it remained a separate entity from D.B. for a few years. I visited several other narrow gauge lines before they were privatised and also a number of standard gauge steam sheds albeit with rows of stored or dumped locos. At the time of my visit the outlook for the steam worked narrow gauge lines had not seemed good but of course they have mostly survived.

Rob Dickinson