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The Railway Series

The Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways

One metre wide & 140 km long, the narrow-gauge railways of the Harz are a Mecca for train enthusiasts. The network is made up of three lines: the Selke Valley Railway, which connects Quedlinburg to Harzgerode and Hasselfelde via Alexisbad and Stiege, the Harz Railway, which runs from Wernigerode to Nordhausen, and the Brocken Railway, which travels to the summit of Mount Brocken, the 1,141-m-high mountain that is shrouded by fog some 300 days per year. What makes these railways special is that they operate steam locomotives all year round. On an average summer day, some ten DR Class 99²³ tank engines make their way across the network. Besides these so-called Brockenloks, four railcars are employed by railway operator HSB, and occasionally a train is hauled by a DR Class V199⁸ diesel engine, nicknamed Harzkamel for the way it sways on the tracks.

DR № 99 237 tank engine at the Brocken Railway
DR Class 99²³ tank engine at the Brocken Railway

The most popular line on the HSB network is the Brocken Railway, because of its destination, but especially during summer both the train & the mountain tend to be rather crowded, and therefore most people might prefer riding the Harz & Selke Valley Railways instead. The latter is noted for transversing romantic scenery, and for the balloon loop at the station in Stiege, which allows trains to reverse direction without having to shunt, a solution common on model railways but seldom applied in the real world. Two stops on the Harz line noteworthy for linguistic reasons are those at the hamlet of Sorge, which translates into English as ‘Worry’, and at the nearby village of Elend, ‘Misery’ — the station at Sorge is now a museum dedicated to the former inner German Border that ran nearby. A single journey from Gernrode to Stiege along the Selke Valley takes around 1¾ hours. From Wernigerode to Quedlinburg via Eisfelder Talmühle it’s 5–7 hours; the return via Halberstadt, over the standard-gauge railway, takes some 45 minutes.

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Tickets from any station on the HSB network to Brocken’s summit are € 34 for a single fare or € 51 for a return trip; children aged 6–14 pay € 20½ or € 30½, and under-6s go for free. For all other journeys up to Schierke the fare is distance-dependent. A round trip from Gernrode to Stiege is € 36, or € 20½ for a child; the single fare from Wernigerode to Quedlinburg is € 26, or € 15½ for a child. Rail operator HSB offers a discount to families: if accompanied by two adults, up to three children pay only € 2 each for a ticket. For train aficionados who want to explore the entire network HSB offers a number of multi-day tickets ranging from € 44 to € 149.


If you travel the narrow-gauge railway from Wernigerode to Quedlinburg via Eisfelder Talmühle, the return via Halberstadt, over the standard-gauge railway, costs € 6⅛ for a Hopper Ticket; this ticket allows you to take up to three children for free. The HarzTourCard, sold at the station in Wernigerode, covers the entire cost of your round trip, saving you a few euros while allowing for two more days of free travel on regional buses & standard-gauge trains.


Horribly expensive & terribly overcrowded, that’s the Brocken Railway — on summer days at least, when you have a fair chance of paying € 51 for standing in a carriage corridor for almost an hour twice over. If you want to visit Mount Brocken, do yourself a favour and take a hike, from Torfhaus or Ilsenburg for instance.


Following World War II the Brocken Railway was no longer in use because of war damage. The railway became operational again in 1949, two years after Mount Brocken was transferred to the Soviet occupation zone. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the mountain was declared a military exclusion zone, and passenger traffic on the Brocken Railway ceased. Goods traffic ended in 1987, owing to the poor condition of the tracks. Following German reunification in 1990, the railway was repaired in 1991, and by 1992 regular train service was resumed.


In 1887, rail operator GHE opened the first narrow-gauge railway in the Harz, the line between Gernrode & Mägdesprung, which was gradually extended to Hasselfelde by 1892. By the turn of the century, its fellow rail operator NWE had trains running between Nordhausen & Wernigerode and up & down the Brockenbahn, but it was not until 1905 that the line between Stiege & Eisfelder Talmühle connected the Selketalbahn to the Harzquerbahn. After World War II, in 1946, almost all tracks between Gernrode & Stiege and all but two of GHE’s trains were taken to the Soviet Union as war reparations, and NWE had to take over operations between Eisfelder Talmühle & Hasselfelde from GHE. In 1949, just before the Selketalbahn was restored, GHE & NWE were absorbed by the Deutsche Reichsbahn, the state-owned East German rail operator that ran the network until 1993, when HSB took over its operations in the Harz. The latest extension, the line between Gernrode & Quedlinburg, was opened in 2006.


It seems odd that after the war, the German Democratic Republic didn’t rename the Deutsche Reichsbahn — after all, the Reich had ceased to exist. The reason for this was that the Allied forces had agreed in 1945 that the local train service in Berlin was to be operated by the Reichsbahn, which gave the GDR a presence in West Berlin, an entitlement it didn’t want to lose. In order to maintain the status quo, the Reichsbahn had to keep its name.

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