FolkestoneJack's Tracks

In to the crocodile pit

Posted in Cottbus, Germany by folkestonejack on May 2, 2014

The first day of our short tour gave us the rare opportunity to enter the open cast coal mine at Cottbus Nord and see the venerable class EL2 electric locomotives in their element.

Crocodile at Tagebau Cottbus-Nord

Crocodile at Tagebau Cottbus-Nord

Unfortunately, the weather gods had decided that this should be accompanied by some of the worst conditions imagineable for photography – heavy rain, thick cloud and poor light. At times it felt like they had misunderstood our mission and were hellbent on providing a swamp for the crocodiles…

It was really hard to remember that this was spring, with temperatures falling overnight from 18-20 degrees to just 4-6 degrees! Nevertheless, all we could do was try and make the best of it. Maybe it would give our photographs a gritty, grimy industrial authenticity!?

Mercedes Unimog U500

Mercedes Unimog U500

We were not allowed to drive our own vehicles into the pit, so we clambered aboard one of Vattenfall’s own vehicles – an inconspicuous bright yellow Mercedes monster truck – for the rough journey down. At the bottom of the pit we found a double headed coal train waiting to be loaded by a giant excavator – a quite astonishing sight. It is a necessity to double head the trains here to cope with the gradient in the pit.

The excavators I have seen in China are minnows in comparison to the beast of Cottbus Nord and clearly nowhere near as efficient. It was truly impressive to see just how quickly an entire train could be loaded. As we sheltered from the driving rain under an inactive exacavator we watched two crocodiles push in a new set of empties before 4-1272 and 4-1275 hauled the fully laden coal train out around 11.30am. We didn’t hang around to see the new arrival depart as it was not expected to climb out of the pit for around two hours.

Loading in the pit

Loading in the pit

Escape from the pit

Escape from the pit

Although the conditions might have been attrocious, it was fascinating to see the crocodiles being loaded in the pit. Most other open cast mines have modernised and no longer send coal trains into the pit for loading, but this did not make economic sense at Cottbus as the mine is expected to run out of coal in 2015. Another veteran, the impressive gypsum loader/spreader, is already on the list of machinery to be scrapped within the next two years.

Gypsum loader/spreader

Gypsum loader/spreader

It proved to be an interesting, if sometimes exasperating, exercise in photography. I didn’t have any wet weather covers for my camera, but it was possible to improvise a surprisingly effective cover using a shower cap (with a hole cut in the centre) and some rubber bands. I came away with a good record of the morning, even if they were not the most stunning photographs of a mine railway that you will see!

After making our way out of the pit we ended up at a nearby restaurant which was successfully persuaded to open and prepare a meal for a horde of hungry photographers. Maybe our luck was turning…

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Cottbus crocodiles

Posted in Cottbus, Germany, Schwarze Pumpe by folkestonejack on May 2, 2014

The class EL2 electric locomotives of Vattenfall Europe Mining AG (previously Lausitzer Braunkohle AG) are some of the most remarkable survivors of the railway scene in Germany, but they keep a relatively low profile tucked away on an industrial network not far from the Polish border.

Cottbus Crocodile

Cottbus crocodile

A study by LAUBAG had revealed that it would be more cost efficient to revamp the existing fleet of locomotives than to build new locomotives for their system. The state railway’s vehicle maintenance shop at Cottbus and Kiepe Elektrik in Düsseldorf together modernised 58 locomotives, now designated EL2m, with just 3 locomotives left untouched.

The locomotives have a maximum speed of 65km/h and have a service weight of 100 tons. A single locomotive operating on the network normally hauls 16 coal wagons with a total weight of around 1,600 tons. Full specifications for the modernised locomotives can be found in the Vossloh Kiepe leaflet Modernization of the EL2 Electric Locomotive for the Lausitzer Braunkohle AG.

Class EL2 locomotive 4-314 in the workshops

Class EL2 locomotive 4-314 in the workshops

It would be easy to imagine the crocodiles in the run down setting of an antiquated coal mine, but nothing could be further from the truth. The crocodiles operate on a network that encompasses 323km of track, connecting up five mines and three power stations.

The whole system is monitored from a technologically sophisticated control centre (Zentralstellwerk) at Schwarze Pumpe, near Spremberg. It is an impressive and calm place, well away from the tracks, that runs 24 hours a day with five members of staff. The railway’s workshops, a short walk away from here, are equally impressive. The facility can handle small repairs, overhauls and even full locomotive modification.

In fact, everything about the operation takes your breath away. As we toured the facility by minibus the vast scale of the operation became apparent, with multiple unloading points and bridges leading up to them that looked to have been built relatively recently. Although I have visited many coal mine railways, it is fair to say that I have never seen anything as efficient or impressive as this.

Hunting crocodiles

Posted in Cottbus, Germany by folkestonejack on May 1, 2014

After an awkward journey out to Heathrow last night during the latest strike, it was a relief to be able to settle back and relax a little today. I am making a leisurely journey eastwards to join a short tour organised by FarRail to see some of Germany’s last remaining crocodiles.

The crocodiles in my sights are not the kind to sneak up on you in a swamp, but long nosed electric locomotives that were produced in large numbers by Lokomotivbau Elektrotechnische Werke ‘Hans Beimler’ of Hennigsdorf (usually shortened to LEW) for the open cast mines of East Germany and the wider communist world. You only need to take one look at the locomotives and it’s clear to see how they acquired their memorable nickname.

Electric locomotives 7326 and 7328 on the upper level of the open cast coal mine at Pingzhuang

Crocodiles at Pingzhuang

I first encountered crocodiles at an open cast mine in Pingzhuang, China, about three years ago. The nickname seemed particularly appropriate for these members of these class EL2 locomotives, painted green and able to creep up far too quietly for ears attuned to the noisier steam locomotives of the neighbouring system. At Pingzhuang their days were numbered – the electric railway in the open cast mine was abandoned by late 2012 and dumper trucks took the place of the crocodiles.

The EL2s that we saw in China first appeared in 1952 and were still in production as late as 1988. It seems remarkable to think that these crododiles were rolling off the assembly lines of Hennigsdorf for just five years short of the entire lifespan of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Although well over a thousand crocodiles of this class were produced just fifty are still in use today in eastern Germany.

Our short trip will take in the crocodiles working the lines in and around the open cast mines at Cottbus and Profen, with a rare opportunity to enter the mine for a closer look. It will be a delight to reacquaint myself with these characterful locomotives.