The International Steam Pages

The Estonian Museum Railway, Lavassaare

James Waite reports on a July 2009 visit:

For more information on Peat Railways in Estonia, please see this page - (link broken, 1st November 2019). It is in Czech but readily and (dare I say it) quite well using Google translate. This link added on 18th November 2009. 

The small country of Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic countries which won their freedom in 1991 after many years of occupation by the USSR. It’s an unlikely place to be the home of by far the largest collection of preserved Soviet narrow gauge locomotives and rolling stock. That it does so is entirely due to a small, dedicated group of enthusiasts who set up the Estonian Museum Railway at Lavassaare in 1987, no mean feat given the restrictions imposed upon the country during the Soviet era. It is hard to overemphasize the important role which the narrow gauge played in the rapid development of the USSR. The system reached its maximum extent in the 1960’s at a time when the narrow gauge was in terminal decline in much of western Europe. It has been estimated that there may have been as many as 100,000 km of track in use then and undoubtedly it had become one of the world’s largest systems.

The western and southern part of Estonia used to be served by an extensive public 750mm gauge system from the early years of the 20th century until it was closed or (in some cases) converted to broad gauge as a result of Soviet policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The system’s main line connected Tallinn, the capital, with the large town of Pärnu in the southwest and carried on to Valga before continuing southwards through Latvia. Sadly most of its rolling stock, including sixteen elegant locally-built 2-8-0’s, had disappeared by the time the museum got under way. However the distinctive Soviet TU2 class diesel electric Bo-Bo’s which had taken over most services by the time of the closure were still relatively new and were transferred to other parts of the USSR. One, no. 101, was brought back in 1988 to become one of the museum’s first exhibits. The museum also provides a home for some of the survivors of the country’s numerous industrial narrow gauge lines.

Lavassaare lies some 17km or so north west of Pärnu in the south west of the country. It’s the site of peat bogs which have been worked commercially since the early 1920’s. A 750mm gauge line was opened to connect the peat workings with the public railway near Pärnu in 1923. This continued to run until 1974 after the closure of the narrow gauge at Pärnu. In 1983 a replacement 750mm gauge line was opened running northeastwards from Lavassaare to meet the new broad gauge Tallinn-Pärnu line at Tootsi. Its depot is at the eastern end of Lavassaare village. Some TU-7 type diesel hydraulic locos are based there though traffic is now at a low ebb and it’s likely that the line will soon be abandoned completely. The museum occupies the loco depot and operating centre built for the original line in 1924 at Müramaa, some 2km north west of Lavassare village and has the use of the old line between the depot and the village. 

The museum’s large collection of locos consists mostly of Soviet-era i/c machines. The majority are not in working order and are kept outside in the museum’s extensive yard, not an ideal situation given the region’s damp climate. A second TU2 class loco, no. 94, has been acquired fairly recently from the Panevezys – Anyksciai – Rubikiai line in Lithuania. Also here is Bo-Bo diesel electric no. TU3-002. Relatively few of these CKD-built machines have survived anywhere in the old USSR though several similar locos are still in service on the JHMD railway in the Czech Republic. Like the two TU2’s it was built in 1957. 

Most of the other locos in the outside display are industrial machines, both i/c and electric, though for steam enthusiasts the star exhibit is undoubtedly Henschel 0-6-0T+T works no. 23336. It’s a 600mm gauge loco to a design chosen by the German Wermacht for use in the Second World War after they had belatedly discovered that they could not fight the war effectively without narrow gauge field railways. This loco, restored as no. HF 11017, was one of a batch of 30 built in about 1941 at what had been the Fablok factory at Chrzanόw in Poland which was taken over by Henschel after the German invasion of that country. It probably came to the Baltic states when the Germans arrived there in 1941 and was left behind when they were driven out three years later. It later ran as no. Tl-901 at Ligatne paper mill in Latvia from where it was rescued for preservation.

The museum runs trains over the 2km of line between Müramaa and Lavassaare village on Saturdays between the beginning of June and the end of September. Its working locos are kept in the 1924-built loco shed. Most days the trains are diesel hauled, usually by B-B diesel hydraulic no. TU4 -1781 built by Kambarka in 1969. However 0-8-0 no. Kch4-332 (Skoda works no. 2347/1950), one of two of these PT-4 class steam locos owned by the museum, was restored to working order at the Gulbene-Aluksne railway in Latvia in 2005 and after several years of operation there returned to Lavassaare in May 2009. The intention now is to run it on the Saturday services about once a month.

The PT-4 class originated with nine prototypes built by Kolomna works in 1941. The design was intended for mass production mainly for industrial railways throughout the USSR but further construction was put on hold after the Germans invaded the country the same year. Production got under way in earnest after the war. 590 locos were built between 1946 and 1952 by Tampella and Lokomo in Finland, all except 20 of them as war reparations. In 1947 construction began at the Votkinsk works in the Ural mountains and more than 2,000 were produced there. From 1949 420 were delivered from Skoda in Czechoslovakia, 234 from MAVAG in Hungary and 790 from Fablok at Chrzanόw in Poland. Fablok also built 20 locos for industrial service in Poland and 107 locos which were exported to China. Here they became the first members of the C2 class and many more were built by several Chinese factories.

The last of the locos for service in the USSR was completed by Votkinsk works in 1960 though in China production continued until 1988. During the 47 years since the 1941 prototypes appeared more than 5,000 members had been built. It was by far the largest class of narrow gauge locos the world has ever seen. Harbin works no. 221/1988 which became no. 4 at Dahuichang was quite probably the very last to be built and is now preserved at the Ffestiniog Railway. Although intended for industrial use many of the locos ran in public service in Estonia and elsewhere. In the USSR most of the locos had ceased work by the late 1970’s, replaced by the TU-4 class which was designed specifically to replace them and, with over 3,200 built, was another enormous class. In China of course the locos are still very much in use, not just in industrial service but also, at Shibanxi, for passenger traffic.

The museum’s second PT-4 class loco, no. VP1-899 (Votkinsk works no. 899/1951), is one of five of these locos which worked on the Lavassaare peat railway in its steam days and one of the few Russian-built examples to have survived. It ran during the museum’s early years but would need extensive work to run again. It is currently being cosmetically restored.

The museum owns two further steam locos which are at present kept offsite. One, no. Gr 319 (LKM works no. 15416/1951) is a member of a class of, probably, 413 much larger 0-8-0’s built for service in the USSR at the old OK works at Babelsberg near Berlin. All except four of them were supplied as war reparations. The loco was brought to the museum from Vapnjarka, Ukraine. It has recently been restored to working order at Gulbene with a view to operating tourist trains on the Gulbene-Aluksne line. However these have been suspended indefinitely due to the dire economic situation in Latvia and the loco currently spends most of its time under lock and key at Gulbene loco shed. It’s due to make an outing in September 2009 for a visiting FarRail Tours group.

The other is a 0-4-0T (OK works no. 4843/1911) which spent its working life on a line 3km long between a cement factory and a harbour at Kunda on the country’s north coast and where in was numbered 5. Unusually for this part of the world the line was built to 762mm (2ft 6in) gauge. It’s not known if there was any British involvement in the enterprise which might have influenced the choice of gauge. The loco ceased work in the late 1950’s and was preserved at the factory for many years before moving to Lavassaare in 1997. It is currently displayed alongside the main road through Pärnu on the site of the town’s old narrow gauge station along with an open wagon built by Arthur Koppel in 1910. The loco has some special significance for the museum as it’s the only survivor in Estonia from the country’s days as an independent country before the Second World War.

The usual museum train consists of two of the bogie coaches built by Pafawag in Poland which are relatively common throughout the old USSR and one original pre-war Estonian carriage which it rightly regards as being one of its star exhibits. There’s also the usual range of freight stock most of which looks as though it may have originated on the peat railway. There’s a substantial building near the centre of the site which contains small exhibits. When I first visited in 2007 the building was in an advanced state of dilapidation but it’s now being refurbished.

Lavassaare has an unhappy history. Just outside the museum gate are several apartment blocks quite different from the usual Soviet style. I was told that they are the remnants of a concentration camp run there by the Germans during the Second World War. There’s a German military cemetery nearby.

The museum is well worth seeking out. Details of future operating days are posted on its website at (link broken by 29th October 2017). However the operating dates when I visited were changed at short notice and it’s worth emailing the museum to make sure the info’s up to date before firming up on a trip. There’s a good road map on the museum website but the advice that the southernmost route via Pärnu is the only one that’s tarred throughout is no longer accurate. The Nurme to Jõõpre road is now also tarred and makes for a significantly shorter journey if you’re coming from Tallinn or the north. One final bit of advice – both times I’ve visited the place has been home to horseflies which are large, plentiful and persistent. Take a good insect repellent!

Soviet Locomotive Types, The Union Legacy by A.J. Heywood and I.D.C. Button, ISBN 91-7266-132-1 pub. 1995 Frank Stenvalls Förlag, Malmö
Eesti Kitsarööpmelised Raudteed 1896 -1996 by Mehis Helme, ISBN 9985-60-248-X, pub. 1996 Autori Kirastusel 
Russian Narrow Gauge Steam Locomotives by Leonid Moskalev, pub. 1997 Zheleznodorozhnoe Delo
Pereslavl Railway Museum – 2001 Stock and Comments by Sergei Dorozhkov and Vadim Mironov pub. 2001 Pereslavl Railway Museum
The Narrow Gauge Steam Locomotives of Estonia by Peeter Klaus with Keith Chester, ISBN 91-7266-165-8, pub. 2005 Frank Stenvalls Förlag, Malmö
Tabor Kolejowy Waskotorowy, ISBN 978-83-7364-356-7 pub. 2007 Wydawnicttwo ZET


HF11017 6th July 2007

Two TU7 class locos in the 1983 peat railway’s loco shed at Lavassaare village 6th July 2007
TU-1784 shunting the museum’s Pafawag coaches.

VP1-899 outside the museum’s loco shed

Kch4-332 approaching Lavassaare village

Kch4-332 at the southern end of the museum railway in Lavassaare village

Kch4-332 in the woods near the museum

An MD54-4 B-B diesel loco. These light diesels were introduced in 1954 to run on lightly laid temporary tracks at peat and forest railways etc., replacing the earlier MUZ/4 petrol locos which had been introduced for this work in 1934. Several thousand were built and they remained in production until 1978.

VP1-899 and Kch4-332 outside the museum railway’s loco shed.

Kunda cement factory no. 5 at Pärnu

Rob Dickinson