DB Class 299 “Harzkamels”

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199 872 at Wernigerode, 21/02/10 (JW)

The energy shortage that afflicted East Germany in 1980s has been well documented elsewhere.  Having ridden the wave of the 1973 oil crisis by continuing to receive it at less-than-market rates from the Soviet Union through the “Freundschaft” pipeline that fed it directly to the refinery at Schwedt, the Soviets – in the midst of increasing economic woes of their own as the 1980s continued – had no option but to raise the price of this oil.

This had grave consequences.  Not only did this mean that the East Germans got less oil for their money, but they had also built a large part of their economy on the re-sale of this cheap oil abroad.  The severe oil shortage that resulted meant that the country had to fall back as much as was possible on its naturally-occurring coal resources.

As a result, the use of both the country’s coal and oil was subject to severe restrictions.  At the same time, a blanket instruction was issued for all road transport of distances over 50km to be transferred immediately to rail.  One place where this had a direct and significant impact was on the two metre-gauge railways in the mountainous Harz area – the Harzquerbahn and the Selketalbahn.

Not only did these two railways (both operated by the state railway – Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR)) possess motive power fleets that more-or-less entirely consisted of steam traction – with just a handful of diesel railcars – with the consequent reliance on coal, but the routes were to take on extra strategic importance.  Rather than by lorry, coal now had to be taken from Nordhausen to Silberhütte power station by rail – which necessitated the quick reopening (in 1983) of the 14km section from Stiege to Straßberg – lifted by the Russians in 1946 as war reparations – once again linking the two metre-gauge systems and drastically increasing the amount of trains that needed to run.

Ironically, given that the trains were conveying coal for power generation, they were using lots of it too.  The decision was made, therefore, to source diesel traction.

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199 861 at Wernigerode, 14/08/09 (JW)

In the mid-1980s, this was not a good position for DR to be in.  There was no off-the-shelf metre-gauge diesel design to procure, its primary loco-builder (LEW at Hennigsdorf, near Berlin) was heavily engaged in turning out electric locomotives – class 250 until 1984, and class 243 thereafter – and a purchase from across the “Iron Curtain” (which, ironically ran almost alongside the Harzquerbahn near Sorge) was politically not an option.

Consequently, DR had to get creative – and the answer was something of a “Heath Robinson” conversion to metre gauge of some of its standard gauge diesels!

The “Harzkamels”

The most appropriate main line locomotive type for the project was DR’s most numerous, the mid-range centre-cab diesel hydraulic class 110.  Initially, two prototypes – 110 863 and 110 871 – were selected and given metre-gauge C-C bogies.  They were reclassified and renumbered 199 863 and 199 871 respectively, and were conveyed to Wernigerode for testing and evaluation on the metre-gauge in late 1988 (the first test run, which used 199 863 and passed off without difficulty, was on Monday 5th December 1988 – coincidentally, the day that this author was born!).

The results of the testing were favourable, and a further batch of eight machines (110 861110 870110 872110 874110 877110 879110 891 and 110 892) were re-gauged, renumbered, and entered traffic between January and December 1990.  They quickly gained the self-explanatory nickname “Harzkamels”.

The above is a link to a video uploaded to YouTube by user Volldampf Harz showing 199 861 on railtour duty in April 2012.

Initially, DR’s intention had been to convert 30 “Harzkamels”, however only these 10 ever materialised.  There were a number of reasons for this, but the main one was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 (part way through the conversion process of these machines) and consequent economic upheaval.

Post-Reunification

Following the reunification of Germany in October 1990, the locos were renumbered as class 299 – 299 110 to 299 119, in numerical order – but following the privatisation of the metre-gauge network in 1993 and the creation of the “Harzer Schmalspurbahnen” (HSB), they reverted to their DR numbers.

Reunification dictated that the metre-gauge system took on a new role, centred on the steeply-graded railway from Drei Annen Hohne up to the top of the Brocken mountain – at 1,142m, the highest mountain in Northern Germany.  This had been declared a restricted area at the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 when Russian and East German listening posts were placed at its peak.  After the collapse of the regime, concerted efforts were made to open the railway up for tourist traffic.  This was achieved in September 1991, but – predictably – it was steam that the tourists wanted to haul their trains, not “Harzkamels”.  For the limited amount of genuine commuter traffic that the metre-gauge network conveyed, a small fleet of modern lightweight railcars were bought in the 1990s.

On top of this, the initial raison d’être of the “Harzkamels” – the coal traffic to Silberhütte – also ended with reunification.  Hence 10 locos was – literally – more than enough for their needs.

The Present Day

So much more than they required were the fleet of 10 machines that when they were all taken to Alstom at Stendal in 1998 for overhaul, 4 of them never returned, and were sold to form an early part of the flourishing V100 refurbishment programme before DB had been persuaded to part with their increasingly-redundant examples (see class 202).

Three of these – 199 863199 870 and 199 891 – moved on to a new chapter of their careers, once again as standard gauge locos.  The fourth, 199 879, was used as a spare parts donor and was later cut up.

The Harzer Schmalspurbahnen retain the other six locos, whose current disposition is as follows:-

199 861 – operational
199 871 – stored at Wernigerode Westerntor
199 872 – operational
199 874 – operational
199 877 – stored at Nordhausen
199 892 – stored at Wernigerode Westerntor

The three operational machines are used for works trains, the small amount of commercial freight still carried on the metre-gauge (mainly at the Nordhausen end), snowplough duties and occasional substitution for steam at the head of passenger trains.

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199 871 and 199 892 stored at Wernigerode Westerntor, 15/08/09 (JW)

Forthcoming Workings

For the reasons outlined above, the “Harzkamels” now have no booked passenger work.  They do make appearances on passenger trains, but this is almost always limited to short-notice drop-outs vice unavailable steam and can be described as “occasional” at best.

“Harzkamels” are, however, requested for excursions every now and then, and two are currently advertised, for Thursday 10th May 2018 and Saturday 29th September 2018.

At the time of writing (March 2018), all planned passenger duties are expected to be hauled by 199 861 (ex-DR 110 861, DB 299 110), due to the fact that it is the only one with a currently operational steam heat boiler.