Narrow gauge pioneer


by ‘Inzynier’


Narrow gauge pioneer, 2-4-2T built by W. Gunther in 1855.
Drawing © Jakub Halor archive

(Click to see original drawing. Click here to go to Upper Silesian Railways website.)

The region of Upper Silesia (under German control until the First World War) has a long industrial history, with mining for minerals and coal, iron and steelmaking and associated industries being long-established. Railways were built to serve the area in the 1840s, but they did not do much to assist the basic needs of the industries – transporting raw materials between the mines and foundries.

In 1845, Gebruder Oppenfeld in Wroclaw put forward a proposal for a local railway to serve the industrial needs. The engineer was Rosenbaum, who was also engineer for the Oberschlesische Eisenbahn Aktien Gesellschaft, which had built the standard gauge railway linking Wroclaw with Upper Silesia. The project brought forth protests from those who carried the freight by road, while there were also problems with funding the project.

In 1846 the gauge of the proposed railway was set at 30 ‘inches’ – being approximately equivalent to the 2ft 6in gauge lines that were built in areas of British influence or the much later 760mm gauge of the Austrian empire and the 750mm gauge which was popular in Germany in later years and the ‘norm’ for narrow gauge railways in Russia. However, the formation of the German state, let alone standard units of measurement, was still some years in the future and the Prussian equivalent of the inch was the ‘zoll’, being 26.154mm. 30 zoll therefore created a gauge of 785mm.

The OEAG, no doubt being concerned at the intrusion of another railway into its area of influence, also applied for construction of a narrow gauge railway, but on the condition of significant financial contribution from the state. Oppenfeld announced the intention to commence construction at their own cost and this seems to have forced the OEAG’s hand – whatever the case, Oppenfeld seems to have withdrawn and OEAG proceeded with construction without state assistance; the company was granted a concession for construction and operation of a narrow gauge railway on 24 March 1851, although it seems likely that construction had commenced the previous year.

In 1852 it seems that a curious proposal emerged, whereby a double track, horse worked railway was to be built, with the ‘inside’ rails of each line being spaced and constructed such that they could be used as a single line with mechanical haulage. Not surprisingly, this proposal (if it was ever seriously contemplated) was soon dropped and the first sections of line may have been opened for traffic in 1853.

The first section of the ‘main’ line opened in 1854 from Tarnowskie Gory through Bytom Karb to Bytkow, about 21km, together with a number of branches and sidings to serve individual factories etc. Remarkably, a significant portion of this line is still in operation today, between Bytom and Tarnowskie Gory, although the only traffic now is seasonal, providing a link between the city of Bytom and the recreational area near Miasteczko Slaskie, north of Tarnowskie Gory – Upper Silesian industry has declined steeply in the last 20 years and the urban areas are now severely depressed. Theft of rails, fixings, rolling stock and other equipment for sale to scrap merchants has become a severe problem for the railway, but it soldiers on, albeit with diesel traction today, still on a gauge of 785mm.

By 1860 a number of extensions, branches and sidings had been opened and the main network extended to over 60km of route. Initially trains were hauled by horses, but traffic was growing quickly and the gradients of up to 1:40 and curves as tight as 40m radius proved problematical. In 1855 two steam locomotives were introduced and by the end of the following year there were ten locomotives in use, although there were still 150 horses employed on sidings. By 1858 there were 1830 wagons and the railway carried 580,840 tons of freight. By comparison, in 1873 the Festiniog Railway (widely regarded as the most significant British narrow gauge railway) carried 144,091 tons of slate.

The locomotives were built by W. Gunther of Wiener Neustadt; the same firm had already built, a year earlier, two similar locomotives for a 900mm gauge railway leading from Wiener Neustadt to Fischau. The OEAG requirement was for a locomotive to haul 100t gross on a gradient of 1:60 at a speed of 11.25kph. They were 2-4-2T locomotives, with the dimensions varying somewhat between the initial two and the later eight. A drawing can be found at the head of this article.

It is difficult now to establish how well these very early narrow gauge locomotives (built almost a decade before the introduction of steam haulage on the Festiniog, the first narrow gauge locomotives in Britain) performed – the fact that two were delivered in 1955 with another eight the following year suggests the OEAG must have been relatively satisfied with the initial results. However, developments in operation of the railway led to them having a short operational life, at least in Upper Silesia.

In 1856 the horse traffic on the lines was leased out to Rudolf Pringsheim, a banker from Gliwice, and on 1 January 1857 the OEAG railways were taken over by the state. Pringsheim aspired to take over all traffic and it is difficult to know now, to what extent problems with the locomotives may have affected the state railway’s actions. However, from 1 October 1860 Pringsheim took over all operation of the narrow gauge railway, under a 12 year lease; the state was responsible for maintenance of the track and installations, while Pringsheim paid a toll based on the ton-miles of freight carried.

Pringsheim soon disposed of the steam locomotives and reverted to 100% horse haulage. By 1870 traffic had increased to over a million tons per annum and when his lease was renewed in 1872, for another 12 years, he had to make the investment of introducing steam locomotives again. By this time technology had advanced and the 0-4-0T locomotives produced by Krauss and Hagans in that year were relatively straightforward designs. Subsequently, the Upper Silesian narrow gauge saw locomotives develop through 0-6-0Ts, 0-8-0Ts, various forms of articulation of 0-10-0Ts and the ultimately quite numerous 0-10-0T form and, from the 1960s Romanian-built 450hp Lxd2 diesel hydraulic locomotives which served until the end of freight traffic in 2001 and still haul the ‘tourist’ trains today. The narrow gauge system also developed in extent, reaching a total of over 230km of lines, plus of course many more kilometres of sidings. In 1955, probably the peak year of operation, the system carried over 6 million tons of freight and, on the Gliwice – Markowice line almost 1.8M passengers were carried.

But what of those original locomotives? All are believed to have been sold in 1862-3. Subsequent histories are not documented, other than it being known that one locomotive survived on the Faxe Kalbruk railway in Denmark until about 1920 – Denmark appears to have had a number of 785mm gauge railways.

The question therefore arises – just how successful were these original locomotives? Surely there can’t have been any immediately apparent defects, if the first pair in 1855 were followed by another eight? Yet the state railway seems to have tired of operating the narrow gauge line and handed over the operation to Pringsheim, who disposed of all the locomotives within about seven years of them having been built. Yet again, if the locomotives had been that problematical, why did one of them survive for another 60 years in Denmark? The evidence suggests that they had the potential to be useful machines but perhaps were not capable of dealing with the growth of traffic being experienced on the Upper Silesian system at that time and possibly the state railway wanted to divest itself of a comparitively minor operation and Pringsheim didn’t have the capability to deal with them.


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2 Responses to “Narrow gauge pioneer”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    Fascinating article. So these guys were using steam, a number of years before the Festiniog – that is indeed noteworthy.

    Interesting that some gauges used in Europe which initially seem simply weird, derive from Continental equivalents of British feet and inches. I’d heard before, that 785 mm = two and a half Prussian feet, or, as here, 30 “zoll”. Never an abundant gauge, but did occur on a few common-carrier lines further west in the erstwhile German Empire. I understand that the one on which it lasted longest outside of Upper Silesia, was the Rhein-Sieg Eisenbahn , a very long way to the west. I saw trackage and rolling stock of this system (by then, passenger services long withdrawn) at Beuel on the opposite side of the Rhine from Bonn, in 1967. Line was still running for freight then, but I saw no action on my brief visit. All gone now…

    Another less-crazy-than-it-seems Continental gauge, is Sweden’s still extant and once plentiful, and unique, narrow gauge of 891 mm : “metric” for three Swedish feet. This corrects the whimsical speculation by Bryan Morgan (self-confessedly no techie or number-cruncher) that the Swedes maybe just bought some rails and sleepers, “spiked them down at random in the northern forests”, and only then got out the tape measure.

  2. Robert Hall Says:

    Additional comment, admittedly well in the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” league. The Faxe railway in Denmark, which acquired and long-livedly used the ex-Upper Silesia 2-4-2T, was in fact 791 mm gauge, not 785 mm. (This known to me, because Denmark was never a big “player” narrow-gauge-wise; what little narrow gauge it had, and the little of that which lasted into the latter half of the 20th century — Faxe line’s dates 1864 to 1977 – got fair exposure in gricing literature.) It can be reckoned for sure, that on a basically industrial railway (which the Faxe line was – running from a chalk quarry to the town’s harbour, some of its trackage shared with a public standard-gauge line) a 6 mm gauge difference would have been managed without need for loco modification – especially in times less health-and-safety-obsessed, than our own.

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