Czech JHMD NG system awaits a white knight

Nine months after my delightful summer visit (July 2022) and six months after its shock closure, a short break in Prague meant the chance for a day trip to Jindřichův Hradec to see what has become of the Jindřichohradecké místní dráhy (JHMD) narrow gauge system.

Following 25 years in private ownership this wonderful 79km (50-mile) long 760mm (2ft 6in) gauge network had been forced to close on 2 October 2022 after amassing huge debts and its management falling out with the local authority, which financially supported its diesel services.

I had read that some of its historic rolling stock had since been relocated for security reasons and that the company had lost its operating licence, but I was keen to see at first hand if there was any chance of services being revived on the network’s two lines – The 33km (21 miles) from Jindřichův Hradec to Nová Bystřice, close to the Austrian border, and a 46km (29-mile) northern route to a town called Obrataň.

For those unfamiliar with this attractive corner of southern Czechia, the narrow gauge station stand immediately south of the main ČD station and its route is initially shared on dual-gauge track with the ČD line east of the stations (photo below) until the northern JHMD route to Obrataň diverges to the left and then the Nová Bystřice route to the right (south).

Until its sudden closure services were worked by a trio of ex- ČD Class 705 (T47) locos and two of four refurbished Polish railcars, with the first two of this fleet M27-001/2 having been dumped out of service. Popular Seasonal steam services worked on both routes, with the 2022 timetable being a round trip to Nová Bystřice on five days of the week and a shorter trip to Kamenice nad Lipou on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Arriving at Jindřichův Hradec on Saturday, 29 April 2023 it was almost as if time had stood still, with a mixed line of coaches old and new headed by the two working railcars, M27-003 in green and M27-004 in maroon livery, with grey-liveried M27-001/2 dumped nearby as they had been on my July 2022 visit.

The colour light signal controlling exit onto the dual-gauge track remains lit, while in the locked main loco shed (pictured above) were two of the Class 705 diesels, T47-015 and T47-018, with the latter still carrying the wreath it bore when working the final service on 2 October 2022.

Alongside this pair were two of the steam locos that had worked the popular summer services – ex PKP Px48 loco (1916) and the oldest loco on the JHMD, a delightful Austrian 0-6-2T built by Krauss & Co. at Linz in 1898 (U37-002), which had been hauling services during the week of my July 2022 visit.

Apart from a smashed screen on the front of the ticket vending machine and some graffiti on a poster showing the route’s final timetable, everything remains as it was, so there could be a very rapid return to operations, if a solution can be found to the serious financial plight of the railway.

Sadly there was no one about to quiz on prospects for the system, and while July 2022 loadings on the Obrataň line were a bit thin, I could not help thinking back to that visit, when the steam-hauled services were all full and there was heavy traffic too on the highly scenic route to Nová Bystřice, through the area known as Czech Canada.

What I did see taped to the waiting shelter at the deserted station was a notice written by a local politician called Jaroslav Chalupsky that was headed “Petition to save narrow gauge railway from Obrataň to Jindřichuv Hradec and to Nová Bystřice” and contained a QR code for anyone who cares about the line to register their concern at its closure and wish to see it re-opened.

In his notice Chalupsky writes “Gradually l am meeting people that are affected by the closure of the narrow gauge line and l will speak with the local bodies and representatives to get to know all the facets of this colourful story to help to find some solution to preserve this tradition and magnet for tourists in our land…
…But firstly it’s important to find out if the citizens of Vysočina and Southern Bohemia are sufficiently interested in preservation of this railway line at all. We don’t want to work only on minority interest of enthusiasts. So l would like to ask you to fill in this petition to save the narrow gauge railway if you are in favour. I am sure that solution will be found.”

Whether or not Chalupsky’s optimism has any real basis, I would strongly urge anyone who has ever visited this wonderful railway, or considered doing so, to copy this QR code and – ignoring the fact that it is all in Czech – fill in your name and email address – adding your home town in the box called Mesto – and express your views (in English) on why this network must be saved.

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