Chasing a train by train

Chasing a train by train

The story behind a couple of my favorite photos

By Ernest H. Robl

In my home, I have two different large prints of photos of Austrian steam locomotive 52.7612 hanging on my walls, one a color print, the other in black and white.


A large print of this photo has long been hanging on my bedroom wall.  This is the story of how this picture came about.  (Click on images to view a larger version. Use your browser’s “Back” function to return to the post.)


In a previous Blog post, I mentioned that when I started grade school, my parents finally were able to move to an apartment of their own on the far outskirts of Vienna. From that apartment, I could sometimes glimpse steam locos on a belt line that connected several of the main lines radiating out from Vienna.  Often these were some of the class 50 and 52 Kriegsloks running light, either forward or backward, while being moved between terminals.

But, the photos on my walls are from much later, September of 1979, and there’s a story behind that encounter with a class 52 and the resulting photos.

In 1979, based at my great aunt’s apartment in Vienna, I was spending two weeks (at relatively little cost), making train trips in various directions.

Early on, a couple of my trips had taken me to St. Pölten, an industrial city less than an hour’s travel from Vienna —and the starting point of the Mariazell narrow gauge line.

While there, I saw fliers and posters advertising an excursion with a preserved class 52 2-10-0 steam locomotive to the Wachau region along the Danube.  Sadly, my inquiries quickly informed me that this charter train was already sold out.  But, as I neared the end of my two-week stay, I found that most of the places and events on the list for that trip had already been crossed off.  (For example, one day was devoted to photographing the then new United Nations center near the Danube, including access to facilities not open to the public.  That visit had been arranged by an acquaintance who then worked for the UN.  And, though the “assignment” didn’t pay much, I know that some of the transparencies from that shoot are in the permanent collection of the UN photo library in New York.)

So, I thought another trip to St. Pölten (on my Eurail Pass) would be in order — even if I would only see the steam charter train departing.  That required an early start from the apartment in Vienna — cross-town by streetcar to the West Station and from there with a fast train whose first stop was St. Pölten.

When I arrived from Vienna, the steam special was already at a parallel platform.  I had just enough time to get a few quick photos of the train starting up before it disappeared in a cloud of smoke, up the branch line toward Krems on the Danube.


The steam special departing under the wires in St. Pölten early in the morning.  (I also have a color version, but for space reasons have included only the black and white.)

But, then, as soon as the steam special departed, I noticed a blue and ivory class 5046 diesel Triebwagen (railcar), which had been waiting further down the track, pull up to the same platform from which the steam special had just departed.

At major European stations, trains going on the same route always depart from the same platform.  A quick check of the schedule and departure board showed that the diesel railcar was indeed going on the same route as the steam special.

“Why not,” I thought to myself and hopped on board the railcar.  And, so I was off, chasing a train by train.

At the junction point of Krems, I found another unexpected bonus.  From the passing railcar, I was able to photograph a preserved class 93 steam tank engine which was just lining up to take on a different excursion train.



A preserved class 93 setting up another excursion train at Krems—photographed from a passing railcar.

But, my destination was Grein-Bad Kreuzen on the Danube, where the steam special had its layover.  And, after winding through some scenic Danube shore landscape, I did arrive there about noon.  (This local railcar stopped at every small town.)


The steam special at Krein-Bad Kreuzen, with the engine already having run around the train.

Sure enough, the steam special was there.  Most of those on board had walked through the small town of Grein for lunch at a restaurant on the Danube shore.  But the crew of engineer and fireman was still there, dressed surprisingly elegantly for the occasion, first adding water to tender with a small hose and then oiling all the bearings.


“Oiling around:” lubricating the bearings is done by a surprisingly elegantly dressed crew.

As is normally the case for such excursions in Austria, both the engineer and fireman were fully qualified locomotive engineers from the ÖBB, who had volunteered to run the steam locomotive.

I had a few minutes to talk to the crew before the first of the passengers began drifting back.  And then the fun began.

The organizers of the charter and the engine were talking to the station’s Fahrdiestleiter (traffic manager) to ask if they could do a couple of run-bys for photographers who were riding on the train.

The Fahrdiestleiter offered that he had a few freight cars that needed to be moved to different tracks, could the crew oblige?  Sure.  There was already a switchman on duty to uncouple and couple the passenger cars, so a few extra moves were no problem.

That’s what resulted in one of my favorite black and white train photos – the class 52 charging through the station tracks in this small Danube town.  The only slightly incongruous element is that the switchman riding on the front of the locomotive is wearing a modern yellow hard-hat.  But, in the black and white photo, that doesn’t stand out too much.


               Getting ready to move some freight cars.



Moving the freight cars.

By then I had also been talking with the charter organizers.  I told them that I was visiting from the United States and had been disappointed to find out that the charter had already been sold out by the time I found out about it.

“Well,” the organizer said.  “If you make a small donation to our group, we can probably find you a spot on the train.  It would be a shame for you to have come so far and not be able to ride.”

I only had a small amount of cash on me as my trip was almost over, and offered an amount in Austrian Schillings that was probably equivalent to $10.  Would that do?  Yes, that was fine.

As all the seats were sold, I would have to ride at the safety bar of the open door of the baggage car, which was just fine with me.  As there were no engine turning facilities at Grein-Bad Kreuzen, the return to from there to Krems was with the 52 running tender first.  I learned that the class 52 engines actually run quite well with the tender leading — and that this was sometimes the case when they were in revenue service when no turning facilities were available at the ends of their runs.

When the ride ended at Krems, I made a few final photos and then caught a train back to Vienna — having added an unexpected final item to my checklist for that trip.


A few years later, I repeated this trip though the Wachau region bordering the Danube, this time with a newer 5047 railcar — and no steam locomotive anywhere in sight.  But it was still a pleasant trip that resulted in a travel feature that appeared in several newspapers.  During that latter trip, when I no longer had access to the apartment in Vienna — my father had sold it due to complications with the long-distance upkeep — I based myself in St. Pölten, staying at a small hotel near the train station.  That worked out quite well, too, and I’ve since recommended St. Pölten to several people as a much more economical alternative to the expensive hotels in Vienna.

I have models of both 5046 and 5047 railcars as well as of a class 52 steamer (though not with the number of the locomotive on this particular trip), all from Kleinbahn of Austria.  Kleinbahn recently began offering a model of the 52.7612, including in a digital version.  Some recent research shows that the 52.7612 is still privately owned by the Brenner & Brenner tour company—but has apparently not been in operation for a while, awaiting some major repairs.

Because of their construction, none of the existing Kleinbahn models would be easily convertible to digital operation, so I may just have to get a digital model of the 52.7612 at some time in the future.

There are quite a few operable class 52 steamers preserved throughout Europe.  (I even encountered one on a trip to the Netherlands in the 1990s.)  And, most major model railroad manufacturers offer several versions of this loco that once existed in huge numbers.  Though I’ve known people who thought the 52s looked strange—at least to American eyes—I’ve always thought they had a kind of simple elegance.


Available Products

Currently, Maerklin offers a couple of models of the BR 52. The one pictured below has a ‘Condensation Tender’. Great machine.


For the 2-rail DC fans, Roco offers the model pictured below. It features the Austrian Railroad (OBB) on the number plate. Check it out.


2 Responses to Chasing a train by train

  1. Stephen Karikas says:

    Thanks. Enjoyed the article.

  2. Mike Matejka says:

    Ernest — you stories are always a delight — well written, enough facts, but not too many to obscure the story and the fun and delight you transmit so well.

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