TRAVEL BARGAINS don’t come much more generous than the German Government’s decision to get people back on public transport over the summer by pumping €2.5 billion into the state’s rail and bus services and offering a €9 ticket that gives an entire month’s travel across the country.
Ever on the look-out for cheap travel opportunities I decided to buy a €9 ticket for the month of August and, in the first of two planned trips over that month, spend a few days re-visiting the remarkable Harz (HSB) narrow gauge system, on which the €9 ticket is valid for all services except those up the Brocken mountain.
Three years after my last visit to this 140km/87-mile metre gauge network I was fascinated to see how the final month of the three-month €9 ticket experiment was helping fill the railcars and steam-hauled services of the HSB, that in normal times are often very lightly-loaded, with the notable exception of those going up the Brocken.
My plan for 11-15 August 2022 was to travel on regional DB services from Berlin’s smart new Brandenburg (BER) Airport to Quedlinburg, the HSB’s newest destination, spending a night here and a second night at the system’s southernmost destination, Nordhausen, before moving on for three nights at the HSB’s base in charming Wernigerode.
For those unfamiliar with the HSB system, it comprises three inter-connected railways, as seen in the map above, the busiest of which is normally the 34km/21 mile Brockenbahn from Wernigerode up the 1125m/3,691ft Brocken Mountain.
Then there is the 61km/38 mile north-south Harzquerbahn from Wernigerode to Nordhausen, from which the Brockenbahn diverges at a junction called Drei Annen Hohne and the southern 12kms/7½ miles of which, from Ilfeld to Nordhausen, is also served by dual-powered Nordhausen trams.
Finally the delightful Selketalbahn connects with the Harzquerbahn at another junction, 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.
The mainstay of daily operations is HSB’s fleet of 17 powerful 2-10-2 tank engines, known as Neubaudampfloks, (99-7231/7247) which were built in the 1950s, along with two generations of single railcars and a handful of centre-cab diesels that were converted from standard gauge and are used for shunting and occasional passenger and freight workings.
Day one of my Harz adventure and not one checking of my €9 pass as I took a four-hour trip from Brandenburg Airport, travelling by an RB22 service to Potsdam Hauptbahnhof, followed by a crowded RE1 train from there to Magdeburg Hauptbahnhof, an RE21 to Halberstadt in the form of a loco (218499) hauling three ancient coaches in place of the normal DMU, and finally a diesel railcar from Halberstadt to Quedlinburg.
Once installed in my hotel next to the railway station there was the chance to appreciate something of a remarkable town which has been recognised as a UNESCO Word Heritage Site since 1994 (photo above) and to get my first sight of HSB steam as 99-7243 departed with the final service of the day at 19.41 to its shed at Gernrode, with no passengers at all on board (top photo).
It is a rather different picture on day two of my Harz tour when the three coaches pulled by 99-7243 are filled with passengers that include a tour party from Alexisbad as we depart Quedlinburg at 10.30 (12 August). At Alexisbad, where the train terminates, I take an unusually crowded railcar up the short branch line to Harzgerode, when my first disappointment is to find the station bar closed.
Pressing on, I re-join the crowded railcar for its return to Alexisbad and continuation on to the remote HSB junction at Eisfelder Talmühle, where happily the station bar is open. From here I head north and alight after half an hour at a place called Benneckenstein, where disappointment number two is to find the Pension Tannenwald also closed, though my 90 minutes here is saved when I am able to find a beer at a DDR-themed museum close to the station.
I have now had my €9 ticket inspected just once but there is no sign of any ticket checking on my final train ride of day two and a steam-hauled journey south to Nordhausen, where I am spending the night and where most of its modest tram network, which I had also planned to sample with my €9 ticket, seems to be shut for road works.
Day three (13 August) is a steam-hauled trip 61kms north from Nordhausen to Wernigerode, but my day begins with a chance to photograph railcars passing the only semaphores on the whole of the HSB, a trio controlling exit from the two platforms in the original Nordhausen Nord station and one for railcars or trams coming from the urban tram system onto the HSB.
In the hope of getting some decent steam photos I decide on an extended lunchtime break at Eisfelder Talmühle, and it proves a good choice when I am not only able to photograph the departure of my train towards Brocken, but also a short private charter bound for Nordhausen.
There is another enforced change of train at Drei Annen Hohne as trains from here up the Brocken have been suspended for several days after one caused a fire yesterday, so instead of continuing to Wernigerode the train I arrived on returns to Nordhausen and another trains takes me on the final leg of today’s travels.
For my three nights in Wernigerode I have a curious attic room in the railway-themed Altora Hotel, the great bonus of which is a panoramic view of the loco depot and a chance to photograph the steam and occasional diesel on the shed as they are prepared for service and shunt coaches into the station.
My one great disappointment of the Harz trip is the German’s continued slavish acceptance of mask wearing on public transport – a ridiculous nonsense since this does not happen in shops or restaurants, nor at the shiny new Brandenburg Airport, and even bus drivers don’t wear masks.
I discussed this ludicrous anomaly with a friendly German on my return journey to Berlin when he spotted my mask less face and his reaction was “we are sheep” – his words, not mine! My fear is that unless something is said the Germans will still be wearing masks on buses and trains in five years’ time.
I made my position clear when boarding a BA flight from Heathrow to Berlin and was told I must wear a mask. I politely declined and nothing more was said, but travelling the HSB I was repeatedly berated for my stand on personal freedom, pointing out (in my finest schoolboy German) on a number of occasions that there was no-one else in the carriage!
When touring the Harz system from Wernigerode there are two particularly useful bus routes that take you from Wernigerode station to Quedlinburg (route 230) or to Stiege and Hasselfelde (route 260) so with limited service due to the temporary Brocken closure I began my day 4 travels (14 August) by taking a 230 bus to Quedlinburg to begin a circular tour and savour more steam action on the Selketalbahn route.
Even without the benefit of the unrepeatable €9 ticket, anyone staying at a hotel in Wernigerode pays a tourist tax of €3 a night, but in return is given what is called a Hatix pass, giving them unlimited free travel on the comprehensive and reliable regional HVB bus network for the duration of their stay.
After a beer stop outside Quedlinburg station I took a railcar to Gernrode, where 99-7243 was on shed and soon emerged to haul the well-loaded 14.13 service to Eisfelder Talmühle, which made its scheduled double departure at Alexisbad alongside a railcar bound for Harzgerode. I alighted at Stiege, before returning to Wernigerode on a 260 bus from a stop called Stiege Denkmal close to the HSB station.
For my fifth and final day of Harz touring there were a couple of steam shots I was keen to get on the Selketalbahn route, so after the previous day’s clockwise circuit I set off in the reverse direction, taking a 260 bus to Hasselfelde then a short walk down to the HSB terminus to pick up the first (10.16) of only four daily trains to serve this terminus of the short branch from Stiege.
Changing onto another railcar at Stiege I continued on to Alexisbad, where I changed again onto the very busy three-coach steam hauled service (99-7243) to Quedlinburg, which I alighted from at Bad Suderode, 1km north of Gernrode, in order to get a shot of the returning steam loco on the 12.56 Quedlinburg-Gernrode service.
My plan to then return to Alexisbad and photograph the daily double departure was thwarted when a violent thunderstorm broke out while I was at Gernrode, having returned there on a railcar from Bad Suderode. During a miraculous pause in the downpour I got a final shot of 99-7243 departing with the 14.13 to Eisfelder Talmühle, before taking a railcar to Quedlinburg and the returning to Wernigerode on a 230 bus.
The €9 ticket seems to have been remarkably successful, with many of the normally near-empty HSB railcars full and standing, while on the main line I was part of a huge scrum to board the 11.08 RE1 service at Magdeburg Hauptbahnhof on 16 August and it was the same story on other regional services I used.
Picking places to stay, based as usual on their proximity to a railway station, I spent a night in Quedlinburg at Regiohotel Quedlinburger Hof, immediately outside the station (€65.00 B&B); then a night in Nordhausen at Nordhauser Furstenhof that was again adjacent to the station (€74.00 room only) and finally three nights in Wernigerode at Altora Eisenbahn Themenhotel, once again very close to the railway and bus stations (€72.00 a night B&B). I can highly recommend all three of them.
Look out for part two of this feature in late August, after a second trip to flex my €9 ticket, when I will be travelling on three of the other wonderful steam-worked narrow gauge railways in eastern Germany.