Germany’s steam-hauled ski train

IMG_1084After autumn visits to two of Germany’s wonderful narrow gauge railways on the Baltic Coast, my first overseas trip of the New Year took me to the opposite end of eastern Germany and by 750mm gauge steam to the country’s highest town.

This is the ski resort of Oberwiesenthal, which stands close to the border with the Czech Republic in the Erzgebirge mountain range and is reached by rail on the charming Fichtelbergbahn, a 17.4 km (10.9 mile) line that connects with the standard gauge DB network at Cranzahl.

The railway takes its name from the Fichtel Mountain, which is close to the ski resort, and opened to traffic in 1897; although its current identity was only adopted on its privatisation just over a decade ago.

Services on the Fichtelbergbahn are exclusively operated by its small fleet of Deutsche Reichsbahn Class 99 73-76 and 99 77-79 2-10-2T locomotives, which are maintained at the Oberwiesenthal works and seem to see occasional rotation with the two other principal narrow gauge routes in Saxony.IMG_1061

These are the two lines in the suburbs of Dresden, at Radebeul Ost and at Freital-Hainsberg, with one of the two operational locos during my 8/9 January 2020 visit being shown in a recent fleet list as based at the latter location (99-1762).IMG_1114

For 11 months of the year the timetable comprises five round trips each day, with a sixth operating at weekends and daily at busy periods including December and the high summer. A low season timetable of just three round trips, requiring only one loco in steam, operates from 2 March until 3 April.IMG_126799-1762 departs Cranzahl on 9 January 2020 with the 13.15 to Kurort Oberwiesenthal

Getting to this remote corner of south eastern Germany by public transport takes a bit of planning. The nearest airports with direct UK connections seem to be Dresden and Nuremburg, both served by Ryanair, but I once again opted for a flight to Berlin followed by a lengthy (4½ hour) train journey.

On my outward trip I travelled by ICE train to Leipzig, changing here onto a Regional Express service to Chemnitz, before completing my journey on a DB railcar running what is called the Erzgebirgsbahn route (RB 80) from Chemnitz to Cranzahl.IMG_1241
DB railcar 642 055 
departs Cranzahl on 9 January 2020 with the 13.01 Erzgebirgsbahn service to Chemnitz Hauptbahnhof. These are the route’s only semaphore signals 

Returning three days later, the routeing on my DB Super Sparpreis ticket took me back on the Erzgebirgsbahn as far as Flöha, then eastwards to Dresden on a Regional Express service, before a two-hour trip to Berlin Hauptbahnhof on Inter-City service EC 174 (Prague-Hamburg) formed of Czech Railways (CD) stock.

IMG_1280The standard gauge Erzgebirgsbahn diverges to the left as 99-1762 heads away from Cranzahl on 9 January 2020 with the 13.15 to Kurort Oberwiesenthal

During the booking process on the DB website I was offered a trial 3-month “BahnCard 25” for a price of €19.90 which equated to the saving I could make using it to get a 25% reduction on the cost of my Super Sparpreis return ticket, for which I then paid €43.30.

IMG_119599-1772 departs Neudorf on 9 January 2020 with the 11.37 Cranzahl-Kurort Oberwiesenthal

In another fiendishly clever bit of DB up-selling, just a few days before my trip I was emailed with an irresistible offer to upgrade my two inter-city (ICE and EC) journeys to first class for a total of €19.80.

Having decided that places like Cranzahl and Oberwiesenthal would be taken over by skiers in early January, I opted to stay in the town of Annaberg-Buchholz, just ten minutes from Cranzahl. I found a delightful room that cost just €78.00 for three nights and was just a short walk from one of the town’s three stations.

IMG_117499-1762 departs Kretscham-Rothensehma on 9 January 2020 with the 09.59 Cranzahl-Kurort Oberwiesenthal

This station, Annaberg-Buchholz Mitte (Middle), was one of six request stops on the Erzgebirgsbahn. Unlike in Britain, however, there was no holding your hand out to stop the train. Instead you press a yellow buzzer on the station, while on the guard-free trains you are requested by an announcement to push a button above each seat to request a stop. 

Fares on the Fichtelbergbahn are charged on a zonal basis, with a three-zone return for the whole trip costing €14.50 and a day ticket €18.00. On my second day I wanted to visit a couple of intermediate stations, so bought a two-zone return for €10 that allowed me to break my return journey.

IMG_110599-1762 approaches Kurort Oberwiesenthal on 8 January 2020 with the 11.37 from Cranzahl

Trains I travelled on were reasonably well loaded, but on both days I caught the first Oberwiesenthal-bound train (09.59 from Cranzahl) we were joined at one intermediate station, Vierenstrasse, by literally dozens of young skiers and their equipment, bound for the slopes above Kurort Oberwiesenthal station. IMG_1135Open border: adjacent to Hammerunterwiesenthal station this sign and pole are all that marks the border between Germany and the Czech Republic

The Fichtelbergbahn is a delightful line to travel, with the hour long journey taking you up from Cranzahl at 654m (2,142 ft) to Kurort Oberwiesenthal at 893m (2,930 ft) through extensive forests and for much of the route alongside the Czech border, with seven intermediate stations, the largest settlement being the town of Neudorf. IMG_1210
99-1772 storms up the gradient from Neudorf on 9 January 2020 with the 11.37 Cranzahl-Kurort Oberwiesenthal

From a photographic perspective it is worth bearing mind that locomotives are chimney first towards Oberwiesenthal and that the five-train timetable does require some planning and patience to get decent shots, particularly on cold and wet January days!IMG_1093
99-1762 crosses the line’s most notable structure, this steel trestle viaduct close to  Kurort Oberwiesenthal station

The best photo spots I found were departure from Cranzahl from a footpath crossing the line near the station, the climb out of Neudorf, where there is a road and path alongside the railway, the climb into the station at Hammerunterwiesenthal (bottom photo), and finally the impressive steel trestle viaduct on the approach to Kurort Oberwiesenthal (pictured above).IMG_1162Journey’s end on 8 January 2020 for 99-1772 as it stands at Kurort Oberwiesenthal after arrival with the 13.15 from Cranzahl

For those visiting the area in better weather conditions than those in early January, there is a well-marked footpath called the Erlebnispfad Bimmelbahn which follows the railway for its entire length and doubtless offers many other great vantage points to photograph passing trains.IMG_1149