Think of the Czech Republic and the odds are that what springs to mind are the cultural and nocturnal attractions of its capital, Prague, or the population’s legendary beer consumption and the vast range of beers on offer. Less likely to feature is a vast, efficient, and predominantly state-run rail network and two fascinating narrow gauge rail systems on opposite sides of the country.
While it does not enjoy the reputation among those interested in European rail systems of two neighbouring countries – Austria, for its numerous narrow gauge lines and Poland for its surviving steam – the Czech Republic is a very scenic, cheap and attractive place to spend a few days and the two narrow gauge systems – one privatised and one still in the hands of state operator České Dráhy (ČD) – are remarkable places to visit.
What these two 760mm (2’ 6”) systems have in common is regular steam operations during the summer months and being home, for the moment at least, of a fleet of aged Tu47 Czech-built Bo-Bo diesel locomotives, dating from 1954-59 and currently the mainstay of daily scheduled passenger services.
That was set to change at the time of my visit, as a fleet of four refurbished Polish railcars with curious circular windows has just been delivered to the privately-operated system based on the southern Bohemian town of Jindřichův Hradec. Testing of the four units – numbered M27-001/2/3/4 was taking place from their base at Kamenice nad Lipou during my 2014 visit and the plan was to introduce them in to service on one of the two narrow gauge branches later in the year.
The privatised system at Jindřichův Hradec dates back to 1897, when a 33km (21-mile) southern line to Nová Bystřice opened up the holiday area close to the Austrian border, now known as Czech Canada on account of its forests and lakes. Nine years later, in 1906, the 46km (29-mile) northern route to Obrataň opened. In 1998 the system was sold by CD to a local group known as JHMD (www.jhmd.cz), which now operates the daily diesel services with support from regional government.
Most services on the Obrataň line are formed of just a single carriage – there are ten through trains along the full length of the route each day with a couple of late night journeys on weekdays to the principal intermediate station, Kamenice nad Lipou. Local traffic on this line seems steady, although easily catered for by a single coach, and the journeys are smartly timed – there is a 50km/h speed limit on the line, but the fastest end-to-end journeys take less than one hour and 20 minutes, with 18 potential stops en route, although all but four are request stops.
These Obrataň services are candidates for early replacement by the new railcar fleet, but that is likely to prove impractical on the highly seasonal Nová Bystřice line, where summer trains comprise two coaches and a van to carry the large numbers of bicycles which many passengers travel with.
Services on the southern route to Nová Bystřice are heavily orientated towards the large numbers of Czech holidaymakers heading for this area during the summer months. The current timetable has a total of six return diesel-hauled journeys as well as the daily steam-hauled service, but this reduces to just two out of season weekend services and a single return working on weekdays outside the holiday season.
The popular and heavily-loaded steam services on the Nová Bystřice line, which run daily throughout the summer and at week-ends in May, June and September are currently in the hands of former PKP Px48-1916, which had worked on the now dismantled Opalenica narrow gauge system not far from Wolsztyn in Poland, and was acquired by the JHMD management team several years ago and is now numbered U46.101.
Regular steam services this season on the Obrataň line run only as far as Kamenice and Lipou, and on weekdays only. Like the Nová Bystřice service, the train is made up of historic wooden rolling stock, including a number of four-wheel coaches. It is a significantly shorter trip, taking just under one hour for the 21km journey, including one stop to pass a diesel service in each direction.
Services during late July 2014 were in the hands of a delightful and original locomotive to the line, a 1907-built Henschel 0-4-4-0 Mallet tank engine. It worked on the line until the end of steam operations in 1964 and is on loan from the National Technical Museum in Prague. JHMD also has two other steam locomotives, though these were locked away during my visit – a 1959-built Resita and an 1898-built Austrian 0-6-2T U37.002.
First impressions of the JHMD system are of a business where there is an excellent blend of enthusiasm and professionalism. This is a working railway and those on it look like professionals, not volunteers, yet they clearly recognise that the huge numbers attracted to the regular steam services are what makes the business viable, and there is no problem in wandering around the depot area to take photos and see the steam locomotives being prepared for their daily duties.
Jindřichův Hradec is an historic town, with a thirteenth century castle, an interesting old quarter at the side of a lake and is a delightful place to spend a few days while visiting the JHMD system. I opted for the comfortable but slightly basic Hotel Perla, less than five minutes’ walk from the railway station, which cost Kc700 per night B&B (£21.20) – there are other smarter hotels in the town, though further from the station.
The town that is easily accessible from the UK – I travelled there in a day, flying to Vienna and then taking a train to the Czech border station of České Velenice (immediately after crossing the Austrian 760mm Gmünd system) – then changing again at Veselí nad Lužnicí. For a shorter connection time, Prague is less than three hours’ journey time away by train and Brno (served by Ryanair from Stansted) is three hours away by rail.
Both the Nová Bystřice and the Obrataň routes run through a mixture of open countryside and large areas of forest, where photography is less easy. There are some attractive stations along both routes, a number of which can be booked as holiday accommodation, in an enterprising move by JHMD to preserve surviving station buildings. Fares on the diesel services are very cheap, with a separate higher tariff for the steam services – that year’s return fare to Nová Bystřice was Kc250 (£7.60) for example – but buying a day ticket for Kc300 (£9.10) gives you the freedom to travel all day on any of the steam or diesel services.
One feature of the JHMD diesel fleet is the variety of liveries carried by the Tu47 fleet. That rainbow of colours includes green (T47.005) red (T47.006/018); blue (T47.015) purple (T47.019) orange and yellow (T47.021) and a preserved example outside the railway museum at Nová Bystřice (T47.020) in a maroon livery. The only other diesel used on passenger services is an ex-PKP Lxd2 loco (T48.001), built in Romania in 1980 and painted an attractive blue.
From Jindřichův Hradec to the country’s other surviving 760mm line takes you right across the country from southern Bohemia to the equally attractive north-eastern area of Moravia, close to the Polish border. It is an all day trip by train, but there is time en route to make a significant detour to sample another railway delight, the CD-operated “nostalgia” service operating at weekends on a normally-closed 12km branch line from the important main-line border station of Břeclav to Lednice, a World Heritage Site.
Studying the CD timetable online had shown four summer weekend round trips on this route, with a steam locomotive symbol suggesting that they were worked by the magnificent steam locomotive 475.101, the Skoda-built 4-8-2 which is part of CD’s operational heritage fleet, is based at Brno shed and which I had previously seen in action at one of the May Day “parade” events at Wolsztyn.
Alas, on arrival for a lunch-time train from Břeclav the set of ancient wooden four wheel coaches was hauled by a preserved 1965-built Czech diesel locomotive (T478.1001), which sounded remarkably like a Class 50! To compound my angst, 475.101 was at Lednice (pictured right), but due to the poor state of the track, I was told, it would only be working the last return trip of the day to Břeclav and not the previous one, which I needed to catch to reach Moravia at a reasonable hour.
The last remaining 760mm line operated by CD is a quite remarkable survival. It is a 20km (12.5 mile) line from a junction station in a village called Třemešná ve Slezsku to a small town called Osoblaha traversing a narrow rural peninsula of the Czech Republic jutting into neighbouring Poland. The line opened in 1898, principally to serve a sugar processing plant at Osoblaha.
It has survived several closure attempts, but after re-building in the mid-1980s, now boasts heavy gauge rail and a daily service of five return journeys which, like the JHMD’s Obrataň line, normally comprise a Tu47 diesel (numbered according to the CD system as 705.9) pulling a single coach. There are reputedly four locomotives based on the line, although the trio I saw (705.913/4/7) seemed more than adequate for a one train in operation daily service.
Tourist operations on the line are in the hands of a society called the Slezské Zemské Dráhy (www.osoblazsko.com), which operates weekend services with both preserved steam and diesel locomotives. Its original locomotive is a Romanian 0-8-0T, Resita 946/1951 ex-CFF no. 764.368, which is now numbered U46.002 and was in the Osoblaha diesel shed at the time of my visit, although scheduled to operate short workings to the intermediate station of Slezské Rudoltice later in the season.
The mainstay of SZD’s Sunday steam service is an attractive blue-liveried Bosnian 0-10-0 tender locomotive, which was built by Skoda in 1932, numbered U57.001, and the subject of a 15-year loan agreement with the line by its owners, an Austrian society called Club 760. SZD also owns a Romanian-built Lyd2 diesel, numbered Tu38.001, which it acquired from a Polish factory and runs on Saturdays when the steam locomotive is not working.
Travelling on one of CD’s scheduled services on the line makes a remarkable contrast to one of heavily-loaded SZD tourist trains. On the day after I had to fight for a seat on the steam-hauled service, I was just one of two passengers aboard the 11.30 departure from Třemešná ve Slezsku, although we did pick up a handful more people on our 44-minute trip to Osoblaha. It was a similar experience on the 13.50 return, where passenger numbers had not reached double figures by the time we were back at Třemešná.
With no sign of anywhere to stay in either Osoblaha or Třemešná ve Slezsku, I opted for the nearby town of Krnov, less than 20 minutes’ away by connecting standard gauge service. Here I can highly recommend the Hotel Pepa, once again the nearest hotel to the railway station, which is located in the heart of another attractive town and also charged a modest Kc700 (£21.20) a night for bed and breakfast.
Train fares within the Czech Republic are remarkably good value. Researching times on the English-language website (www.cd.cz) is very straightforward and it is even possible to buy online a railcard called an “In Karta” card, which for just Kc150 (£4.50) gives a 25% discount on all fares for three months. That meant my six days’ travelling 982kms (614 miles) across the country cost a total in fares of just Kc1044 (£31.60). You need to email a photo with an application and can arrange for the card to be waiting for you at your station of arrival in the country – in my case the Czech/Austrian border crossing at České Velenice.
Besides the JHMD system, there is limited evidence of privatisation as yet on CD. One such example, though, is a 20km branch line running from a junction station just south of Krnov, Milotice nad Opavou, to a town called Vrbno pod Pradědem. It is one of six branch lines across the country run by a distinctly un-Czech sounding company called GW Train Regio (GWTR). While the GWTR website (www.gwtr.cz) features yellow-liveried rolling stock, the only distinguishing features I noticed on this line was small stickers at each end of a CD-liveried railcar and a yellow shirt worn by the guard!
For me the final proof of how well state operator CD works came on my final journey from Krnov to Brno, for my Ryanair flight back to London. When engine problems meant I would miss a vital connection en route at Olomouc, the lady guard checked alternative routes and, after working out that I could reach Brno only a few minutes later than planned by taking a huge detour using Euro-City services via a junction called Česká Třebová, issued me with a “confirmation of delay” notice in both Czech and English that would ensure I wasn’t asked expected to pay a supplement for using the alternative services. Now that’s what I call a joined up railway!