The Branch Line Society

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The Branch Line Society Carinthia Explorer; Part 4
Friday 26th July 2019 to Sunday 28th July 2019

Report by Paul Griffin


[This is to give an idea of the amount of work and trouble our volunteers go to arranging tours - I keep asking Kev Adlam to write an article about running a railtour but he is always far too busy … running railtours - Ed.]

It all starts, of course, looking at a railway atlas and idly thinking that there were a lot of required lines in Austria near the Slovenian border, and wouldn't it be nice if someone organised a railtour to do some. Desperate Railtours had organised several tours in Austria over the previous decade, and had a plan for a tour which included the many lines and curves at the huge Villach Süd Freight Yard, but changes in policy at ÖBB (they really don't want anything to do with railtours nowadays) meant that the attractive loco hauled elements were not possible - the project basically went on hold. A preliminary enquiry to Andy and Stuart of Desperate was just to confirm that that they had nothing in the pipeline.

Now the real work started, with the invaluable assistance of Peter Lehnhart, a rail enthusiast working for the ÖBB timetabling department at Wien. Initially he was just looking for suitable contacts on the various railways, but he went on to play a much more important role. The initial, rather vague, plan was a day around Klagenfurt/Villach, a day on the two heritage railways in the area (including the rare connection between the Taurachbahn and Murtalbahn) and a day around Graz on the Graz Köflacher Bahn network. The obvious people to contact were Nostalgiebahnen in Kärnten (NbiK), Kärnten being German for Carinthia, and an introductory email hit gold immediately when Michael Tschudig replied.

Michael was God's gift to railtour organisers. Marvellous English, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Not only that but he actually responded to all emails and answered ALL the questions posed; unbelievably rare! What quickly became apparent was that trying to fit all the lines of interest around Klagenfurt/ Villach into one day was simply not possible without making it an exceptionally long day. Better for all concerned if the lines could be split over two days. Having decided this the date was the next question.

An ad hoc steering group had been formed to oversee the project, and there seemed to be no problem with a summer weekend date in Jul or early Aug, with no competing fixtures as far as could be seen. The NBiK stock was booked for several weekends over Jul/Aug and at least one date was precluded by trackworks at Villach Yard. If Klein St Paul was to be visited it had to be a weekday, as the line is closed at weekends, so Fri 26 & Sat 27 Jul were agreed. Mainline traction on Day One had to be steam engine 93.1332 as no mainline ex-ÖBB diesel was operational, all needed extra signalling equipment to meet recent requirements, and their top speeds were too low. Steam it would be, despite some misgivings as the organiser's experiences (admittedly limited) with main line steam had not always been happy.

For Day Two electric traction was possible; heritage ex-ÖBB electric 1245-05 was ideal for the purpose. NbiK operate the Lendcanaltramway and Historama Tramway, so both could be included in their price with road transport and entry to the Historama museum. Was the price affordable? Yes - game on.

Finding the right person to talk to at the Graz Köflacher Bahn proved more challenging and Peter's assistance was invaluable. A tour would be possible. Where did we wish to go? The key interest was the two freight lines off the GKB system. Bärnbach to Oberdorf in Steiermark was quickly ascertained to be definitively closed. Dietmannsdorf to Gleinstätten proved much more difficult. Peter had already advised that it was due to close, but investigations found no operator using the line or willing to run a train over it. This left only the GKB passenger network and the Stainzerbahn heritage railway for a one day tour. There was a possibility to add a freight branch in Graz, but even with this it was not going to be an attractive day out for prospective passengers. Regretfully, a day around Graz was abandoned. Attention now centred on Carinthia, which was increasingly looking like a good part of the tour name.

The original plan was to go to Klein St Paul, the ÖBB limit. Was it possible to visit either of the two sections of private line on this railway? Michael undertook to find out. Donau Chemie, who have a short freight branch from Brückl, quickly declined 'on safety grounds'. Wietersdorfer Cement gave a cautiously encouraging response. Maybe, but It would be necessary to get approval from higher management. That proved to be Board level! But they agreed, subject to a track inspection to lay down access conditions, which the Society would have to pay for.

Now for the two heritage railways. Gert Schneider had immediately replied that chartering a train on the Gurkthalbahn was not a problem, and here are the prices! Contacting Gerold Fingerlos at the Taurachbahn took slightly longer, but two options were rapidly identified, their attractiveness (in terms of price) depending on the numbers of participants. Basically either charter our own train, or use their service train, specially extended to Tamsweg. No urgency on a decision, and easily organised.

A sum of €400 extra was needed to arrange for a Steiermärkische Landesbahnen member of staff to be present for weekend operation of the points and signalling at Tamsweg. The final component was the coach on Day Three. Several local companies were contacted by email, but did not reply, despite repeated requests. [It happens in the UK, Paul]. Time to involve Peter again. A German speaker ringing directly had the desired result, and several quotes resulted. Not cheap, but bearable within the overall budget for the tour. But then Peter had a brainwave. He works for ÖBB, and they run a Postbus - the man in charge was in a nearby office. Peter arranged for Postbus to provide two coaches at the VERY attractive ÖBB staff rate. This was the last piece of the pricing puzzle.

The tour might attract haulage interest, so the possibility of a 'top & tail' loco was investigated. As expected, ÖBB declined, but Eisenbahnfreunde Lienz was quite willing for us to hire boxy ancient electric loco 1020-018. The problem was the price, which was quite staggering and therefore hastily declined. There couldn't be enough extra bookings (with the stock capacity) to recover the cost.

An unexpected communication from Michael was that the requested route on Day Two would finish early; too early in fact. Participants would not feel that had had a proper day out. The solution was to add a few more photo stops and extend the route to Rothenthurn, Arnoldstein and Rosenbach, instead of reversing at the first possible points after Villach Yard. Extra freight track was not feasible, the increased cost was quite small and the extended route had significant added interest and worked.

So, all the parts of a three day tour were in place. But were members interested? It was agreed by the project steering group, that the next step was to ask for expressions of interest in BLN as it is seen by all our members (rather than just BLNI), supported by a detailed description and a Dave Cromarty map of the proposed route. The results exceeded all expectations with 117 finally being received. Clearly people WERE interested. The challenge now was to decide what proportion might actually book places and price accordingly. These prices looked attractive when compared with other operators, so it was all systems go and arrangements were provisionally agreed with the various operators.

Online bookings from members were very good and, when non-members were allowed to book, it was clear that the tour was a runner. Publicising the tour in the IBSE Liste as well as various internet sites pushed numbers up further. 108 participated and it became clear early on that more capacity was needed. NBiK agreed to supply their largest carriages to increase available space, two Postbuses were confirmed with over 100 seats, an extra coach was added to the Gurkthalbahn special train and the visit to the Lendcanaltramway split over two days. A difficult decision on the Taurachbahn. A small cost saving could be achieved by having our own charter, but this meant altering timings for the day as it would need to be fitted around the normal service train schedule. It seemed easier to stick to the original plan; two coaches were reserved for BLS use on the service train. On the day a third coach was added. Bookings had to be monitored to make sure that Postbus capacity was not exceeded.

What remained was the normal attention to minor details needed before any tour. Tweaks and adjustments, thankfully the only route change was that reversal on the Tauernbahn had to be at Paternion-Feistritz instead of Rothenthurn for operational reasons. Day One was a particular concern as hot dry weather had raised concerns of a steam ban. Short localised thunderstorms could cause landslips on the Klein St Paul section. It had happened before, so thunderstorms in the week and night before the tour were worrying… But finally the day dawned, and everything worked out just fine.

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