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A journey up the Brockenbahn

6 April 2015

The Brocken stands 1125m (3691 ft) high in the Upper Harz National Park and is the highest mountain in Northern Germany. Until the Inner German Border was abolished in the re-unification of Germany it was the site of a large Warsaw Pact military radio monitoring station. This was used to listen-in and monitor NATO military radio traffic as part of the Cold War. For this reason it was a prohibited area to all but those military with special passes. The Brockenbahn serviced this installation. In 1992 the rail service was reinstated for the general public, principally tourists. We are about to experience a journey up this line.

It is August and from central  Wernigerode it is but a short walk to where the engine sheds of the metre-gauge Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen (HSB) are located. And what a sight! There are 9 locomotives in steam. Most of these are of the "New Steam Engine" class; to the enthusiast they are 2-10-2Ts built in the 1950s. And beautifully maintained they are. The remaining two locomotives are 0-4-4-0T Mallets built in 1898 and still going strong.

The HSB values its enthusiast visitors and provides a raised viewing platform for watching the steam locomotives close-up and appears to take a totally relaxed view of visitors wandering over the tracks to photograph anything that catches their eyes.

Soon it is time for our group to make its way to the HSB station, at an altitude of 234m (768 ft). Arriving at the station the train is waiting in the platform and our locomotive is backing onto the train. It is one of the "New Steam Engines". The train departs and trundles through the town and its first stop at Wenigerode Westentor. It is here where the HSB has its main workshops.

After leaving Westentor the line runs diagonally over a busy cross road with much whistling to warn road users. On the outskirts of the town the railway starts to climb through a number of small halts. Suddenly the train enters the only tunnel on this run. Immediately nostalgia surfaces: the smoke, noise and cinders in one's hair. It's like being transported back to British Rail steam days.

Further climbing and much whistling heralds our arrival into Drei Annen Hohne, 543m (1781 ft) altitude. This is a junction with three well-used platforms. Here there is a 7-minute scheduled stop while the locomotive's water tanks are refilled. The line straight ahead goes to Nordhausen at the southern extremity of the HSB system. But we will be taking the right-hand branch up to the Brocken; it is here that the serious climbing starts with a 1 in 37 gradient. The engine starts to work hard and the exhaust beat echoes around the enclosing forest.  Soon we reach the final intermediate stop at Schierke, a small station in a clearing in the pine forest. Again there is an 8-minute stop for the engine to take on more water. In the Cold War days this was as far as the public could travel on this line.

Leaving Schierke the climb steepens to 1 in 32 and the engine is now in full forward gear and full throttle as it hauls its 8-coach load up the hill. Nearly half an hour after leaving Schierke were are up in the cloud as the railway emerges from the forest and describes a 360° curve around the top of the Brocken before arriving at the summit station. The whole journey has taken about an hour and forty minutes.

We dismount from the train with visibility due to fog down to a few meters. Fortunately there is a restaurant and a very comprehensive museum nearby and the group quickly disappears into one or the other. They totally disbelieve the Tour Manager's stories about the fantastic views of the surrounding countryside that can normally be seen from here!

Having refreshed themselves with offerings from the restaurant members of the group stroll towards the station for the return journey. Suddenly the cloud lifts and they are able to admire the great views including Wernigerode and its castle, way, way down below us. We have been fortunate with the weather change, and just in time.

Some minutes after leaving the Brocken summit on our return journey we are shunted into a siding to give way to another ascending train. It is now that we can fully appreciate how hard the engines are worked on the uphill climb. In the distance we can hear the exhaust beat of the locomotive getting louder as it approaches. It emerges from the forest with a tall column of smoke and steam blasting from its chimney as it storms past us pulling its trainload of Brocken tourists.

Eventually we reverse onto the main line and resume our downward journey. At Drei Annen Hohne there is already a train standing in the adjacent platform and shortly after a third train arrives. All locomotives then take on water and after about 15 minutes we resume our journey back to Wernigerode, where we arrive on time.

It has been a day of great views (just in time!), vast forests and nostalgic steam locomotives working hard on this steeply-graded line.