Debts of around £6 million (CSK 160m) have led to shock closure from Sunday (2 October 2022) of the privately-operated 79km (50-mile) narrow gauge system based on the town of Jindřichův Hradec in the south of Czechia, despite its huge popularity as a tourist attraction.
Less than three months after I had spent a glorious few days in the area known as Czech Canada for its lakes and forests, services are being halted on the two 760mm (2’ 6”) gauge lines that lead 33km (21 miles) from Jindřichův Hradec to Nová Bystřice, close to the Austrian border, and 46kms (29-miles) on a northern route to a town called Obrataň.
In the 25 years since the two routes were abandoned by state rail operator České Dráhy (ČD) they have been operated by a locally-based private company called Jindřichohradecké místní dráhy (JHMD), which has provided a mixture of state-funded diesel services and daily steam-hauled tourist services during the summer season.
During the 2022 season, the highly popular steam services comprised 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 did not run.
On the face of it, things looked pretty good on the JHMD when I was there in July, with the steam-hauled trains running full to capacity and good loadings on the diesel services, particularly those to Nová Bystřice, a major holiday area that is so popular with walkers and cyclists that trains all conveyed a baggage car for the carriage of bicycles.
But behind the appearance of a popular railway operation all was far from well. After losing the support of its bank, Raiffeisenbank in April, JHMD had filed an insolvency petition according to one report, with no funds available to repay some 140 creditors and a major dispute between the railway company and the regional government over the level of financial support provided to the company.
Whether any rescue can be pulled off remains to be seen. The JHMD website, which had been a mine of information about the railway, its history and its rolling stock, has disappeared and with local authority-funded buses apparently being drafted in to replace the diesel-worked services there must be doubts about what can be saved this time around.
Maybe the warning signs were already there when I was travelling the lines in July. Only two of the four M27 railcars were still in service, a mere eight years after their arrival on the JHMD, and just three of the Czech (1954-59 built) T47 bo-bo diesel locomotives were in evidence, less than half the number I had seen on my first visit in 2014.
The 2022 summer timetable comprised 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 departed Jindřichův Hradec at 10.39 and returned after a two-hour layover in Nová Bystřice at 15.18.
Services on the longer Obrataň route comprised nine through journeys, most of which had 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.
Steam-hauled services during my July 2022 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 saw on that visit was one of the two I had seen working in 2014 – a former PKP Px48 (1916) which came to the line in 2009.
According to local reports, the final JHMD services to operate on Sunday, 2 October 2022, will be the 15.23 departure for Nová Bystřice, 17.06 to Obrataň and 19.06 to Kamenice nad Lipou.
For those who may have missed my July 2022 feature on JHMD, I am posting a further selection of photos taken during my time travelling the two lines in the early summer (11-15 July) and showing what a popular and attractively scenic system it is.
Jindřichův Hradec is a delightful and historic town, in which the JHMD narrow gauge railway was one of its major tourist attractions, as could be seen from the large numbers packing onto the steam-hauled services. Like many others who have enjoyed its services, I sincerely hope that common sense can prevail, and that it can rise again.
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