East German “Taigatrommeln” in North Korea

With the Koreas in the news headlines at the moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore a story that has interested me for some time.

Elsewhere on this site I have asserted that the remaining class 143 electrics are the only (standard gauge) locos built for the former East Germany that remain in passenger service – however this is a little disingenuous on my part!  It’s almost certain that there are more.

Following the withdrawal of the final examples by the nascent Deutsche Bahn in the mid-1990s, 31 class 220 diesel-electrics – Russian-built “M62” locos formerly known as Deutsche Reichsbahn class 120, not to be confused with the former Deutsche Bundesbahn class 220 diesel-hydraulics – were exported to North Korea, where by all accounts they remain in front-line service.


An ex-DR M62, now numbered 내연 706 at Pyongyang on 05/10/13 (Photo: Clay Gilliland from Wikipedia used under Creative Commons licence)

North Korea

The country known as North Korea – officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – came into existence as a result of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War; when the USA occupied the southern half of the Korean peninsula and the USSR the north.  Separate governments were established in 1948, with North Korea under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung – although it is still not universally recognised as a state, notably by France.  Korean hostilities have continued ever since, but if the headlines are to be believed, a peace treaty can be looked forward to later in 2018.

We in the West have an image of the “hermit kingdom” as a very secretive and possibly even paranoid land, but really we know very little about it, and that certainly fuels a great deal of interest in it.  The UK government currently advise against “all but essential” travel there – although accompanied guided tours do occur, including ones tailored to a railway interest.

North Korea does have a fairly extensive railway network, a lot of which was constructed during the years of Japanese occupation.  It certainly suffered in the same way as Poland, East Germany et al in terms of the Russians dismantling infrastructure to transport it back to the USSR to use it there.  On top of that, extreme damage was caused to what remained during the Korean War.  Although the Russians did not play an active role in that conflict, they played a very major one in North Korea’s post-war reconstruction, and this included its railways.

M62s in North Korea

As briefly touched on in this article (ostensibly about the Swedish-built NoHABs supplied to Hungary in 1963), the standard Russian medium-power diesel locomotive from the early 1960s was its “M62” type – 2,000 hp diesel-electrics with Kolomna power units.  Comecon rules dictated that this rugged, spartan design was to be a “one size fits all” solution for any of the Comecon nations’ railway administrations that wanted a diesel loco in that power bracket.  Consequently, they were supplied to Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Mongolia and Cuba as well as domestically.  North Korea was not a Comecon member, but it did hold official “observer” status, and as part of the Russian effort to help rebuild the North Korean railways, they had a fleet built too.

Between 1967 and 1974, 64 class “K62” (the Korean version of the M62) locos were built in Voroshilovgrad for North Korea – 59 standard gauge, and 5 broad gauge to be used on the routes around Tumanggang at the Chinese border.  The Koreans named these new locos “Sinsŏng”.

In the 1970s, the North Koreans reverse engineered one of the K62s, and then set about building their own “ersatz” version, the Kŭmsŏng class.

In the late 1990s, as a result of severe economic problems (brought about in no small part by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe) partly restricting the availability of fuel for diesels and partly also prohibiting the repair of some of the diesels in the poorest condition, some members of both the Russian and North Korean-built fleets were converted to electric locos – the Kanghaenggun class (see photo here).

European Exports

With a requirement for diesel locomotives, but the economic situation prohibiting the construction of new ones, North Korea employed a creative solution.  With the post-1989 age seeing many of the Eastern European M62s laid up in favour of newer traction, and this type being the existing basic diesel traction of North Korea, they looked to import some of the recently-withdrawn machines.

Between 1996 and 1998, 31 class 220s were sent from Germany to North Korea (220 008 / 043 / 048 / 086 / 087 / 114 / 119 / 159 / 180 / 211219 / 234289 / 290292 / 296 / 305 / 317318 / 319322 / 332 / 334 / 335 / 342 / 345 / 362 / 367 / 371 / 372 / 375).

In 2000, 13 Polish class ST44s followed – (ST44 72 / 103152325518 / 549649673 / 840 / 929 / 937 / 947 / 999).

These locos have been renumbered into the 내연 7xx series, although I haven’t (yet) seen any details of how their new identities correspond to their old ones.

In addition, nine Slovakian class 781s made the move in 2000, which along with some ex-Russian machines are numbered in he 내연 8xx series.

Although travelling to experience these locos is not the easiest or even perhaps the wisest thing to do, it is at least nice to think that they are continuing to ply their trade long after they would otherwise have been cut up.


Have you ever been to North Korea?  (Even better, have you travelled on any of the trains over there, or have any further information on these locos?).  Please do leave me a comment below!

Halle (Saale) route S7 – East German nostalgia

Loco haulage on this route finally ended on 11th April 2018, but I’ll keep the article on the website for posterity as it has been popular – even though the S7 is now worked solely by EMUs, you may still like to visit this interesting corner of the former DDR!

Ironically, “Ostalgia” is big business.  Nearly 30 years after German reunification, nostalgia for communist East Germany has never been more popular. 

It seems that, with almost as much haste as the traces of the former country were wiped away following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are now scrambling to experience what life was like behind it.  You can drive a Trabant car in convoy around East Berlin on an innovative sightseeing tour, then stay at painstakingly-styled themed hotels.  You can purchase clothes, food and all manner of other items of “reborn” Communist brands, recreated by popular demand.  You can have your photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie in front of a replica border hut, with men dressed up as border guards.

Yet all of these experiences are in some way synthetic. This part of the world has experienced so many changes since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that it is nigh on impossible to recreate “everyday life” in any setting.  After all, this was a country where you could realistically expect your intercity train to be powered by steam right up until the late 1980s.  Today you can flash through the Sachsen-Anhalt countryside on some of the world’s most modern trains at speeds of up to 300 km/h.


143 043 arrives at Halle Silberhöhe, 30/09/13 (JW)

A small, but nonetheless very interesting exception exists in the vicinity of Halle (Saale), approximately 20 miles west of the city of Leipzig.  Halle (Saale) is a city with a history visibly stretching back centuries, and there is plenty for the tourist to see there.

The area around Halle is known as big centre for the chemical industry, with both the famous Leuna and Buna plants a short distance away.  These two gained particular importance in the post-war period when they were expropriated, expanded as part of the 1958 “Chemieprogramm” and used to supply the Soviet Union, jointly employing up to 50,000 people between them (equating to 1 in 350 of all the citizens of East Germany).

The mushrooming of industry here, the need for people to work there and the poor quality of housing elsewhere (much of it badly damaged by war) led to a fascinating East German project – the conception of a completely new and thoroughly modern city, known initially as the “Chemiearbeiterstadt West” (“Chemical Workers’ City – West”).  Later refined to “Halle-Neustadt”, this was to be a short distance to the west of the existing city.  Construction began on 15th July 1964 under the watchful eye of the architect Richard Paulick who oversaw the project.

“The laying of the foundation stone of Neustadt in 1964 was also that of the Halle S-Bahn network” Ralf Jacob, Halle city archivist

In stark contrast to the 700-year-old buildings of Halle, Neustadt was a futuristic (for the time) settlement consisting largely of grey concrete tower blocks known as “Plattenbauten”, synonymous with East Germany, designed to home over 90,000 people in total in nine Wohnkomplexe (“living complexes”).  Perhaps bizarrely, none of Halle-Neustadt’s streets apart from the main drag (the “Magistrale”) had any names – each block was identified by a number only – although this is one thing that has since changed.  Each Wohnkomplexe was intended to be pretty self-sufficient, featuring shops, restaurants etc, but the city’s primary function of a dormitory for the chemical workers was very close to the surface.


Basher’s eye view of 143 871 on the S7, 30/09/13 (JW)

Key to this was the creation of a public transport infrastructure to link the residential districts with each other, the chemical plants and also the original city of Halle.  The centrepiece of this was the S-Bahn, the first part of which opened in 1967.

Halle S-Bahn

It may perhaps be a little odd to the 2017 observer to consider that this S-Bahn – a term we now largely associate with rapid transit operated by electric multiple units – was initially operated with Deutsche Reichsbahn V180-type diesel-hydraulic locos (later class 118, and DB class 228 after reunification) with up to 12 double-decker carriages in push-pull formation.  These ran from the station now known as Halle Zscherbener Straße to Merseburg, Luna and Beuna and were supplemented by VT2.09 “pig taxis” to Halle (Saale) Hbf.

Electrification was soon to follow, along with new stations in the south of Halle-Neustadt as the city sprawled ever outwards and an extension through the Halle-Neustadt station (situated underground beneath the centre of the new city) through to Halle-Nietleben and Halle-Dölau.  This allowed an electric S-Bahn service to be operated in an inverted “S” shape through the adjacent cities, beginning at Halle-Trotha and ending at Halle-Dölau – a distance of 22.8 km by rail, but less than 7 km as the crow flies.  Traction for this was initially classes E11 and E42 (later DB class 109 and 142) electrics – as seen here in a rather impressive photo from after the fall of the Wall – and later the once-ubiquitous class 143 electric locos.


143 871 at Halle (Saale) Hbf, 30/09/13 (JW)

Halle-Neustadt Today

Halle-Neustadt’s initial strength has also proved to be its downfall.  Conceived to home chemical workers, the plants are now shadows of their former selves, and this has had the predictable knock-on effect.

Home to 93,000 people at its peak, the turn of the century had seen Halle-Neustadt’s population reduce to 60,000, and now barely 40,000 live there.  A startlingly high ratio of those people are the old people who were the young target market of the project 50 years ago.  Many of the Plattenbauten lie empty, including those originally built for the families of the Soviet soldiers who built them.  Consequently, some have even been demolished.  Doubtless more will follow as the population gets older.  Some modernisation has occurred – including to Halle-Neustadt’s S-Bahn station which retained this dilapidated throwback as late as 2009 – but generally, its East German character can still be very clearly seen.

Neither the direct link from Halle-Neustadt to Merseburg (2007), nor the section of line beyond Halle-Nietleben to Halle-Dölau (2002) retain a train service – although part of the latter saw its first train in 15 years in April 2017 when the Freunde der Halle-Hattstedter Eisenbahn ran a track machine along it (see news article here).  For the meantime, though, the S7 route through Halle-Neustadt remains a little picture of a lost country.

The above is a link to a 9-minute YouTube video uploaded by user Berger Max neatly showing life on the S7 route in 2017.  The deplorable state of Neustadt station can clearly be seen.

Halle S7 today – loco-hauled

The S7 is the remainder of the Trotha to Dölau route, now cut back to serve only Halle (Saale) Hbf to Halle-Nietleben.  The section from the Hbf to Trotha has now been subsumed into an EMU-worked S-Bahn route from Leipzig.

Using East German traction (class 143) and East German-built double deck rolling stock, and running through as East German an environment as you are likely to find in 2018, this is probably as authentic as “Ostalgic” experience as any you could have.

Halle retains an allocation of five class 143s (143 034143 276, 143 810143 871 and 143 903) and the S7 represents 100% of their remaining booked work.  This is now an oasis in a desert of suburban loco haulage – modern class 442 “Talent” EMUs having recently replaced locos on all but this route – although January 2018 has seen a couple of impromptu vice-unit appearances by 143s on route S9.

Two sets are employed on the route, operating at 30-minute intervals (xx:20 and xx:50 from both ends).  If you simply wish to travel on both in the shortest time possible, then the “shack of choice” is Halle-Silberhöhe – you can depart from Hbf at xx:20, be at Silberhöhe from xx:28-33.  This +5 is guaranteed to “make”, as Silberhöhe is a single-platform station.  (It does, however, have the appearance of a former island platform – with a second platform face and ballast, but no track – this was never in fact laid, and was part of an uncompleted project to allow a 10-minute frequency along this route in the 1980s, such was the amount of usage that the line was getting).

This will get you back at the Hbf with both machines in your book by xx:41.  (To note, these trains now use the new platform 13a at the Hbf, which is a few minutes’ – signposted – walk from the main station).  However, if you have the time, I really would recommend a little wander into Halle-Neustadt.

Update 31/03/18 – From 18/04/18, the RE9 “Rhein-Sieg-Express” in the Köln area will have two class 442 “Hamster” EMUs replaced by two loco-hauled “Dosto” sets.  It is expected that these will be the two sets from Halle currently used on the S7.  This will mean that the 442s will move to Halle to work the S7, giving a common fleet in that area.  I would not expect the 143s to move with the stock, so if you want to ride behind them, best to move quickly…

“Flüchtlingszüge”, October 1989

Railways have been key to facilitating many of the major historical events of the last two centuries, but it is rare that the trains have been the subject of the world’s attention.  This is the tale of two nights in 1989 when, for a series of trains, that was indeed the case.

The Background

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, was a Communist state formed in 1949.  Mainly due to the comparative lack of its own naturally-occurring industrial resources, it never managed to match the “economic miracle” that occurred in West Germany after the Second World War, and indeed the flow of people from East to West in search of a better life was stemmed only by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Ten years later, the man who masterminded the project – Erich Honecker – became the country’s leader, and ruled with an iron fist.  Many citizens dreamed of leaving the country, but the very existence of the Wall – as part of the Iron Curtain that bisected the continent – steadfastly prevented them from doing so.  Their international travel was limited to a small number of fellow Warsaw Pact nations.

As the 1980s progressed, disquiet diffused throughout the Eastern Bloc.  Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, Moscow no longer got involved in the Warsaw Pact states’ internal affairs, and amid this atmosphere, the first crack in the Iron Curtain showed on 11th September 1989 when Hungary dismantled its border with Austria.  Thousands of East Germans began travelling through Czechoslovakia to Hungary for “holidays”, then simply crossing to Austria and beginning a new life in the West.  Unsurprisingly, this situation was not allowed to develop.  As a bid to cut off the flow of people, Czechoslovakia closed its border with Hungary to GDR citizens.

This left thousands of East Germans stranded in Czechoslovakia.  Rather than return home, many headed straight to Prague and congregated at the West German Embassy, 3,000 people cramming themselves in the baroque palace and its gardens, seeking asylum in the West.  West Germany did not have grounds to protest – according to its own Basic Law, they were all German citizens.  Eventually, almost double that number presented themselves.

This had the potential to cause extreme embarrassment to the GDR regime, who were gearing up for lavish celebrations in the first week of October to mark the 40th anniversary of their country’s formation.  At a time when they were preparing to demonstrate that everything was rosy in the East, they really did not need a high-profile diplomatic incident in which significant numbers of their citizens would rather live in borderline unsanitary conditions in corridors and cupboards than make a life in their country.

The decision to let them leave for the West was therefore an obvious one that suited all parties.  However, Honecker wanted the last word.  He could have let them all simply leave on service trains directly to the West German border.  However, in revenge for potentially tainting his highly-anticipated anniversary celebration, he wished to humiliate them.  He also wanted to portray them to the world as traitors, as undesirables that were being expelled by the glorious GDR rather than fleeing it.

Honecker’s self-serving solution was to insist that all 5,490 refugees travel in sealed refugee trains – or Flüchtlingszüge – from Prague, transiting through the territory of the GDR, whereupon Stasi officials would confiscate their ID papers and effectively render them stateless, before depositing them just across the border at Hof.

The Evacuation

The decision had been made late on Friday 29th September.  Things got moving the following evening.  Prioritising those with small children, the first tranche of passengers were marshalled onto buses outside the Embassy and driven to Praha-Libeň railway station.  To say that the atmosphere was tense would be an understatement.  There was suspicion that the East German authorities would not let the train proceed beyond their territory.  Nobody knew how this would play out.

At 20:50, hauled by a class T478.3 “Goggle” diesel loco, the first train pulled out of Praha-Libeň.  In total, another five trains followed at two-hour intervals.  Ironically, the reason that the requisite coaching stock – six rakes of at least 10 vehicles apiece – had been able to be cobbled together with such a short lead time, was that scratch sets had already been assembled at various locations across the GDR in readiness for working reliefs in connection with the 40th anniversary celebrations later that week; it was these rakes that were sent to Prague.  True to Honecker’s promise to himself that he would humiliate the passengers, however, they were unheated and in various states of disrepair.

The trains proceeded via Dĕčín to Bad Schandau, where they lost their Czechoslovakian motive power and gained both Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) locos and Stasi border officials, who confiscated the paperwork of the passengers.  The trains then continued via Dresden and the “Sachsen Magistrale” route through Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) and Zwickau, then finally across the border to Hof, the first one arriving at 06:14.

The journey was not a smooth one.  Most of the trains were booked a crew change at Dresden Hbf – the main station of the third-largest city in the GDR.  Obviously, the GDR was not publicising the fact that the trains were running, but the West Germans were, and although it was illegal to do so, East Germans in some areas could pick up Western TV.   Ironically, the area around Dresden was known as the “Valley of the Clueless”, the geography of the region blocking out TV signals from over the border.  During the brief crew change on the second train however, at least three young people were able to jump aboard.  Many arrests were made further along the route as others tried.  A dramatisation was made for the 25th anniversary featuring 231 012 of WFL, some of which is on YouTube here.

The locos used to power these illustrious trains through the night in the GDR were as follows:-

Headcode DR Loco(s)  
23360 250 192 Bad Schandau – Reichenbach
132 478 Reichenbach – Hof
23362 132 285 Bad Schandau – Hof
23366 132 059 Bad Schandau – Hof
23364 132 696 Bad Schandau – Hof
23368 132 695 Bad Schandau – Hof
23370 132 701 Bad Schandau – Hof

The Consequences

The scenes of the trains’ arrival at Hof were shown on TV screens across the world.  Millions saw the big Russian class 132 “Ludmilla” diesels (later DB class 232, after reunification) lumbering along the crowded platforms at Hof, illuminated by blinking flashguns as they came to a halt and their excited and relieved passengers alighted.

Of course, amongst those millions were large numbers of East Germans – who, their resolve strengthened by the feat of successful escape by their fellow countrymen, then immediately made their way to the West German Embassy in Prague in an attempt to emulate them!  Almost as soon as it was emptied, the old building became full of East German refugees again.

Eventually, 7,607 people shoehorned themselves into the Embassy.  There could only be one solution.  However, Honecker persisted with his insistence that they be removed on trains that pass through the GDR.

The Second Operation

This time, eight trains were required to convey them.  The first departed from Praha-Libeň at 18:34 on the night of Wednesday 4th October, the last seven hours later.

This time, the locals in Dresden were prepared.  5,000 people crammed themselves in the Hbf, with 10,000 outside, all with the hope of getting aboard one of the refugee trains that was due to pass through. What ensued was nothing short of an all-out riot; described afterwards as the greatest example of civil disobedience in the GDR since the 1953 uprising.  Many were injured, including one man who lost both of his legs when he fell underneath one of the trains whilst trying to climb aboard.  Severe damage was caused to the station.  Police used water cannons in an attempt to quell the disturbance but thankfully, in contrast to 1953, no shots were fired.

After the first three trains had passed Dresden, and amidst escalating chaos, the remaining five trains were diverted away from the city.  This was no mean feat, with them having to travel further through Czechoslovakia, entering the GDR by way of Bad Brambach.  The use of this route necessitated a reversal at Plauen.  During a run round here, a further seven people succeeded in sneaking aboard one of the trains, but ultimately, these diversions were a success.

The DR locomotives involved on the second night were as follows:-

Headcode DR Loco(s)  
23358 132 478 Bad Schandau – Hof
23362 132 655 Bad Schandau – Hof
23360 132 596 Bad Schandau – Hof
23366 132 701 Bad Brambach – Hof
23356 132 285 Bad Brambach – Hof
23364 132 059 Bad Brambach – Hof
23368 132 696 Bad Brambach – Hof
23370 132 643 Bad Brambach – Hof

Here is some footage on YouTube from Hof as these trains arrived.  Again, after seeing the scenes from Hof, thousands more East Germans descended on the Embassy in Prague.  This time, however, they were loaded onto a much lower-key special train on 3rd November and simply taken via Cheb directly into West Germany.  The GDR regime had learnt from their mistake, but – as with many things in their short history – it was too late.

The Locos Today

The route to Hof is now electrified.  The border has gone.  There are no longer two Germanies or a border between them.

However, most of the locomotives that found themselves thrust into the world spotlight over those two nights in 1989 still exist.  The fates of the nine class 132s that performed on the refugee trains over the two nights are as follows:-

Loco No. Final No. Current Operator Current Status
132 059 232 059 scrapped
132 285 233 285 DB Cargo operational
132 478 233 478 DB Cargo operational
132 596 233 596 DB Cargo stored at Chemnitz
132 643 233 643 DB Cargo stored at Chemnitz
132 655 232 655 scrapped
132 695 232 695 scrapped
132 696 233 696 DB Cargo stored at Cottbus
132 701 232 701 Leipziger Eisenbahngesellschaft GmbH stored at Delitzsch

Even the class 250 that worked the very first train out of Bad Schandau – 250 192 – still survives, as DB Cargo loco 155 192, stored at Sassnitz-Mukran on the island of Rügen.

The part that these locomotives played has not been forgotten.  PIKO produced a G-scale model of 132 478, the loco that brought the first train over the border, and Lok Magazin have made a couple of calls for the loco, now DB Cargo’s 233 478 and still in traffic, to be preserved as a memorial to the events.

Another of the locos, 132 701 – now 232 701, recently purchased by the private freight operator Leipziger Eisenbahngesellschaft GmBH (LEG) – has attracted attention.  The Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper dubbed it “die Lok der Freiheit” (“the freedom loco”) and expressed the editorial opinion that given its status as “ein Stück Weltgeschichte” (“a piece of world history”) it should be brought back into action – it currently remains stored at Delitzsch.  ‘701 did not haul the ground-breaking first train, however the interest in it might well be explained that its arrival at Hof was later in the morning, after daybreak, and therefore it appears in far more photographs from the day.  (Edit 08/2018 – the loco has been put through works in Latvia and has now returned to Germany, hopefully to re-enter service with LEG shortly).

The Historical Impact

There is a credible interpretation of history that says that these fourteen trains over two nights in autumn 1989 irreversibly changed the world.

Routing the trains via the GDR was a gamble that did not pay off.  Intended to act as a show of State strength, it only served to strengthen the resolve amongst many of those that remained in the GDR to emulate the passengers in their journey west.  Public unrest spread like wildfire, and the numbers taking part in the peaceful demonstrations springing up across the GDR swelled.  According to politician Günter Schabowski, Honecker’s decisions regarding these trains were the major catalyst that swayed the Politbüro to force his resignation on 17th October.  It was amid this background of spiralling social and political chaos that the Berlin Wall was opened on 9th November.

From there, the domino effect was unstoppable.  The general anti-Communist sentiment that had taken hold across the Eastern Bloc throughout 1989 gained renewed strength.  Bulgaria’s leader Zhivkov was ousted the very next day; the government in Czechoslovakia had been overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution” by the end of the month; Christmas Day saw the violent deposal, fleeting trial and summary execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.  These events effectively rendered the Warsaw Pact null and void, and it was dissolved in 1991; in this act, the Cold War was arguably ended on the spot.

Perhaps, then, if anyone would have been lucky enough to have been stood at the lineside on the “Sachsen Magistrale” on those two nights almost three decades ago, they would have not only witnessed a procession of powerful Russian diesels howling over the steep gradients with their heavy trains, but they would have been witnessing true history in the making.