Harz Winter Wonderland
Updated: Apr 13
There is nothing more spectacular than steam locos working hard through a snow-covered landscape. A few years ago, I took a week-long trip to an historic and scenic part of Germany where steam trains run every day.
HSB loco No. 99.7243 climbs the last few hundred metres to the summit of the Brocken in freezing temperatures.
THINK of a railway running through pine forests or scenic mountainous areas covered with snow and your first thoughts are likely to be of Switzerland, Austria, perhaps Norway or Sweden.
But add to the mix powerful metre-gauge steam locomotives working to a regular daily timetable, hammering up gradients as steep as 1-in-30 to the top of the Brocken mountain 3,675 ft (1,125m) above sea level and there is probably one place you are likely to find all of these ingredients - the Harz region of Germany.
Steam at the top of the Brocken, 3,675 ft (1,125m) above sea level.
Where Is the Harz?
Situated in the centre of Germany, the area was once the habitat of bears, bison and wolves, but today lynx are more common. Mining was also prevalent in the upper Harz, the last one closed in 2007, but today, with many spa towns, timbered buildings, options of winter sports, walking and climbing, tourism provides the area’s main income stream.
The Harz is an all-year round destination, but whatever time of year you visit, a ride on the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (usually known as ‘the Harz’ or HSB) is a must.
A map of the Harz railway network.
It’s an area of Germany which is quite easy to get to, with budget flights from several UK airports to Hannover, Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin, before continuing by hire car or public transport.
By rail from the UK, use Eurostar and DB’s ICE services, the fastest journey time is a few minutes shy of 10 hours with change of train at Brussels and Frankfurt. It’s a very relaxing way to travel, watching the world pass by at high speed. To make the journey from London by car would take around 12-13 hours including the Channel crossing.
The railway is headquartered in Wernigerode, a picturesque town of just over 35,000 people in the Saxony-Anhalt region of Germany. Timbered buildings are everywhere and Wernigerode has a fairy-tale castle and quaint town hall. The HSB is one of the area’s largest employers with around 260 staff including 12 apprentices. The railway, whose three routes cover to 140km (87 miles), attracts 1.1 million passengers per year and is the area’s leading tourist attraction, which is not surprising considering it is also Europe's longest railway network with timetabled steam trains daily.
Four of the 2-10-2T HSB locos on Wernigerode shed.
Most HSB services are hauled by solid looking 2-10-2 tank locomotives, the most powerful of their type in Germany. Designed by Deutsche Reichsbahn they have a service weight of 65 tonnes but an axle load of 9.5 tons, so ideal for the terrain of the Harz.
There are three lines which form the HSB network; the Brockenbahn which is the main attraction for tourists, running from Drei Anne Hohne to the Brocken summit; the Selketalbahn which runs through the Selke Valley from Quedlingberg to Stiege, Hasselfelde and Eisfelder Talmühle; and the Harzquerbahn from Wernigerode to Nordhausen.
Wernigerode is a good base because of the greater frequency of steam services to the top of the Brocken, which happens to be the fourth highest point in Germany. Nordhausen is also a well-used tourist base, and the small town has many excellent restaurants.
Mallett No. 99.5902 loco storming away from Sorge for Eisfelder Talmühle.
Near to Wernigerode is Quedlingberg, a town designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site, and a terminus for handful of HSB services on southerly and indirect Selke route. The two towns are directly connected by a frequent local main line service taking around 40 mins.
The narrow gauge railways which make up the HSB date back more thank 130 years when a line from Gernrode to Mägdesprung was opened in 1887 by the Gernrode-Harzgeroder Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft (GHE), later extending west to Hasselfelde and Eisfelder Talmühle. Just 11 years later, the Nordhausen-Wernigeroder Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft (NWE) began operating trains from Wernigerode via Drei Annen Hohne to Nordhausen on 27 March 1899 on what became known as the Harzquerbahn or TransHarz Railway, the two companies merging some years later.
At the end of World War Two when Germany was divided into zones, the whole of this narrow gauge network fell within the Soviet Occupation Zone which later became the self-declared socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany). On April 1, 1949, both the GHE and NWE were merged into Deutsche Reichsbahn.
99.7245 arriving in the deep snow at Elend with a steam working from Nordhausen.
During the GDR era, the Brocken was open to tourists and visitors until 1959, but from August 1961 the Brocken, which very close to the border with West Germany became out-of-bounds area and was closed to the public, with border guards taking over the summit railway station. It’s well known that the Brocken was used for surveillance and espionage purposes with two listening posts, one Soviet, the other GDR. Separating East and West was a 3.6m high wall, now dismantled and it was not until December 1989 the public was re-admitted following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As reunification of Germany gathered pace, on February 1, 1993, the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH (formed some years earlier, its shareholders being the local councils) took over the operation of the railway, including its infrastructure, locomotives rolling stock and the railway workshops.
No. 99.7234 approaching Wernigerode Hasserode station.
Each of the three sections of the railway has its own character, and are vastly different:
This line meanders along the scenic Selke valley from Gernrode towards Eisfelder Talmühle. Once a terminus of the HSB, the closure of the Quedlinburg to Frose line in 2004 opened the opportunity for the metre gauge line to be extended to Quedlinburg. Gernrode became a through station, with HSB laying its metre gauge track over the old DB formation for the 8.5km distance to the World Heritage town, the re-formed line opening in 2006. The state of Saxony-Anhalt provided €6.5 million of funding for the project.
Running alongside the Selke towards Straßberg station.
Despite its rural and at times rambling nature, the Selketalbahn has the steepest gradient on the HSB network at 1-in-25. The line serves the rural communities of Osterteich, Sternhaus Haferfeld, Sernhaus Ramberg, Magdesprung and Drahtzug, before reaching the village of Alexisbad, where there is a branch to Harzgerode.
Back in the 1990s, where the two lines diverged was the place to stand for the rare sight of a parallel steam departure – one train heading for Eisfelder, the other the short 3km distance to Harzgerode. This is now a memory because of a combination of competition from cars and local buses and general economics which have changed service patterns.
The once famous parallel departure from Alexisbad, taken in February 2007, uncharacteristically with no snow!
Many Selketalbahn services are formed of a single railcar and run to Eisfelder Talmühle (for connections to Benneckenstein, Drei Anne Hohne and Wernigerode) and Nordhausen Nord, some workings also serve the branches to Harzgerode or Hasslefelde. These services provide a lifeline for the remote communities, and are also used by schoolchildren.
HSB railcars at Eisfelder Talmühle
Beyond Alexisbad and worthy of mention is Stiege, where there is a balloon loop used to turn trains through 180 degrees. It was constructed to allow heavy coal trains from Nordhausen to access the power station at Silberhutte without reversing.
Starting from the HSB’s southern terminus at Nordhausen Nord, adjacent to the DB station which links Halle with Göttingen, the line begins it climb through the outskirts of a town which was heavily bombed by the RAF in April 1945, and that is evident in what is now a quite modern town.
Residential development on the west side of Nordhausen since 1995 has led to the construction of at least six additional stations to serve new communities.
These extra stations –11 in a 12km distance on a north-south axis – have also led to an extension the town’s tram network to Ilfeld Neanderklinik. Siemens ‘Duo Combino’ trams provide an hourly service to the Rathaus (Town Hall) or Krankenhaus (Hospital).
A steam departure from Nordhausen.
The line also passes within a mile of former concentration camp at Mittelbau-Dora where there is a memorial to the 20,000 prisioners who perished at the camp during World War Two, and a museum is located in tunnels on the former site.
As the line continues north, by the time it reaches the isolated junction station at Eisfelder Talmühle, it will have risen 550ft in 17km. For a station in the middle of nowhere, the timbered station building is extensive in size, and has a busy refreshment room used by both rail passengers and drivers using the adjacent road that connects Nordhausen with Blankenburg.
After diverging from the line to Gernrode, the Harzquerbahn line turns north, meandering around the edges of forests on the border of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt before turning in a westerly direction to reach the small town Benneckenstein with its population of around 2,400.
The next 3km to Sorge is almost entirely in dense forest, before reaching the hamlet. From here the line climbs all the way through Elend (again mainly in forest) which is another passing point on the single line route. The final 4km to the junction at Drei Anne Hohne is a modest climb, the loco working nearly all the way.
Drei Anne station tends to be a very busy drop off point for coach parties transferring to and from trains to the Brocken, but near the station is a large car park for passengers or walkers wanting to walk in the woods or on the footpaths up the Brocken. Not surprisingly, the bratwurst stall on the station platform is popular!
Thawing out the steam heating pipes between loco and carriages.
While the Brockenbahn is technally the line from Drei Anne to the top of the mountain, the majority of its services start at Wernigerode. A good tip is to start journeys from Wernigerode as there's no guarantee you'll get on at intermediate stations at weekends, never mind getting a seat!
The HSB station in Wernigeode, loco shed and turntable are all adjacent to the DB station.
At nearby Westerntor (West Gate) the line crosses a busy road junction and then embarks on a bit of street running for several hundred yards, before making its way out of town through stations at Kirchstrasse, Hasserode and Steinerne-Renne, the last two with passing loops. As the first 4km to Steinerne-Renne are through sections of residential area, it’s only after this point the 2-10-2Ts really begin to work hard, although they are limited to 40 km/h.
Mallett No. 99.5902 crossing the busy road junction at Wernigerode Westentor. Behind the loco is the railway's workshops.
From Steinerne-Renne to Drei Anne, the line has to climb 750 feet in 8.2km, the track twisting and turning through the forest as the line follows the contours of the hillside. It’s the start of a tough section for the crew, but harder work will come later.
One of the great features of any journey on the HSB by steam is being able to stand on the open vestibule, just to take in the staccato bark of the locomotive which bounces off the hillsides.
All Wernigerode to Brocken trains have a layover of around 13min at Drei Anne during which time the crew refill the loco’s water tanks and check the loco over. Passengers use the time for a leg stretch or queue for a bratwurst.
Next station is Schierke, the last station before the assault on the Brocken. The village is also the end of the road, as access to the top of the mountain limited to authorised vehicles only, so the train provides the best option.
99.5902 leaving the only narrow gauge tunnel in Germany.
On leaving Schierke, the line runs back into forest as the really tough climb begins and the footplate crew really earn they money. Gaps in the trees – often heavily frozen into contorted shapes in winter – give way to more open aspects allowing passengers to appreciate the scenery as the line curves in an anti-clockwise direction to the summit.
The Brocken’s weather is a law unto itself. On my last visit, a shot of the train attacking the final few hundred metres taken in brilliant sun and blue skies (opening picture) lasted less than 15 mins before being engulfed in thick disorientating cloud.
It’s always busy at the summit, regardless of the weather, and quite often it’s standing only on the train from Drei Anne and Schierke.
Returning down the mountain can be by train, walking using the myriad of footplaths, toboggan or ski in winter, or by horse-drawn wagon when there’s no snow.
The HSB has an excellent website with many pages in English, timetables to download and a wealth of information about the lines, locomotives, hiring of special trains and even the rock opera Faust at the top of the Brocken.
In many ways the HSB is a special railway and a visit cannot be recommended strongly enough.
Climbing towards Drei Anne Hohne from Sorge.