Poland Winter Steam + Harz, Rubeland & Klostermansfeld
Twelve days “Steam in the Snow”, combining separate tours to Poland and the Harz Mountains with Saxony steam between the two. Poland still gives the opportunity to experience steam in all its forms - from scheduled service, public steam hauled trains (with the chance to travel on the footplate) through to private photo charters on rustic, rural narrow gauge lines. This year’s Railtrail winter tour to the Harz also took in the newly reopened, incredible gradients of the Rubeland, and the rarely visited 750 mm gauge Mansfelder Bergwerksbahn. Those travelling on both tours also experienced some Saxon narrow gauge lines: Zittau – Oybin/Jonsdorf and the Weisseritztalbahn.
As an aspiring railway photographer, what could be better? A chance to refresh my portfolio of 'steam in the snow' pictures, the most recent of which were from 2002; and the opportunity for night photography at Wolsztyn (which had been on my list for some time) and other places. I signed up to the full twelve days and was looking forward to it when I turned up at St. Pancras International to meet up with Reay Pearman and the rest of the group.
As the son of a Derby-based railwayman with family in London, St. Pancras was an old friend. Because of a move to the West Midlands in the 1980s I hadn't had the opportunity to visit for quite some time; and this was to be my first Eurostar trip on the completed HS1. So my experience started at the very beginning, and started favourably, apart from my tipping coffee down myself whilst waiting for departure.
I took the opportunity of the first train change to do some photography at Brussels Midi, which I later found out was officially banned. Nobody stopped me or said I wasn't supposed to... and then on to our first overnight stop at Wuppertal, where there was a nice surprise awaiting us. We had been told that the famous monorail, the Schwebebahn, was out of action for repairs; but these had been completed early and it was back in action.
So the following morning, a number of us made an early morning foray to mix with the commuters and ride the line before breakfast. I particularly liked the signs in the cars that said "Take care on alighting - the train dangles."
And then across Germany, changing at the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Rzepin in Poland, where we switched from a Eurocity service hauled by a Polish Taurus in fetching pastel shades of purple and grey to a PKP local double-decker in tasteful blue and yellow with sliding doors that didn't shut. Howard Jones of the Wolsztyn Experience met us at our last changing point and announced that there were accommodation issues, so would some people mind upgrading their hotels? And could two people sleep in Wolsztyn shed that night, and three in the enginemen's lodging house? My hand went straight up, and I spent the night in the shed - which wasn't as much of a hardship as it sounds. The accommodation was actually prepared for people paying £000s for a driving course, so the room was better than some hotels I've stayed in, complete with en-suite facilities and all very modern.
The first evening photo session followed as we first captured the arrival of a steam-hauled local from Poznan, and then traipsed over to the shed to watch the engine – a Pt47 2-8-2 - being coaled and watered ready for the next day's early turn. Meanwhile, inside the shed, a Pm36 4-6-2 was being prepared for a special the following day. After half an hour or so of this steamy nirvana, we headed off to a restaurant in town for a hearty Polish meal. Afterwards, those less fortunate went to their hotels, but I headed back to the shed to bring out the tripod and capture some more night shots before the next day's linesiding.
Breakfast was in the lodging house, which was actually an annexe behind one of the Wolsztyn drivers' houses. Said driver - Jodor - was going to drive us in a chase car for the linesiding, but before that, Mrs. Jodor treated us to a Polish breakfast.
I have never seen so much food.
It just kept coming. Polish scrambled eggs (from their own hens), sausage, cold meats, cheese, yoghurt, gherkins and other pickles, preserves, juices (pressed from their own apple trees), breads - you name it, Mrs. J produced it! And then she suggested that we take some for lunch as well...
And then we headed off into the countryside. Some hardy souls had already gone up to Poznan on the early turn on the slightly more civilized side of 4am, but those of us who’d slept in until 6:30 or so were going to photograph this train coming back to Wolsztyn. However, first of all we were to be treated to the Pacific on a film company special; it arrived at the country station we'd been taken to just as it began to snow...
Then to Grodzisk to see the local train return working – except that the snow and the light worsened and almost completely wiped out the session. We piled back into the cars, only to find that the sudden snowfall was causing many drivers on the road to exercise too much caution for our liking. We missed a couple of nice photographic opportunities by mere seconds, but eventually Jodor's detailed route knowledge paid off, as he deposited us at a level crossing with seconds to spare before the Pt47 thundered into view across an embankment, looking for all the world like a scene from Doctor Zhivago...
We returned to Wolsztyn and had the benefit of another visit to the shed before we were due to ride the steam service to Poznan and carry on to our next destination, Gniezno. It was dark by the time we arrived, but we met up with our local guide, Marek on Poznan station, and reached our hotel a little dampened (as the snow had turned to rain) but ready to be fed and watered. This hotel – the Awo – were delighted to see us, and laid on quite a sumptuous meal, which made up slightly for the lack of a lift and the fact that the tv had about 42 channels, all of which were in Polish... Later that evening, another surprise awaited us – the opportunity to travel out on the narrow-gauge line we would be spending the next day on, to visit a local hostelry. So after dinner, we crocodiled ourselves through the streets of Gniezno to a darkened narrow-gauge station, where we piled into a dimly-lit single carriage and were duly taken a short way out of town to a quiet bar on the edge of a wood.
The next morning dawned grey and damp, with a bitter wind. I had received some sad family news overnight, so my mood matched the weather. But a warm coach, coffee, good companionship and narrow-gauge steam lifted my spirits. Pulled by a ubiquitous narrow gauge Px48 0-8-0, we soon headed out into rural Poland, running through backyards, along the side of roads and past fields of cabbages covered with frozen water and frequented by herds of wild deer. We had a number of photo stops, but still only managed about a quarter of the system which probably still exists under the foliage. The continuation down to a lake eluded us, which was a bit of a shame. But after a good few hours on the line, we finished with a guided tour - well, trespass, more like - of the derelict Gniezno shed; double roundhouses and plenty of atmospheric dereliction. And then we caught our train and headed off to Łeszno, our next base for a couple of days.
Once again, as we got off the train at Łeszno, who should pop up but Howard. He led us in a crocodile through the town, along a path between the railway and the vodka distillery (which a number of us were pleased to see still had a rail-connected siding, a turntable and a shed for a Kleinlok) and eventually we came upon our hotel, the Akwavit. The name was a bit of a giveaway – it was owned by the distillery, and according to the fire escape map that I consulted in my room, it sported a number of suites obviously for the use of the MD and honoured guests. The standard of this hotel in particular was very high, although I couldn't quite get over the trendy designer washbasin that was too shallow to actually wash in (but everybody showers every day, no?) and the assumption that if I wanted coffee in my room, I wanted it black.
Dinner that night was in a restaurant on the main town square in Łeszno. The square itself was beautifully lit, and the town hall made an impressive backdrop to out meal. The hotel did us proud, with full silver service in a private dining room, though by the time we came onto the last course (especially once a few others of the party, who had gone for a last blast of Wolsztyn steam on the way back through Poznan, joined us later in the evening) it was beginning to look as though most of the restaurant staff had gone home, leaving two waitresses to cope with a large party and what looked like a considerable traipse to and from the kitchen.
The next day involved quite a bit of travel, as we were off to the museum at Jaworzyna Slaska, some way beyond Wrocław (previously known as Breslau). The closer we got to Wrocław, the more the landscape began to change, from the comparatively flat tablelands around Wolsztyn and Gniezno to a more hilly landscape, with the Karkonosze mountains that straddle the Czech/Polish border (otherwise known in German as the Riesengebirge, or 'Giant Mountains') visible in the distance. Eventually, after a hurried change in Wrocław, where Howard once again materialised to show us the way (platforms for departing trains are not publicised in advance in Poland), we arrived at Jaworzyna Slaska to be greeted by a Tkt48 2-8-2T in the platform!
It seemed that Howard and the owner of the museum had taken the opportunity of the steaming to invite a number of local politicians to visit so they could be persuaded of the benefits that steam-driven tourism could bring. This was a recurring theme of the Polish leg of the trip – persuading local authorities that tourism is a valid way of reviving local economies and that people are interested in a wide range of heritage attractions, not only castles and palaces but also steam engines and (for example) old motorbikes – a particular interest of the museum's owner!
Again, the museum at Jaworzyna Slaska was a German pattern shed with a lot of wonderfully derelict engines as well as live steam and another evening photo session. Particular attractions here for the dedicated loco spotter were some elderly Prussian engines – a P8 4-6-0 (the German equivalent of a Black Five but some twenty years earlier), a T9 2-6-0T and lurking in the shed, a G7 0-8-0 in very nice lined green livery as a Polish Tp2. A bit of a disappointment that this last engine wasn't outside, as it was one of the engines I wanted to see, but the opportunity to mooch around the engines and stock awaiting restoration to our heart's content made up for this somewhat. Not to mention the outstanding hospitality as the museum laid on another mighty Polish meal!
Our final day in Poland was spent on a narrow gauge remnant that ran up to a town called Smigiel and which was in a sort of legal limbo; it had been handed over to the local council, they had run out of money, the rolling stock and equipment had been sold on to an operating company, there was a dispute over who owned what and the shed doors had been sealed by the courts - which the manager of the line had promptly broken open to extract a railcar for us to use! Which was fine except it had a flat battery and at one point we ended up pushing a 32 tonne railcar back into the shed so that the jumper leads to start the thing could reach... Finally, we had a trip (again conducted by Howard Jones) around Łeszno works, which does some steam restoration as well as servicing diesels, followed by a good grice of the Łeszno scrap line... Highlight here was the German Kriegslok serving as the works' stationary boiler, a role it had served for some twenty years or more. We were free to wander where we would (within reason), and as most of us have had some connection or other with real railways, we were trusted to take all proper precautions around running lines and not to put ourselves or others in danger. And not a high-visibility jerkin in sight!
I found myself warming to Poland and the Poles. Our local guide, Marek, had been to a university where they gave students the option of learning American English or proper English, and then put students with tutors who were actual native English speakers. So Marek's accent was pure south Midlands, and it wasn't until he tripped up over matters of vocabulary and current usage that I realised that he was actually Polish. As for the railways, certainly in this part of Poland custom and practice was almost indistinguishable from German practice of the 1950s. Much of the rolling stock was of 1950s and 1960s vintage, although with sectorisation, PKP Inter-City was making an effort to appear modern, with new liveries, Eurofima coaches and (on the Berlin – Warsaw trains at least) modern Taurus locomotives. The museums were a different matter, with Polish engines mixed in very much with German Kriegsloks of various types, plus a few older German types that would keep any enthusiast for the DRG happy for ages. The ubiquitous Eastern Bloc double-deck coaches were also of German origin, but this was because the Communist Bloc used to rationalise industrial production across all the former Comecon countries – so railway coaches were built at Görlitz and Halberstadt in the DDR for a number of different railway administrations (double-deckers at Görlitz, standard coaches at Halberstadt).
And it was on to Görlitz that a good half of the party continued, for the trip to join up the following weekend with the Harz tour participants. We said goodbye to our travelling companions of the past week as they headed back to Berlin with Reay, whilst the rest of us met up with Martin Kirschner at Wrocław. Our journey to Görlitz turned out to be a Deutsche Bahn service originating at Wrocław; the contrast between the elderly Polish local electrics and the modern DB Desiro dmu could not have been more marked.
Görlitz itself was a revelation! A beautiful town with excellent architecture and a nice line in trams. We dined out that night in a bistro just around the corner from our hotel, the Europa. Next morning, we had time for a quick look around the immediate area of the main square before being taken by coach to Zittau, as the line between the two towns had been seriously damaged by flooding. We had the opportunity to see the restitution works to restore the line. The washed-out section was very extensive, and nearly 2 km of new embankment was being put into place, together with a new bridge. The opportunity was also being taken to relay the rest of the line; it is supposed to open again in the summer, but it still seems that there is a lot of work to be done.
At Zittau, we were to see the 750mm line to Oybin and Jonsdorf – for those who don't know the line, in plan it is 'Y'-shaped, with a junction at Bertsdorf which requires quite a bit of climbing to reach. Bertsdorf is noted for its simultaneous departures – Doppelstart in German – as well as being in a delightful wooded location. I hadn't visited this area since 2000, and I was very struck by the change in the towns and the railway. Zittau's main-line station had been very much cleaned up, whilst the narrow-gauge trains had also been subjected to the cleaning rag and a considerable amount of fresh paint. After visiting the railway, we had the opportunity for a quick look at Zittau itself, and this turned out to be another delightful old German town. Dinner that night was taken back in Görlitz, which resulted in Martin's smartphone navigation application being almost defeated by the mysteries of medieval German town planning!
Next day, we travelled to Nordhausen via Dresden and the Weißeritztalbahn, which is still only running for about a third of its length having been severely damaged in the flooding of 2002, and no-one's quite sure if it will ever open all the way back to Kurort Kipsdorf for lack of money. But it was still very pleasant. Again, I was quite struck by how clean everywhere looked, especially the engines on the Saxon narrow gauge lines. They positively shone! And Dresden itself, not to mention the local S-Bahn services and their stations, were almost unrecognisable from the last time I was there.
We had supposedly got a free afternoon in Dresden, but our time was shortened because the guy driving the luggage over from Görlitz only had the time to bring it as far as Dresden instead of taking it all the way to Nordhausen. That meant we had to meet at 4pm to pick up the luggage and that cut into sightseeing time. Plus the refurbished Dresden station has a Marché in it - an excellent healthy fast-food franchise - so some of us had a good lunch there, and then I went off to do some model railway shopping. That, plus about half-an-hour photographing trams and the immediate surroundings of the Hauptbahnhof was about all I could manage. Others went sightseeing in Dresden, which is always a good use of one's time; whilst Martin took still more of us out to Radebeul Ost to see the depot of another 750mm line, with some preserved stock. No time to ride this one, alas. Dresden has a lot to offer – a transport museum, two narrow gauge lines, an extensive tram system, a funicular built on the same pattern as the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, a railway museum in one of the depots that hosts a noted Dampflokfest most years, and of course the restored city and in particular the Frauenkirche. All that and a Turkish cigarette factory too! (No, seriously. When the owner set up a factory to make Turkish cigarettes in the late 19th century, he decided that it ought to look Turkish. And it does.)
Then we carried on to Nordhausen, via Leipzig (Europe';s largest railway station – shame we didn't have any time there to look around) and Halle (where we had more than enough time...).
The next day we set out from Nordhausen on the Harz system, and I finally got to the top of Brocken in conditions that meant I was able to take pictures! On two previous occasions, I'd been thwarted: in 1996, conditions were so cold that my camera batteries died on me, whereas in 2003 I was greeted by thick fog! Though this time it was still hellish cold - air temperature was +2 degrees, but the 50kph wind meant that the wind-chill was nearer -6!
We finally met up that night with the tour coming out from the UK for the Harz. There was a bit of a problem with that tour, as three people on it had had their pockets picked or gear stolen in Brussels, mainly in the scrummage to get on and off the Thalys service. It seems that Brussels is now notorious for this, as is Köln and the international ICEs, which I have to admit was news to me. Be warned!
Our plans to have a circular tour of the Harz system the next day had to change as the HSB had double-booked the only serviceable Mallet with another charter. But on going down to Wernigerode shed to do some night photography after dinner, I found the Mallet simmering away nicely with 99 6001, the system’s only 2-6-2T, and I speculated that we were probably going to get that engine on our charter as some sort of compensation; and so it proved!
Conditions the next morning were damp, but the 2-6-2T made a very spirited run up from Wernigerode to Drei Annen Höhne, with not a trace of slippage – excellent driving there! We had a Doppelstart at Eisfelder Talmühle, made all the better by the service railcar to Quedlingburg taking us out of the station and dropping us at the lineside where our photographic standpoint was to be! Then we were able to watch the train being turned on the loop at Stiege; and then, because we were unable to get down the branch to Hasselfelde (where in the past we have taken lunch), hot soup appeared whilst we stood at Strassberg. Then on to Alexisbad, where we were treated to another Doppelstart, this time with the Mallet whose charter we had caught up with. Then up the branch to Harzrode, and then back to Alexisbad, where there was time for coffee and cakes (Kaffee und Küchen, another fine German institution) in the hotel across the road from the station (which used to be a Stasi holiday resort, apparently) before a further Doppelstart with the service train. After which we headed off to Gernrode, and then to Quedlingburg along the regauged line that the HSB acquired from DB. Whilst we were waiting for our connecting train back to Wernigerode, the other charter came in, so we got another look at the Mallet. Finally, we had a trip by Veolia Desiro back to Wernigerode.
Final day was a trip to the Bergwerk Mansfeld, with a nice narrow gauge industrial operation that had more than a whiff of Ostalgie and a tour of some of the more interesting bits of Mansfeld works; followed by a trip up the Rubelandbahn with the big 2-10-2T - this involved another works visit, and the only disappointment for me of the whole trip - the weather wasn't great and they'd booked two parties on the tour and were also selling tickets at the station to punters who just turned up, so the whole thing was heavily over-booked and many of us didn't get a seat. I likened it to a winter's commute on a crowded Sprinter...
And so to the journey home. For reasons connected with ticketing, we didn't actually have to use Thalys coming home. (“Result!” said not a few people.) Instead, our journey was quite convoluted and would only be possible in a country where the trains run pretty much to time and actually connect one with another. Regional sprinter from Wernigerode to Hannover, ICE from Hannover to Dortmund (where riot police were patrolling the station because of football fans, and you did not want to mess with the police), Regio train (double-decked) from Dortmund to Aachen, Belgian heritage stock (!) from Aachen to Liége, and a nice Belgian IC train with their modern stock for the penultimate leg Liége to Brussels. But even this journey had its points of interest; the schedule allowed half an hour's photography at the marvellous new station at Liége.
Many thanks indeed to all the Railtrail staff and tour managers who made this trip very special; to Howard Jones and the Wolsztyn guys for services above and beyond the call of duty whilst we were in Poland; and to all the volunteers, staff and railway personnel on the lines we visited for their hospitality and indulgence of a horde of British (and American, and Australian) steam nuts!
Trip report by Robert Day (This report is the personal reflections of the tour participant.)
Click any image to see a larger version. There is a gallery with more from this tour here.
Robert also has a website, www.robertdayimages.co.uk, with lots of great photos from various tours.)