Atmospheric, antiquated steam trains offer a trip back to another era

Say what you like about the discredited Communist government of East Germany: at least they kept the steam trains running, and mostly on time.

Say what you like about the discredited Communist government of East Germany: at least they kept the steam trains running, and mostly on time.

The Harz Mountains may not be as well known as the Black Forest, but it has scenery and quaint towns, and boasts northern Germany's highest mountain, Brocken. It is also home to the country's largest network of narrow-gauge railways: the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB), more than 130km long. Despite economies which have seen some services replaced by diesel railcars, most journeys are still hauled by powerful steam locomotives. Besides being great fun for tourists, they provide an essential public transport lifeline in a part of Germany that still seems rooted in the 20th, if not 19th, century.

Most spectacular is the Brocken line. Starting from Drei Annen Hohne (curiously named after three ladies named Anne), it winds around the mountain to gain height before (nearly) reaching the summit. Here you may be treated to magnificent views, or if you have my luck, a thick mist. In any case there is always the restaurant, museum and gift shop to explore.

Despite being only a few miles east of Bad Harzburg, the opening of the area to tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon, thanks to its location on the "wrong" side of the former Iron Curtain. Indeed, the Brocken line was so close to the East-West border that, after the Wall went up in August 1961, ordinary East Germans were denied its pleasures; the mountain became host to a Soviet listening post.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Brocken was made accessible once again, and regular passenger trains recommenced in 1992. The rest of the Harz system had carried on regardless during the Communist era. Having been modernised only in the Fifties with new steam locomotives, there was no question of replacing them with diesels. A little further east lies the sleepy town of Gernrode, home to another arm of the HSB, known as the Selketalbahn. There are fewer passengers on this quiet backwater, but the line continues to perform an important rural transport function for tourists and locals alike, with its branches to Harzgerode and Hasselfelde.

This is one part of the network that suffered in Communist hands. Much of it was ripped up in 1946 and shipped east for Russian war reparations. But the value of the railway to the region's economy was soon recognised by the government in Berlin. The reconstruction took a long time, and part of it did not reopen until 1984.

It is remarkable that, in this corner of Europe, narrow-gauge lines worked by steam locomotives were considered a suitable subject for investment well into the Eighties. You can still cover most of the network behind a steam locomotive, and here they tend to be more ancient. However, a ride on a diminutive diesel railcar is necessary to reach the isolated junction with the Harzquerbahn at Eisfelder Talmühle.

With German reunification in 1993, and the merger of the two State railway systems which followed, many feared for the survival of the narrow-gauge steam railways. The Harz is the biggest, but there are two more on the Baltic Coast, and several around the Dresden area.

They did not dovetail comfortably with the western-based state operator Deutsche Bahn, which has an emphasis on high-speed inter-city links rather than slow, antiquated and atmospheric branch lines. But during the Nineties many were successfully privatised, helped by the influx of tourism into the former East Germany, while others have survived in the hands of DB. An unfortunate exception has been the Kipsdorf line, a victim of last year's Dresden floods.

Fortunately, both of the lines on the Baltic Coast are in popular tourist areas. The island of Rügen in the far north-eastern corner is a gem, and is host to the line affectionately known as Rasende Roland, or Racing Roland. The other is known as the Molli, and it squeezes through the narrow main street of Bad Doberan, west of Rostock, bringing the town to a standstill each hour, before heading to the coast at Ostseebad Kühlungsborn.

None of these former East German lines is a heritage railway in the normal sense of the term, but are survivors of a former era, running all-day, all-year services. Fares may no longer be at Eastern European levels, but still represent good value - the HSB has a €35 (£25) ticket which allows unlimited travel for three days, for example. Whether you are a rail fan or not, they are worth seeking out.

Brendan Fox is Editor of the Thomas Cook European Timetable (published monthly, £10.50; 01733 416477,