Two flavors of German main-line steam

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, November 5, 2018

While in Germany for two weeks in late September surrounding InnoTrans, the biennial global rail industry trade fair in Berlin, a friend and I had a chance to experience two quite distinct kinds of main-line steam excursion and get a sense of the productive and mutually beneficial relationship that a number of German rail preservation nonprofits have with Deutsche Bahn, the national railway. The sheer number of opportunities that Europeans — Germans especially — have to experience main-line steam in many regions is enough to make any American steam fan jealous, and the fact that infrastructure to accommodate steam (such as water and coal supplies) is still widespread, even at stations that only see steam five or fewer times annually, is remarkable.

DR Class 41 No. 41 1144-9 across the platform from a departing DB Regio DMU train while passengers board at Erfurt's main station on Sept. 21, 2018. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Our first excursion was a two-hour Friday morning jaunt from Erfurt eastward to Gera, two small cities in south-central eastern Germany south of Leipzig. Powering this ride was Class 41 No. 1144-9, a Decapod built in 1939 in Meiningen to handle main-line freight trains for the Deutsche Reichsbahn. She is one of only two of her class still in operation, and is owned and maintained by IGE Werrabahn Eisenach e.V., a nonprofit based in Eisenach, west of Erfurt. This was mainly a positioning move to get the locomotive and consist (six 1960s-built East German second-class compartment coaches owned by DB, plus the tool car owned by Werrabahn Eisenach) in place for a longer excursion out of Gera the next day, but DB seized on the opportunity to market the trip to school groups and families with kids and cultivate a positive image amongst the next generation of customers.

Reserving a seat on this trip cost only €19 ($21.63 USD) on top of the standard DB second-class fare for the segment (also covered by a Eurail Pass or any other DB pass or discount program) and the train was nearly sold out. My friend and I were two of maybe six adult passengers who were not either parents with their kids or school teachers or chaperones. The crew consisted of six DB employees managing the train and collecting tickets, five volunteers or employees of the preservation group served as the engine crew, and entertainers to amuse the children, including a balloon animal maker and a clown. 

The Sept. 21 Erfurt-Gera steam special meets a DMU regional train of franchise operator Elster Saale Bahn on the main line between Erfurt and Weimar.
The DB crew members handed out train-themed coloring and activity books, packets of gummy snacks shaped like ICE locomotives, and various plastic items emblazoned with the DB logo. The value DB received in public goodwill from this trip far outweighed any loss they might have incurred in its operation, my friend and I reckon. I wonder what it would take for Amtrak to see charter and special trains in a more favorable light.

For us, however, the main attraction was being able to roll the windows down half-way and thus immerse ourselves in the sounds and sensations of a big steam locomotive with her throttle wide open, climbing hills and rounding numerous curves at up to 80 mph, passing a steady stream of regularly scheduled passenger trains (mostly two-car diesel multiple units) going the opposite direction. We were able to capture many unobstructed photos of the Decapod. The first third of the route, from Erfurt to Weimar, was on an electrified double-track main line, but the majority (Weimar to Gera) was on a non-electrified branch line that was mostly double-track but went down to single-track in spots. We traversed rolling farmland, forests, and a number of picturesque towns and villages. When we reached Gera on-time, most of the families and school groups joined us in transferring to other trains to return to Erfurt or continue on to other destinations — a novel concept to most American steam excursion riders that the density and frequency of the German passenger train network makes possible.

After lunch in Leipzig, my friend and I rode a regional train on to Cottbus, a mid-sized city in Germany’s far southeastern corner. We overnighted at a hotel adjacent to the train station and awoke early the next morning to board another steam excursion departing at 5:20 AM — one that ended up returning to Cottbus nearly 20 hours later. This was one of the eight or so annual charter trains organized by the Lausitz Steam Locomotive Club (based near Cottbus), entirely using their equipment (locomotives, coaches and food service cars) but with operating crews provided by the host railroad working in conjunction with Club volunteers.

DR Class 50.35 No. 50 3648-8 prepares to depart Dresden Neustadt station with 11 cars full of passengers on a sunny Saturday, Sept. 22.
The destination for the day was Doksy, a small lakeside city in the north-central Czech Republic, and the route taken was one not followed by any other through passenger train (the point where we crossed the German-Czech border, between Ebersbach and Jirikov, isn’t even shown as a through line on the European Railway Map released by the publishers of the European Rail Timetable). The consist was lengthy at 11 cars plus a tool car and crew car: five First Class six-seat compartment coaches and six Second Class table-seating coaches with seats for four facing small tables, along with a Dining Car and a Snack Car, both serving traditional German fare and ample beer, all very inexpensively priced. Adult tickets cost around $110 USD for second class or $130 for first class for an entire day of travel — a much better bargain than any U.S. main-line steam excursion I’m familiar with.

A Club-owned 1950s-vintage DR diesel locomotive hauled us under wire at track speed under wire on the main line from Cottbus to Dresden (apparently the steam locomotives could not run on this stretch due to high fire danger), where the majority of passengers joined us beneath the grand trainshed at Dresden Neustadt station. There, a steam doubleheader of DR Class 50.35 No. 50 3648-8 , a 1941-built Decapod freight unit owned by the Saxon Railway Museum in Chemnitz, and Class 23.10 No. 35 1097-1, a late 1950-s East German-built Prairie passenger locomotive based in Glauchau, took over and pulled us along winding non-electrified branch lines hugging the Czech border, then south through the Czech cities of Novy Bor and Ceska Lipa. The landscape on this portion of the route reminded me of the foothills of North Carolina and Virginia. We arrived at Doksy just after noon and had until 5:15 PM for the return departure. 

Steam swirls around the driving wheels of DR Class 23.10 No. 35 1097-1, awaiting a clear slot on the westward main line at Ebersbach on the evening of Sept. 22.
There were two options of excursion within the Doksy area that were offered for purchase for an addition to the train fare. My friend and I opted for the trip to the nearby 13th-century State Castle Bezdez in a vintage Skoda-built Prague city bus. It was a clear, crisp fall day and we had two hours to hike the steep uphill to the castle, explore its rooms and take in the commanding views, and climb back down to get the bus back to Doksy. We had intended to have lunch in the town upon our return, but with just over an hour until the train’s departure and very few restaurant options, we decided not to chance it. The train station, which was a 10-minute walk north of the town center, had only a snack vending machine and a bar that did not serve food.

The return trip departed on-time, but stopped next to a dirt road in the middle of the woods south of Ceska Lipa to take on water from two vintage fire trucks, and so that one of the locomotives (now on the rear of the train) could go around a wye and rejoin the head end, as there is no wye near Doksy. This process took longer than scheduled, so by the time we reached the German border station of Ebersbach, we had to wait 45 minutes at the station for the next free slot in DB’s running order. This allowed for plenty of time for night photography of the locomotives and of the steam-heated coaches shrouded in exhaust steam. We ran smoothly once we got our slot, and returned to Dresden and then to Cottbus 90 minutes late, with the steam doubleheader taking us all the way. After the train emptied out at Dresden, I found an empty compartment in First Class, reclined two facing seats into a makeshift bed, closed the curtains and napped while listening to the two iron horses maintain a full gallop through the dark night.

Germany and its neighbors’ extensive, well-maintained and passenger-dominant rail network and its strong preservation culture combine travel behind steam and on all kinds of historic rail equipment more widely available at more affordable price points than it is on our side of the Atlantic. But one key ingredient there that we could learn from is Deutsche Bahn’s willingness to cooperate with a variety of preservation groups because it sees the allure of steam, charters and specials as invaluable public relations tools.

A boy about five years old leans out the window of the third coach on the Sept. 21 Erfurt-Gera excursion behind Decapod No. 41 1144-9.

The Erfurt-Gera special rounding a curve on the secondary line between Jena and Gera.

1950s DR diesel locomotive No. 118 770-7 is about to be uncoupled from the Lausitz Steam Locomotive Club special at Dresden Neustadt station after having taken the train from Cottbus.

The Sept. 22 Cottbus-Dresden-Doksy excursion rounds a curve on a single-track mainline through the foothills of the northern Czech Republic.

2-6-2 Prairie No. 35 1097-1, at Doksy station, is about to pull the special train forward from the siding so that it is repositioned onto the platform track. After departure, it will run on the rear of the train to the wye near Ceska Lipa.

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