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The history of the narrow-gauge railway

Saxony can look back on over 130 years of narrow-gauge railway history

The Saxon route network was once the largest narrow-gauge railway system in Germany. Learn more about the steam trains' success story and its impact on Saxony's industrial development, the difficult years after the Depression, and the revival for tourism purposes today.

The narrow-gauge railways were a key factor in the success of Saxony's economic development. They connected rural regions to industrial areas, thereby promoting industrial development.

Saxony's railway network was covering large stretches of the state from as early as the end of the 19th century. But further expansions were hindered by Saxony's mountainous landscape, which made the use of regular-gauge trains difficult, especially at a financial level. The decision to use the narrow-gauge railway ensured the rail network could be expanded throughout all of Saxony.

The opening of the first narrow-gauge railway route from Wilkau-Hasslau to Kirchberg in 1881 was followed by a number of additional routes, most of which were built as narrow-gauge railways. Regular-gauge tracks were only built to connect existing tracks. The narrow gauges proved to be particularly critical to industrialisation in the Ore Mountains, for they enabled small businesses in the narrow valleys to access the extensive rail network.

The Great Depression in the late 1920s also affected narrow-gauge railway operations, due to inflation, as well as the rising costs of operation and staffing. The introduction of modern, standard carriages (Einheitswagen), equipped with steam heating, electric lighting, vacuum brakes and semi-automatic coupling, was designed to allow passengers to travel in greater comfort and, above all, more frequently.

The technical developments of the narrow-gauge railways were largely suspended during World War II, as staff were called up for military service. In the last year of the war, 1945, train operations on Saxony's narrow-gauge railways ceased completely. It was not until after the war that the narrow-gauge rail network was gradually rebuilt – work that was hindered by the fact that the vehicles were often run down, and some of the most modern trains were given to the Soviet Union as part of reparations.

Uranium mining in the Ore Mountains temporarily sparked a rise in narrow-gauge railway operations, which transported workers to the mines. But modern bus lines soon took over, and the tracks became increasingly neglected. Although some were upgraded in the 1960s, the ministry decided in 1964 to close al narrow-gauge tracks until 1975. Continuing to operate them would have involved extensive upgrades on vehicles and systems, which were economically and technically infeasible.

It was not until 1974 that seven narrow-gauge railways were revived and selected as monuments of transport history. In addition to these tourist railways, a further six narrow-gauge railways were in operation transporting passengers and goods. The routes earmarked for full preservation were gradually upgraded, and the carriages rebuilt, from 1977 onwards. By 1989, around half of all tracks had been upgraded, and almost all trains had been converted to air brakes.

Following the Peaceful Revolution, most of the narrow-gauge railway routes were to be closed or privatised. Railway enthusiasts and a number of associations managed to have some stretches set up in the early 1990s, and the Pressnitztalbahn in particularly was developed into an impressive museum railway.

The narrow-gauge railways still in regular operation in Saxony today are run by the railway companies Sächsische Dampfeisenbahngesellschaft mbH (SDG, formerly BVO-Bahn), Sächsisch-Oberlausitzer Eisenbahngesellschaft mbH (SOEG) and der Döllnitzbahn GmbH.

The five remaining routes still operated daily in Saxony are:

  • Sächsische Dampfeisenbahngesellschaft (SDG)
    • Cranzahl-Kurort Oberwiesenthal (Fichtelbergbahn)
    • Radebeul Ost-Radeburg (Lössnitzgrundbahn)
    • Freital-Hainsberg-Kurort Kipsdorf (Weisseritztalbahn)
  • Sächsisch-Oberlausitzer Eisenbahngesellschaft (SOEG)
    • Zittau-Kurort Oybin/ Kurort Jonsdorf (Zittau narrow-gauge railway)
  • Döllnitztalbahn
    • Oschatz-Mügeln-Kemmlitz/ Glossen

There are also three museum railways which are operated by volunteers: The Pressnitztalbahn (Steinbach-Jöhstadt), the Schönheide museum railway (Schönheide-Stützengrün), both located in the Ore Mountains, and the Muskauer Waldeisenbahn, which operates on a 600-mm gauge in north-eastern Saxony.

Saxony additionally has five display train stations. Those located in the Ore Mountains can be found in Oberrittersgrün, with the Saxon Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum, in Schönheude Süd and in Carslfeld. In the Saxon Switzerland-East Ore Mountains district, both Wilsdruff and Lohsdorf are home to train station museums which are used for special events.

Adding up all the routes of the remaining lines, they still reach a distance of almost 100 kilometres.

130 years of the Weisseritztalbahn

Dampfende Lok fährt über einen Bahnübergang.
It's full steam ahead on the Weisseritztalbahn in Saxony's Freital-Hainsberg, as it heads to the East Ore Mountains.  © dpa-Bildfunk

The Weisseritztalbahn has been puffing its way through the Rabenauer Grund, the ruggedly romantic valley of the Red Weisseritz near Rabenau, past the Malter dam, to Kipsdorf, a winter sports destination in the East Ore Mountains, for 130 years. The »Bimmelbahn« has long become the preferred mode of transport among fans of historic steam trains, hikers in the Rabenauer Grund and Dippoldiswalder Heide, bathers at the Malter dam, and winter sports enthusiasts in Kipsdorf.

The narrow-gauge train has actually been operating for longer than 130 years on the first section from Freital to Dippoldiswalde, which was opened as early as 1882. The second section commenced operation a year later. The largely historic steam trains climb 350 metres in total over the entire 26.3-km route, stopping at 13 stations and crossing 34 bridges.

After its completion in 1883, the narrow-gauge railway brought a real boost to industrial development and tourism in the Red Weisseritz Valley. Many businesses were established, transporting goods by rail. And hotels, pensions and guesthouses all sprang up to host a number of recreation-seeking guests. The Weisseritztalbahn continues to puff away today, but only for tourists.

The 100-year flood in 2002 dealt a hefty blow to the historic railway. The surges of the Red Weisseritz eroded tracks, washed some of them away, and destroyed the railway's buildings.

The section between Freital-Hainsberg and Dippoldiswalde has now been restored with the help of donations. Following prolonged reconstruction, the second section to the health resort of Kipsdorf finally also resumed operation on 17 June 2017.

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