After a January visit to see narrow gauge steam on the German/Czech border between Cranzahl and Kurort Oberwiesenthal, my first post-lockdown rail excursion to Europe takes me to another remote corner of SE Germany and the splendid 750mm narrow gauge system based in the charming city of Zittau.
Besides paying a return visit to a line I had visited in very different times shortly after German reunification 30 years ago, I was particularly eager to photograph the famous double departure of services from its junction at Bertsdorf and also to sample the railway’s unique dining service.
Zittau is a delightful and historic place that stands close to the borders of both Poland and the Czech Republic. Its remarkable 10-mile long (16km) 750mm railway, the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn, takes you towards the Zittau Mountains, with two separate branches diverging at Bertsdorf, 5½ miles (8.9km) from Zittau.
Most trains from Zittau continue on for another 2 miles/3.3kms to a terminus at Kurort Oybin, while a shuttle service departs simultaneously for another mountain terminus at Kurort Jonsdorf, 2.4 miles/3.8kms from Bertsdorf.
In the high season timetable, extending from 9 April until 1 November, these parallel departures occur four times a day, beginning at 09.45, when the first two trains of the day from Zittau (08.45 and 09.07) head off towards Kurort Jonsdorf and Kurort Oybin respectively.
For the rest of the day, the weekday timetable sees departures from Zittau at 11.07, 13.07 and 15.07 to Kurort Oybin. Each of these trains connects with a shuttle service to Kurort Jonsdorf at Bertsdorf, meaning more parallel departures from the junction at 11.45, 13.45 and 15.45.
99-760 approaches Zittau Süd on 14 July 2020 with the 11.07 Zittau-Kurort Oybin
This weekday timetable is supplemented at weekends during the high season by additional services, to give hourly departures from Zittau, with these extra services powered either by a Class 199 diesel or, on two Sundays a month between May and October, by the railway’s historic railcar, VT137 322.
Dining on the line
The charming dining service normally seats 60 people in the red Speisewagen seen towards the front of the train in these shots and the coach behind, but Covid-19 social distancing requirements have temporarily reduced capacity to 34 passengers.
99-760 arrives at Olbersdorf Oberdorf on 14 July 2020 with the 09.07 Zittau-Kurort Oybin
Dining services operate every day and comprise four round trips from Zittau at 09.07, 11.07, 13.07 and 15.07, returning from Kurort Oybin at 10.08, 12.08, 14.08 and 16.08. The menu features a variety of sausage dishes and cakes along with a wide range of soft drinks, as well as beer and wine.
Patronage seems to be a case of feast or famine, with some dining services full to capacity, while others, like the 12.08 from Kurort Oybin which I travelled on, only attracting a handful of diners. For what it’s worth I can highly recommend a spicy sausage called Debreziner and a dark beer by St Marienthaler Klosterbrau.
Passenger services on the Zittau narrow gauge system were launched in 1890 in order to cope with growing tourist traffic to the Zittau Mountains. A century later, in 1990, the service was scheduled to be withdrawn, but was saved by political pressure, although losing its freight (lignite) traffic in 1992.
Double departure from Bertsdorf at 13.45hrs on 14 July 2020 as 199-018 heads for Kurort Jonsdorf and 99-760 departs for Kurort Oybin
In December 1996 the line was handed over by DB, with management and control taken over by a local company called the Sächsisch Oberlausitzer Eisenbahngesellschaft mbH (SOEG), whose shareholders comprise the local authorities in Zittau and five district councils along the line of route.
Since taking control, SOEG has undertaken a number of measures to renovate the route and simplify its operations, including track renewal at Bertsdorf and the opening of new workshops and a carriage shed at Zittau in 2007.
The working steam locomotive fleet at Zittau comprises one of the famous and powerful Saxon (Sächsische Maschinenfabrik, Chemnitz) IV K 0-4-4-0 locomotives (99 555) and four standard DR 2-10-2T locomotives out of an original fleet of 32 that were built between 1928-1933 (99 731/749/758/760)
99-760 passes the Bertsdorf up home signal on 14 July 2020 with the 14.08 Kurort Oybin-Zittau – this is one of only three working semaphore signals on the Zittau system
To help deal with a shortage of NG locomotives after WW2, DR then built another 24 locomotives to a very similar design between 1952 and 1956. One of these Neubau or “new build” locomotives (99 1787–built 1955) is also at the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn, although not in service.
Given the number of operational locos it was rather disappointing to find only one working steam loco on the two days I spent in Zittau (14/15 July) in the form of 2-10-2T 99-760, with services to Kurort Jonsdorf in the hands of ex-CFR L45H diesel loco 199-018.
From its terminus at Zittau the line follows a clockwise route around the town, pausing at three further stations within the city boundary before passing close to an attractive lake, the Olbersdorfer See, former location of the lignite mine that generated the route’s freight traffic.
After two Olbersdorf stops, one of them on request only, the train reaches the historic station and junction at Bertsdorf. This is a marvellous spot, complete with a station hotel/restaurant and a trio of semaphore signals controlling access to the station from each direction.
199-018 departs Kurort Oybin on 15 July 2020 with the 11.14 to Bertsdorf
From Bertsdorf there is a choice of destination between Kurort Oybin, where the service stops below Oybin Mountain, which has a ruined castle and monastery on the top, or the health resort of Jonsdorf, which boasts rustic half-timbered houses and is another great spot for starting a walk into the mountains.
Stations and photo-spots
Apart from its historic rolling stock, one interesting infrastructure feature of the Zittau system is the signal box at Bertsdorf, which dates from 1938, is nerve centre of the railway’s operations, and is apparently one of the only two-storey boxes on any narrow-gauge railway.
99-760 storms out of Zittau Vorstadt on 15 July 2020 with the 15.07hrs Zittau-Kurort Oybin
There are numerous attractive photo-spots along the route, but ones I can personally recommend (heading away from Zittau) are the approach to Zittau Süd, departure from Zittau Vorstadt (above and below), arrival at Olbersdorf Oberdorf, the Bertsdorf down home semaphore (bottom photo), the up home semaphore on the Oybin route, a level crossing shortly before Teufelsmühle and arrival at Kurort Oybin.
199-018 departs Zittau Vorstadt on 15 July 2020 with the 08.45 Zittau-Kurort Jonsdorf
Footpaths run close to the two lines from Bertsdorf to Oybin and Jonsdorf and with no lineside fencing to obstruct the view there are doubtless many more attractive locations to photograph trains, which operate chimney-first from Zittau.
As with my January visit to the 750mm gauge Cranzahl-Kurort Oberwiesenthal line, I had flown to Berlin then completed my journey by rail (4½ hours). In this case I took an IC service from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Dresden-Neustadt, waiting there almost an hour for a regional express (RE2) service to Zittau, 101kms and 80 minutes away. My Super Sparpreis ticket for the outward trip cost €25.90.
A red squirrel makes its escape at Kurort Oybin station after arrival of a train from Zittau
Coming from a country where we have been told for the past four months to avoid all but essential rail travel, it was great to be in a place where both main line and narrow gauge services were as busy as ever, and the only real reminder of pandemic was the requirement for face coverings.
99-760 approaches Kurort Oybin on 15 July 2020 with the 11.07 service from Zittau
Fares on the Zittau system are charged on the basis of stations passed, with a return from Zittau to either terminus costing €16.00. Better value though is a day ticket for €17.00 that also includes local buses and trains, while anyone spending two or more days on the line should buy a €25.00 weekly ticket (Wochenkarte).
199-018 descends towards Jonsdorf Haltestelle on 15 July 2020 with a Bertsdorf service
On my rail journey back from Zittau to Berlin I had been unable to buy a discounted advance purchase ticket, so bought a “Quer-Durchs-Land” ticket for €44.00 that gives a day’s unlimited travel after 09.00 on all regional services in Germany (anything except IC or ICE services).
Making use of this ticket’s flexibility, I was able to organise myself a detour to visit another charming 750mm route in Saxony, so watch out for a further feature later this week on the delightful Döllnitzbahn from Oschatz, – a town roughly mid-way between Dresden and Leipzig – to Mügeln and Glossen.
For full timetable information on the narrow gauge system, go to www.zittauer-schmalspurbahn.deThere is a good choice of places to stay and eat in Zittau. I opted for the Hotel Weberhof (www.hotelweberhof.com), a 15-minute walk from the main railway station, just ten minutes from Zittau Vorstadt station, and costing €55.00 a night for a very comfortable room and excellent breakfast. Dinner at the hotel is also highly recommended.