Imagine an attractive and rural corner of Central Europe where you can travel on your own steam-hauled narrow gauge train just as the sun is rising, and then spend all day riding a vast narrow gauge network for around £13 a day.
What may sound like a dream is actually a reality on the delightful Harz metre-gauge system in eastern Germany, where for two consecutive days last week I was the only passenger aboard the 07.34 Gernrode to Alexisbad service.
If football is a game of two halves, then the HSB is definitely a railway in two parts. First is the massively popular route from its headquarters in the charming town of Wernigerode to the top of the Brocken Mountain.
This is the highest point in the Harz National Park, was a major East German listening post in the Communist era, and is roughly the same height as Snowdon (1125m/3,691ft). It is served by almost exclusively steam-hauled services, for which a premium fare is charged.
Then there are the other, less-used parts of this remarkable 140km/87 mile network. Firstly there is the 61km/38 mile north-south Harzquerbahn route from Wernigerode to Nordhausen, the southern 12kms/7½ miles of which, from Ilfeld to Nordhausen, is now also served by dual-powered Nordhausen trams, as seen above where 187-203 departs Ilfeld on 21 September 2019.
Finally the delightful Selketalbahn connects with the Harzquerbahn at a remote junction called Eisfelder Talmühle 44kms/27½ miles south of Wernigerode and runs in a roughly north-easterly direction for 53kms/33 miles to the town of Quedlinburg, with short branch lines to Hasselfelde and Harzgerode.
Pictured above is 99-7243 arriving at Eisfelder Talmühle on 21 September 2019 with the 12.40 service from Wernigerode.
While trains up the Brocken are packed with day-trippers and walkers, the same cannot be said of services on the Harzquerbahn and Selketalbahn routes, where there are only limited steam services, with most trains being formed by single unit railcars, often carrying few or no passengers at all.
My last visit to the remarkable Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB/Harz narrow gauge railways) had been in 2003, which was before the HSB had taken over an 8km/5 mile stretch of closed DB route to extend the Selketalbahn northwards from its then terminus at Gernrode to the attractive town of Quedlinburg.
Before venturing towards the Brocken and Wernigerode, I had decided to spend a couple of days in the small town of Gernrode, where Selketalbahn service begin and end the day at the HSB depot there, which is home to one, and sometimes two, steam locomotives.
Pictured above is 99-7247 near Wernigerode Westerntor on 22 September 2019 with the 08.55 Wernigerode-Brocken service.
Getting to Gernrode involved a roughly three-hour rail journey south-west from Berlin, starting with and hour-long journey aboard one of DB’s crack ICE trains to Halle (lunch in the Bordrestaurant highly recommended) then onwards by a Regional Express service to Halberstadt, changing there for Quedlinburg.
Day one of my three-day Harz adventure (Friday, 20 September 2019) saw the 07.34 departure from Gernrode hauled by locomotive 99-7232, one of the HSB’s fleet of 17 powerful 2-10-2 tank engines, which were built in the early 1950s and are the mainstay of daily operations across the system. It is seen above on arrival at Harzgerode
Having spent much of the day riding behind this locomotive there was a welcome change of motive power for the 16.10 return from Eisfelder Talmühle to Gernrode when the 2-10-2T swopped places with a much older locomotive, 2-6-2 tank engine 99-6001, built by Krupp in 1939 as a prototype design, but never entering mass production due to the outbreak of war.
So my second day on the HSB saw 99-6001 beginning its day by hauling the 07.34 from Gernrode (pictured above) and once again I was the only passenger aboard for the 45-minute run to Alexisbad, from where the train continued up the 3km/1.9 mile branch to Harzgerode with no passengers at all.
Alexisbad (pictured above) in one of the region’s top tourist spots, and boasts a number of large hotels close to the station. What seems a missed opportunity here is not having any HSB staff at the station – having been forced to use my schoolboy German to offer timetable information to a group of elderly German ladies, it seems obvious that more should be done here to promote the railway.
The Selketalbahn is a charmingly peaceful line, following the diminutive Selke River for much of the journey south from Alexisbad and passing a huge and abandoned power station at nearby Silberhütte that once brought regular lignite-carrying freight trains from Nordhausen onto the route.
A unique feature at Stiege, junction for a second branch line to Hasselfelde, is a tight turning circle that was built to avoid the need for lignite trains to reverse, and is still used today by railcars, so that drivers to not have to change ends on through journeys between Alexisbad and Eisfelder Talmühle.
Pictured above on 20 September 2019 are two generations of railcar at Stiege, with 187-011 (1955) on a Nordhausen-Quedlinburg working, while 187-018 (1999) waits to depart with a Harzgerode-Nordhausen service.
Hasselfelde (pictured below) is a pleasant terminus in a small town, where there is a railway museum in the former engine shed, currently home to an out-of-use member of the Neubaudampflocomotive 2-10-2T class (99-7244), but also flying a Red Dragon flag, which seemed curious given its considerable distance from Wales!
After two days enjoying the peace and solitude of the Selketalbahn, there could hardly have been a greater contrast than when I moved on to spend two nights in Wernigerode and began my Sunday travels (22 September) aboard the packed 09.40 Brocken service.
Not being one to enjoy crowds – and having done the Brocken on my previous visit – I alighted at the previous station, Schierke, for some photography, then retraced my steps to Drei Annen Hohne and later caught the virtually empty 12.40 steam-hauled service for Eisfelder Talmühle. Pictured above is 99-7240 approaching Schierke on 22 September 2019 with the 10.25 Wernigerode-Brocken service.
On my previous visit I had enjoyed lunch in an amazing restaurant in the station at Elend, complete with a large model railway. Sadly it is no more, so I continued on to another small town called Benneckenstein, where I found an excellent restaurant, Pension Tannenwald, less than 5 minutes’ walk from the station.
Pictured above is 99-7243 arriving at Benneckenstein on 22 September 2019 with the 14.08 Eisfelder Talmühle-Wernigerode service.
This section of Harzquerbahn route has the lowest frequency of any part of the HSB, and sees just four trains each way per day, two of which are steam-hauled. By contrast there are up to a dozen trips to Brocken in the summer timetable (until 26 October) while there are between five and seven round trips daily on the Selketalbahn.
Besides its scheduled operations, HSB also runs an extensive programme of special trains, notably its “Traditionszug” (historic coaches) which runs to the Brocken virtually every week of the year, with a number of specials also originating at Quedlinburg and running to Harzgerode on the Selketalbahn. Pictured above is 1918-vintage Mallet 99-5906 with the “Traditionszug” at Drei Annen Hohne.
Anyone contemplating a car free visit to the Harz region should be aware of a real bonus you will be given when staying in any of the region’s many hotels. This is a voucher called HATIX that gives you free travel on the comprehensive network of local buses.
Pictured above, the driver of 99-7232 has spotted me requesting him to stop at Quedlinburg-Quarmbeck on 20 September 2019 with the 10.30 Quedlinburg-Alexisbad service.
One route in particular that might be of use to anyone spending a few days riding the HSB is bus 230, which provides an hourly link between Wernigerode and Quedlinburg that takes just under an hour and departs from outside the rail stations in both places.
Pictured above is 99-7247 arriving at Wernigerode Westerntor on 22 September 2019 with the final service of the day to Brocken (16.25 ex-Wernigerode).
The HSB is without doubt the finest network of steam-worked lines anywhere in the world, and although it is a considerable distance from the nearest airports with flights to the UK (Berlin and Hannover), the efficient German rail network and attractive advance purchase fares (www.bahn.de) make it a must-visit place for anyone who enjoys real narrow gauge steam action.
As HSB timetables helpfully include distances (and altitudes) for every station on the system, I was able to work out that in three days I had travelled 355kms (222 miles) of which more than two-thirds of my total travel (245kms/153 miles) had been behind steam.
No trip on the HSB would be complete without sampling one of the miniature bottles of liqueurs which train guards carry in baskets up and down the train. The price has gone up from €1.50 to €2.50 since my previous visit, but my Bahnerschluck still tasted as good as I remember from 16 years ago!
Unlike other travel writers, my visit to the Harz was not courtesy of anyone, although I did use Avios for my BA flight to Berlin. From there I travelled by train to Quedlinburg on a DB advance purchase (Super Sparpreis) ticket costing €27.90 and paid the same for my journey back from Wernigerode to Berlin.
A 3-day Kurzurlaubsticket for unlimited travel on the HSB (excluding Schierke-Brocken) costs €44.00 (€42.90 online) or €90 for a version that includes Brocken.
I spent two nights in the wonderful apartment called Ferienwohnung Elli at Gernrode (less than five minutes’ walk from the station) which cost €68 per night, then two nights in the centrally-located Rathaus Hotel in Wernigerode (€49.00 per night). For more about the HSB, including timetables and details of its entire rolling stock fleet (all in German, alas) go to www.hsb-wr.de