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The Soviet spy steam railway that’s still running

Deep in the dense green forests of Germany’s Mittelgebirge central mountains lies a remarkable railway that has survived war, political upheaval, Cold War tension and repression, economic hardship and repeated threats of closure.

Little known outside Germany, the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen — Harz Narrow Gauge Railways, usually abbreviated to HSB — is one of the few places in the world still operating regular timetabled steam trains throughout the year. And it’s not just for tourists. It’s an integrated part of the region’s transport network. If the term “narrow gauge railway” conjures thoughts of a cutesy Thomas the Tank Engine style operation, think again. While its rails might be closer together than your average commuter line, this is a “proper” railway with an 140-kilometer (87-mile) network run by professionals to high standards and carrying more than a million passengers every year.

Brutish black and red steam locomotives, built in the 1950s and beautifully maintained by HSB engineers, haul trains of traditional balconied carriages packed with hikers and daytrippers into the Harz National Park. The vast majority of those passengers take a spectacular journey up to the region’s highest peak, Brocken. It stands 1,141 meters (3,747 feet) high with a magnificent 360-degree panorama and the chance to visit a former Soviet-era eavesdropping station. In summer, up to 11 trains a day slog up the mountain from the beautifully restored medieval town of Wernigerode to Brocken. But there’s so much more to the HSB than its showpiece mountain line. Any visitor to the area should make time to explore the underappreciated Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway) and Selketalbahn (Selke Valley Line).

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