FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Crocodiles in the wild (at Profen)

Posted in Germany, Profen by folkestonejack on May 4, 2014

The final day of our tour dawned brightly and our spirits rose as we reached Tagebau Profen in full sun, enjoying a splendid view over the open cast mine from a public viewing gallery. The open cast mine at Profen is operated by MIBRAG (Mitteldeutschen Braunkohle AG) and comprises the mine fields at Profen Süd, Schwerzau and Domsen. Together these produce 9-10 million tons of coal per year.

Our interest in the mine is, rather predictably, down to the company’s use of 15 unmodified class EL2 electric locomotives. The railway network here is much smaller (just 100km) and uses a traditional telephone block system (in contrast to the centralised operations centre of the kind that we saw at Schwarze Pumpe).

A crocodile in sunshine

A crocodile basking in sunshine

Although we did not have an official photo permit for the mine we were able to photograph trains on the system. To help us, the railway gave us the services of the shift mining engineer as a guide and he was able to stop the trains if we needed to photograph them a second time. I liked the sound of that!

We soon had need of this special power as our attempts to photograph a double headed train looked likely to be thwarted by clouds. It was somewhat strange to hear the instruction “Let the regular train come when the sun is out!”. I like to think that this is not the artificiality of a photo-charter, but rather a slightly altered reality!

The morning went incredibly well overall and we got shots from the best of the locations on offer – though I think the backdrop of the distinctive light blue power plant was my favourite.

Two crocodiles push a coal train into the yard at Wählitz power station

Two crocodiles push a coal train into the yard at Wählitz power station

We spent some time chasing locomotive 1255 and it’s driver became an unwitting film star as he filled the sand boxes on the locomotive at a stop just before midday. It couldn’t have been easy carrying out your everyday job with a bank of twenty photographers snapping away, but he managed admirably!

Our morning ended at the company’s site which includes a narrow gauge class EL3 locomotive and a spreader used to shift tracks.

Satisfied with a good morning’s work we headed to the Hotelgasthof Draschwitz for some rather tasty homely fare (the goulash with Thuringer klose and rot kohl comes highly recommended!). This seemed like a good way to celebrate the end of a short but highly enjoyable tour, with just the relatively short drive to Leipzig/Halle airport left ahead of us.


Chasing crocodiles at Schwarze Pumpe

Posted in Germany, Schwarze Pumpe by folkestonejack on May 3, 2014

Our second day took us to the mine railway around Schwarze Pumpe, which translates literally as ‘black pump’ and sounds oddly appropriate given the concentration of industry today.

It is tempting to imagine that this area got its name from the mining industry, but in fact the pump in question was a watering hole for horses next to a restaurant! It was painted black (signifying the plague) during the Thirty Years’ War to protect the locals from the plundering of Swedish mercenaries.

Electric locomotive 4-1306 hauls an early morning at Schwarze Pumpe

Electric locomotive 4-1306 hauls an early morning at Schwarze Pumpe

Today, the powerplant dominates the area and a fleet of crocodiles regularly criss-cross the largely rural landscape. Our first stop, at a field on the outskirts of Schwarze Pumpe, gave us the perfect illustration of this.

The frequency of trains was a delight – a stop at a nearby level crossing delivered three trains within the space of half an hour. A couple of bemused security guards from the local mine turned up to check us out, convinced that we must be environmental protesters. To be fair, it’s probably not often that they get visitor enthusing about their mining operations!

After a lunch stop in Spremberg we returned to the fields, hoping that the sun might make an appearance and give us at least one perfectly illuminated shot. Luck did not seem to be on our side – from our spot in the fields we saw five trains on distant lines, but none appeared on the bridge/line nearest to us until one and a half hours had passed. Our wish for sun had not been granted either…

In fact, it was not until 4pm that the sun put in more than a fleeting appearance – at last giving us some good opportunities to shoot crocodiles in sunlight. After four trains passed within half an hour we could relax a little and head away knowing that not all our shots would betray the gloom of an overcast day.

Fully laden with coal for Schwarze Pumpe

Fully laden with coal for Schwarze Pumpe

Shortly after this, an emergency stop by our convoy (three minibuses and a handful of cars) gave us an unexpected chance to get a shot from our field of dreams in full sunlight. It was rather wonderful to see a crocodile crossing the bridge fully lit.

Electric locomotive 4-310 crosses  the landscape in full sun

Electric locomotive 4-310 crosses the landscape in full sun

Our day finally ended at 6pm and our minibus transformed into the “Zwenkau Express” for a blast down the autobahn to our hotel on the outskirts of Leipzig. The express tag turned out to be more literal than we anticipated, with the rest of our convoy arriving at the hotel forty minutes later.

Parallel roads

Parallel roads

The reward for a sometimes frustrating day by the lineside was some rather terrific food at the Krautergarten restaurant (Hotel Seehof) which has to be the most unlikely location for a four star hotel that I have ever seen (opposite an industrial estate and lorry park), but really deserves to be given a try.


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…


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.