Steam in a winterwunderland – Part 1

For the previous part of this trip report which covers the trip on the Selketalbahn click here


The Harzer Schmalspurbahn operates a network of metre gauge lines throughout the Harz region of Eastern Germany. These lines were maintained as part of the regular Deutsche Reichsbahn network as the railways and were operated primarily with steam power until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following reunification, there was a debate about what to do with the lines with everything from abandonment to dieselization on the table. The railway briefly attempted to dieselize with regauged V100 loco’s but it was soon realized that it would be better to convert the line to a steam hauled tourist railway. The railway has three lines, the Selketalbahn and Harzquerbahn which were covered in the previous report and the most famous line, the Brockenbahn. The Brockenbahn is by far the best known, from Wernigerode the line immediately climbs into the Harz Mountains passing the resort towns of Drei Annen Hohne and Schierke before spiraling up the 1142 meter high Brocken Mountain, the highest peak in Northern Germany. The line was completed in 1899 and primarily served to bring tourists to the peak which became an important tourist destination as well as the site of one of the worlds first television transmitting tower. During WWII the mountain became the site of extensive military installations and the railway was heavily damaged by the allies. Following the war Brocken fell under the border zone between east and west Germany and access to the peak became heavily restricted. The military facilities were expanded and the high altitude made it the perfect place for a spy listening post. Following reunification all military facilities were removed and the mountain renaturalised, and today it is once again a popular tourist destination. While the Selketalbahn and Harzquerbahn operate primarily with DMU services the Brockenbahn still operates hourly trains hauled by steam, infact this area has once of the highest concentrations of scheduled steam operations in the world. From 1030 to sunset there is a steam hauled arrival on the Brocken every hour. The railway is a magnet for photographers but the weather on the Brocken is very challenging. The mountain has its own microclimate and the mountain is shrouded in clouds up to 300 days a year even when the surrounding areas are totally sunny. Due to the elevation, the mountain is also covered in heavy snow for most of the winter. A webcam broadcasts weather conditions 24/7 from the Brocken, it can be viewed here. 


Trip report

Given the relatively few sunny days on the Brocken I scrambled to book tickets when I saw an improving forecast of first one then two sunny days on the Brocken. I spent the previous days riding the Selketalbahn as it was still very cloudy and actually snowing heavily on the Brocken.

As forecasted February 13th dawned bright and clear in Wernigerode so it looked like all the elements were together for a good day of photography on the Brocken. The hotel (Hotel Garni zu Post) had a nice breakfast of the traditional Germany breakfast staples, schocco muesli and an assortment of bread, cheese and meat, perfect for an all day adventure on the mountain. The easiest way to reach the Brocken is, of course, the train but one cannot photograph the first train if they are riding it! Instead, I walked to Wernigerode Westerntor and took the 0820 bus #257 towards Schierke. The train was due to depart at 850 but would take longer to cover the distance but I knew it would still be cutting it close. At Schierke I got off at the Cafe Winkler halt and began what should be a 2 hr trek up to Brocken. The trail is just as scenic as the destination, winding its way through the snowcovered conifer forests. Despite the trains impending arrival I found myself stopping constantly to take in the scenery.

Almost there! The nature path joins the mountain road for the last 1.2 Km to the summit

By this time the sharp bark of the 99 class locomotive was rapidly growing louder, knowing I didnt have much time I quickly walked back from the crossing and after falling a few times through the drifted snow settled on a position. In a few short minutes the train roared around the curve and some sun lit up the train against the big cloudbank that had moved in during my hike. With the first shot in the bag it was time to continue up the mountain as it would only be another hour until the second train. 

Walking up the all weather road to the Brocken, the road is kept plowed and open year round but only service vehicles are allowed to use it and chains are mandatory.
Low clouds stream over the ice covered transmitting towers, the original 1936 wood tower can be seen on the left while the newer 1970s red and white TV tower stands beside it.

Soon the sounds of steam once again could be heard below in the valley as the second train appeared in the distance after meeting the first downhill. The train will complete the final spiral up to the Brocken in just 7 minutes. From then on it was a non stop parade of steam trains climbing the mountain in a show of sound and steam before silently and effortlessly rolling back downgrade towards Wernigerode. Unfortunately, despite the clear forecast I lost many shots to clouds that went over the sun at just the wrong moment. As typical in Germany whenever there is a sunny day there are tons of rail photographers out and I often found myself standing in 4-5 people photo lines! 

A small burst of sun illuminates the third uphill, the summit is full of dead trees as the high winds make it very difficult for any trees to grow.
Looking like something out of a Call of Duty game the Brocken transmission tower looks every bit like a secret Soviet military base.
The fir trees are coated in weeks worth of heavy snow, down below the ground is mostly free of snow lending the feeling of being on a snow island in the sky.
Finally all the elements came together for the second to last train of the day, glorious evening sun and a nice plume of steam made for a very happy group of photographers!

The final train of the day is the most sought after as it presents a great opportunity for perfect glint light shots. The train was a little late letting the sun get to a perfect angle and the clouds were almost all gone. After a frustrating day it all came together for a great finale. 

I found that after two years my boots were no longer waterproof and after spending the whole day in soaking boots in the cold I decided to shell out the extra money for the train back down the mountain so I could sit in the refreshing steam heat. The journey down the mountain was spectacular with the snow covered scenery illuminated by the last rays of the low winter sun. Tomorrow’s forecast promised to be even better so I would be back on the mountain in just a few short hours. 

Part two coming soon!