Twenty-five years after it was abandoned by the state rail operator České Dráhy (ČD) and handed over to a locally-based private company, the charming 79km (50-mile) long narrow gauge system based on the town of Jindřichův Hradec in the south of the Czech Republic is booming.
Spending five days in the area known as Czech Canada for its forests and lakes I was able to sample two days of steam haulage behind a locomotive that is more than 120 years old and spend the rest of my time photographing and being hauled by diesel locos that are more than 60 years old.
This 760mm (2’ 6”) gauge system is run by a company called JHMD, with Government financial support for its diesel services, and comprises two lines that head east from a terminus adjacent to the standard gauge station in Jindřichův Hradec, with a 33km (21-mile) southern route to Nová Bystřice, close to the Austrian border and a 46km (29-mile) northern route to a town called Obrataň.
While local traffic is the mainstay of the Obrataň line, the one heading south is very much a leisure route, that is popular with walkers and cyclists and traverses a major holiday area, albeit one that is probably very little known to British people and anyone else apart from Czech tourists.
Having first visited the line eight years ago (in 2014) I had expected to see significant changes during my 11-15 July 2022 visit, as a fleet of four railcars had just been delivered in 2014 and were poised to take over services to Obrataň from the ageing Czech (1954-59 built) T47 bo-bo diesel locomotives that hauled every train apart from the seasonal steam-worked services.
But something must have been amiss with these curious M27 railcars that have round windows and are actually rebuilds of Polish MBxd2 railcars, with two of the four (M27-001/2) both dumped out of use at Jindřichův Hradec and many Obrataň line services still formed of a T47 diesel hauling a single coach.
Use of the railcars was never an option on the tourist route to Nová Bystřice, as the two-hourly summer services are all formed of two coaches, along with a baggage car to carry the large number of bicycles being conveyed by visitors to this attractive region.
Steam services on the two routes comprise round trips to Nová Bystřice on five days a week, with a shorter out and back journey to Kamenice nad Lipou, midway along the Obrataň route on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the only two days that the Nová Bystřice service does not run.
The M27 railcars may look impressive, with their space-age round windows, but travelling in them is a different matter, as they are extremely hot and noisy and the toilets on both units remaining in service are locked out of use.
Adding insult to injury on a hot afternoon (14 July) M27.003 broke down at a remote halt, only minutes after we had left Obrataň. The guard and driver did not seem to know what to do, but lifted a floor panel covering the engine in an apparent attempt to sort the issue.
After a 45-minute delay the team managed to restart the railcar, but we were then delayed at the next passing loop to wait for a northbound service to cross. When we finally reached Kamenice nad Lipou 75 minutes late the guard declared M27.003 “kaput” and I was forced to complete my return to Jindřichův Hradec on a comfortable T47-hauled one coach train, with the failed railcar towed behind!
There has been a marked decline in the number of T47 diesels in use, and just three were operational during the week of my visit, with Nová Bystřice duties shared between green-liveried T47.005 and purple-liveried T47.019, with blue T47.015 in use on the Obrataň line and also assembling a freight train on one day, complete with a couple of rollwagen.
In addition to this trio, T47.018 in a red livery was out of use in the depot and at least one other diesel was in the shed alongside the two steam locos, but there was no sign of four other class members I had seen in 2014 – T47.006/011/020/021 – nor the ex PKP Lxd2 loco T48.001, which had been working Nová Bystřice services on my previous visit.
Steam services throughout the five days of my visit were in the hands of the line’s oldest loco, a delightful Austrian 0-6-2T built by Krauss & Co. at Linz in 1898. The only other steam loco I could see in the shed was one of the two I had seen working in 2014 – a former PKP Px48 (1916) which came to the line in 2009.
The current summer timetable comprises regular two-hourly departures from Jindřichův Hradec to Nová Bystřice from 07.23 until 17.23, with returns from 09.07 until 19.07 and supplemented daily (except Tuesdays and Thursdays) by the steam service, which departs Jindřichův Hradec at 10.39 and returns after a two-hour layover in Nová Bystřice at 15.18.
Services on the longer Obrataň route comprise nine through journeys, most of which have long layovers en route at Kamenice nad Lipou, along with a number of short workings between Jindřichův Hradec and Kamenice nad Lipou and others between Kamenice nad Lipou and Obrataň.
Fares on the diesel-worked services are very cheap, with a single for the 46kms (29 miles) from Jindřichův Hradec to Obrataň costing just CSK56 (£2.00) while a single for the 33km (21 mile) trip to Nová Bystřice costs CSK42 (£1.50). It is possible to buy a weekly ticket, but unless you travel intensively for five or more days it is best to simply buy single tickets.
Travelling on the steam-hauled services is considerably more expensive, with the round trip to Kamenice nad Lipou (21km and one hour each way) costing CSK430 (£14.40) while the longer journey to Nová Bystřice costs CSK540 (£18.00) return. But the huge price discrepancy with the diesel fares does not seem to put people off and every steam service I travelled on or saw was virtually full.
Finding good photo spots is not always easy when you are reliant on trains and places accessible from stations, but three locations I found particularly attractive on the Nová Bystřice route were Blažejov, the mid-way stop at Kunžak-Lomy and another remote request stop called Hůrky, towards the end of the line.
Travelling to Kamenice nad Lipou on an early morning railcar to photograph the arrival of the steam service I then took a 15 minute walk south from the station along a lane to the east side of the railway and eventually reached an un-gated level crossing offering a good view of U37.002 as it stormed up a steep gradient towards its destination.
Getting to Jindřichův Hradec is very simple, and takes around two and a half hours from Prague on an hourly regional service south to a junction called Veselí nad Lužnicí, then changing here onto a connecting regional service for the final 30 minutes of the trip.
I bought tickets for the mainline journeys online at the state railway website (www.cd.cz) where there is an English translation showing train times and fares and paid just CSK189 (£6.80) each way, which seemed pretty reasonable for a journey of almost exactly 100 miles.
Buying tickets online for the steam service is also pretty easy via the operator’s website (www.jhmd.cz) but do note down any seats you choose as the payment system does not automatically generate a ticket and you need to email the company to say what you have booked and they will then email tickets to you.
Returning to Jindřichův Hradec I hoped to stay in the hotel I had visited in 2014, but it seems to have closed, so instead I found a splendid and well-equipped apartment only a ten minute walk from the station called Penzionek JH (www.Penzionek-Jh.cz) that cost about £27 a night and was also only a ten minute walk from the attractive town centre.
This is a really delightful corner of Central Europe to visit, even when the near total language barrier – train guards seem to be the only people with any English – can sometimes feel a little off-putting. For anyone who appreciates a real working narrow gauge railway and the experience of hanging out of a carriage window as you trundle past remote villages and through dense forests, this a place to put on that bucket list!