Here in the UK we usually associate steam engines with children’s television characters and miniature model railways.
It can be easy to forget that the use of steam-powered tank engines is not as outdated as we think.
Although the romantic age of the steam engine might well be a relic of the past in the UK, in Germany, thanks to it’s complicated and fascinating political history, there still remains a fully functioning steam-powered railway system that has been running unperturbed (save the minor intrusions of World War I and II) since 1886. For steam train fanatics, such as myself, the Harzequerbahn, Selketalbahn and Bockenbahn (collectively known as HSB) offers a unique opportunity to take a step back in time and experience a steam engine experience like none other on the planet.
So the big question is: Why?
Why does Germany, a technologically advanced major world power, still insist on utilising this massively outdated system? The answer lies in the dark recesses of it’s complicated post-war history and thankfully allows us to take a seat in a deliriously romantic train ride through some jaw dropping scenery.
The HSB was initially built to transport the workers and resources involved in the heavy coal mining that took place in the area during Germany’s industrial revolution – during this prosperous period of time the railways were used for everything from tourism to agriculture. It wasn’t until the outbreak and aftermath of World War II that significant changes came to the HSB. The compartmentalising of Germany, in the wake of World War II, led to the three line railway system being taken over by new Russian overlords.
It’s thanks in large part to the commandeering of the HSB by the Russians that the railway has maintained it’s distinctive vintage appearance and functionality, something that attracts thousands of rail-fanatics and fans of the period from all over the world. Despite the obvious attraction the HSB holds in terms of tourism, it still remains a functional railway that serves the various communities of Germans throughout the region. School children, commuters and elderly people from the numerous towns and villages all step on board at Quedlinburg, a mountain town renowned for it’s picture perfect appearance.
The steam engines used on the HSB still carry with them the austere grandeur of their Russian roots. Many of the locomotives used on the HSB have been faithfully protected, treated and looked after, to ensure that they continue to shine as if it were their first day in service. Despite the odd relationship the locals workers for the HSB have with their former Soviet forbears it has not hindered their evident affection for these machines; their enthusiasm for their work on this historic railway almost shines as much as the brass and steel of the locomotives themselves.
The journey, a smooth ride up through some incredibly crisp mountain terrain, is as smooth and efficient as you’d expect from a German rail service. My fellow travellers on this 0842 service are made up of a handful of tourists, a couple of neat businessmen and half a dozen school children.