Finally resuming an extended tour of the wonderful narrow gauge railways in eastern German, my travels take me on 22 September 2021 to the city of Dresden and a return to the two steam-worked narrow (750mm) gauge lines I last visited back in 1990.
Much has changed over the past three decades, but it is reassuring to see that daily steam-hauled services still continue to operate on the 16.6km (10.4 mile) Lößnitzgrundbahn to the north-west of the city and the 26.1km (16.3 mile) Weißeritztalbahn to the south-west of Dresden.
Travelling to the area by train from Berlin, I changed from an IC train at Dresden Neustadt onto a S1 suburban service bound for the famous porcelain town of Meißen and alighted eight minutes later at Radebeul Ost, headquarters of the Lößnitzgrundbahn and home to its fleet of 2-10-2 tank engines.
My initial destination was the charming tourist town of Moritzburg, half-way along the line and best known for its spectacular Baroque castle, which stands on a man-made island to the north of the town and attracts huge numbers of visitors to the area.
The Lößnitzgrundbahn is a delightful line to travel, with the half-hour ascent from Radebeul Ost to Moritzburg first taking you alongside town centre streets as far as the first stop, Weißes Roß, then passing hillside vineyards and up the densely wooded Lößnitz valley, before the line crosses a large lake called the Dippelsdorfer Teich on 210m long dam with water on each side.
From Moritzburg the second half of the route is a gentle descent that takes you through much more open countryside and a few small settlements, before reaching the end of the line at Radeberg, where there is a small loco shed and not much else.
While the Lößnitzgrundbahn has enjoyed a fairly uneventful history since its opening in 1884, apart from a serious accident in September 2009, things were not so good on Weißeritztalbahn, which over the night of 12/13 August 2002 was hit by devastating floods that all but destroyed the line, as illustrated in a fascinating photo display at Freital-Hainsberg station.
There were real fears that the line – Germany’s oldest narrow gauge railway and dating from 1883 – would never reopen, but funding to the tune of more than €20 million was eventually secured and the whole line slowly re-built.
Services restarted from Dippoldiswalde to Seifersdorf in December 2002 after a train had been trapped on this section of the line, then six years later (December 2008) were restored from Freital-Hainsberg to Dippoldiswalde, with trains finally reaching Kurort Kipsdorf on 17 June 2017, almost 15 years after the floods.
Like other German cities there is an integrated transport system in the region around Dresden, with zonal tickets that cover journeys by rail, bus, tram and ferry, though not including the two narrow gauge lines, which have their own respective zonal fares.
So making my way from Moritzburg to Freital-Hainsberg after two days on the Lößnitzgrundbahn I bought a three-zone ticket for €6.80 that took me on the hourly 477 bus to Dresden Neustadt, then a regional train on to Dresden Hauptbahnhof and finally a S3 local train for the four stops to the Weißeritztalbahn terminus.
Zonal fares on the narrow gauge are predictably higher, with my single for the 8.6km trip from Radebeul Ost to Moritzburg having cost €7.30 (3 tariff zones) and the one I bought from Freital-Hainsberg to Dippoldiswalde costing €8.30 (4 zones and 15.0kms).
But for anyone like me spending a day trundling up and down each line, the best option is a day ticket (Tageskarte) which costs €18.50 on the Lößnitzgrundbahn compared to €15.40 for an end-to-end return and €23.80 on the Weißeritztalbahn, exactly the same price as a full-line return.
Like the route from Radebeul, the lower section of the Weißeritztalbahn takes you up a delightful wooded river valley before you reach the stop before Dippoldiswalde called Malter, where you pass a large man-made lake and a station which attracts significant numbers of passengers.
There is little to detain you at Freital-Hainsberg and not a great deal to see apart from spare rolling stock as the loco disappears to the shed for water. But paying a visit to the ticket office it is worth treating yourself for the return trip to a small bottle (0.2l) of a rather pleasant fizz called Rotkappchen Sekt which comes from the fridge and cost a modest €2.00.
Visiting the two lines on a regular operating day means you will only see that day’s loco in action and not get the chance to see the rest of the working fleet, which are locked away in the depots, although I did at least get to see 1921-built Saxon-Meyer 0-4-4-0T 99-1608 outside the depot at Freital-Hainsberg after its duties at a festival a few days before my visit.
The regular Lößnitzgrundbahn service comprises an early morning weekday departure from Radebeul at 05.15 during school terms only, returning from Radeburg at 06.20, then four subsequent trips to Moritzburg and back and two more round trips to Radeburg, with the final Moritzburg service (18.56 out and return at 19.33) only operating until 31 October.
Given its greater length and the lack of a school train, the Weißeritztalbahn service is rather more sparse, comprising two full length round trips of the line, departing Freital-Hainsberg at 09.25 and 13.25, which return after a 20-minute pause from Kurort Kipsdorf at 11.11 and 15.11, before a short working at 17.05 to Dippoldiswalde, returning from there at 18.02.
As both lines traverse largely isolated and wooded valleys with few houses and villages nearby, finding intermediate stops where it is possible to secure any food or drink is something of a challenge.
But two places I can recommend are a bar and restaurant called Lößnitztal-Schaenke that is a two minute walk north of Weißes Roß station on the Lößnitzgrundbahn and right alongside the line, while on the Weißeritztalbahn there is a delightful bar next to the station at remote Rabenau selling bottles of a fine local dark beer for just €3.00.
Other locations I can recommend for the non-car driving traveller are the level crossing and arrival at Weißes Roß and arrival and departure from Moritzburg, where north of the station you can watch the train passing one of only two semaphore signals on the Lößnitzgrundbahn – alas left semi-permanently off and only used on festive occasions when trains pass here (top photo).
On the Weißeritzalbahn there are good vantage points on either side of the station at Dippoldiswalde, including one at an ungated crossing leading to an industrial estate just to the north and a ten minute walk from the station. There is an impressive viaduct on the approach to Schmiedeberg which I would like to have photographed, and at Kurort Kipsdorf there is an impressive disused signal box on the approach to the station.
While the powerful 2-10-2 tank engines that are the mainstay of the German narrow gauge systems all look remarkably similar, there was a considerable age difference between the two locos I travelled on and photographed. The working Lößnitzgrundbahn loco (99-1747) was built in 1929, whereas the loco working from Freital-Hainsberg (99-1793) was one of the much later “Neubau” (new build) engines and only dates from 1957.
Passenger numbers on both lines seemed to vary considerably on the four days I spent travelling. Many trains are very lightly loaded, particularly the final trains each day, which seem to run almost empty, but numbers are swelled by a coach party or a wedding party on one departure from Freital-Hainsnerg, who had a reserved catering vehicle added to the front of the train.
There are numerous places to stay in Moritzburg, but I can recommend the Eisenberger Hof hotel, just west of the main street and an easy ten-minute walk from the station. My room here (€49.00 a night) had a balcony overlooking open fields, the restaurant was excellent and there was even a vending machine on my floor dispensing cool bottles of dark beer for just €2.00 a go!
Choices are more limited in Dippoldiswalde, where I found the rather Spartan Bahnhotel next to the station (€40 a night) which was a place that had definitely seen better days and whose bar – which served a decent breakfast for just €5.00 – remained irritatingly closed during the day and evening.
A number of restaurants in the town have apparently fallen victim to coronavirus and closed down, and I could not find a single bar in the town centre, but I stumbled across a very acceptable restaurant called Alte Sattlerei that is only five minutes’ walk from the station and very close the bus station in the town centre.
Returning home after my two nights in Dippoldiswalde was remarkably straightforward, with a half-hour three-zone (€6.80) ride on the hourly 360 bus getting me to Dresden Hauptbahnhof, from where I took EC176 to Berlin Sudkreuz and a S45 service to the new Brandenberg Airport for a “Super Sparpreis” fare of just €21.90.
This is a delightful part of Europe to visit – I’m sorry not to have had time to visit Moritzburg Castle – and should be on the wish list of anyone who appreciates real narrow gauge steam action as well, of course, those who like their beer dark.