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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Czechoslovak Adventure - Steam and Iron Curtain Don't Mix

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Part 2: First Forays into Vienna / Lower Austria - Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 15

Photo: Strong evening light illuminates this northbound steam-hauled train out of what was then Vienna Praterstern - in early August, 1973. The train is one of four evening commuter workings heading into the rural extremes of Lower Austria, on two routes making a rough V shape north of the Austrian capital. One to the north-west, to the town of Retz, the other towards the north-east and the town of Bernhardstahl. Both are some 45-50 miles (70 - 80 km) from Vienna, and both very close to what was then the Czechoslovak border.

Update: After consulting with my friend Brian, this was more likely mid-August, probably Thursday, August 16, 1973, and probably the last Retz train that day.

(Note: This post follows on from that published on Feb 23 - Young and Old at the Village Shop - Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 14. It really is a bit nuts to start a story at the end of the tale, but that's what you've got folks. So what follows here is the beginning.)

Though the pic above was taken in 1973, the story behind this little saga starts in the previous September, on my first trip to Austria. As I've mentioned, my raison d'etre for travel back then was to photograph steam locomotives, which were steadily being displaced by diesel and electric traction all across western and, if less quickly, also eastern Europe.

At the time, there was a pocket of steam-worked lines north of Vienna, bounded by the V-shaped area mentioned above.

On the first trip, I had just one day in the region, and chose to photograph the eastern leg of the V, the line from Vienna to Bernharsthal.

Big mistake: as it was now late September, and a cold, overcast day, the two steam-worked trains from Vienna appeared too late for effective photography.

Now I could see from my schematic map that this route ran roughly parallel and in places quite close to the Morava river, which was the Czechoslovak border, for some distance. Just how close, I was soon to find out.

As a student, naturally money was short. The spend pecking order was for film, a beer then food. Sleep took a distant fourth place, so I planned to spend the night in a sleeping bag on an unmanned station.

In truth, this part of Lower Austria was pretty barren as regards tourist accommodation at the best of times. The state had been occupied by the Soviets until 1954, and lacking the spectacular views of the Alps, and with access to the east and north strangled by the Iron Curtain, it was not exactly the most prosperous or most visited part of the land of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Where I was, right in the east, it was, frankly, flat, uninspiring, with the air filled with midges.

I chose to spend the night at what looked like the little frequented station of Stillfried, alighting from the last train to Vienna at about eight-thirty that evening. But as the train pulled out, I realised I might have made a mistake. It wasn't just the midges: though there was no human dwelling in sight, this inhospitable stop was actually a manned station.

But now, with little choice, I entered some sort of waiting room on the Vienna platform and … waited. Sure enough, ten minutes later, the OBB station man came in. I suppose he must have been near retirement.

“Where are you going?” he asked in the vernacular. “To Wien [Vienna],” I said. “But there are no more trains tonight,” he replied.

“Hmmm.” I murmured, trying to look dim and surprised (because, of course, I knew there wre no more trains).

“Where are you from?” he enquired. My accent was clearly not up to Niederösterreich standard. It transpired – although I have probably got it mixed up in the years since - but he seemed to say he'd been a prisoner of war, with the British on the Channel Islands in World War Two. There was, however, no rancour in his voice on saying this.

“So where will you be sleeping?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. “I don't know, maybe in the fields back there,” I said, motioning behind me.

We were still speaking German, and so far I was managing to keep up. (I'd tried to learn from books and records since finding myself in Cologne for half a day not knowing the difference between Nein and Nicht some 15 months previously.) “You can't sleep there,” he said, pointing through the wall: “ist die Grenze, zwei hundert Meter fort”.

At this point, my vocabulary reached its limit. “Was bedeutet Grenze?” I enquired.

“It's Czechoslovakia. You can't sleep there,” he insisted. “You can stay here for the night, but you must leave on the first train out.”

So that was it. Unbeknown to me, I'd decided to doss at the station which was more or less the closest point to what we now know as Slovakia, 200 metres across the midge-infested field behind me.

The train left at four something and when I reached Vienna Nord, it was still damned early. I made my way to Südbahnhof and headed for Bruck an der Mur, in Styria, well to the south.

Yet the experience at Stillfried lingered. It was not the midges, nor the wooden bench that had been my bed for some uncomfortable hours. The fact that 200 metres away was another, 'enemy' country, a place where it was impossible to walk to, say hello to the locals, and buy a beer. OK, there was a river preventing that too in this particular location, but it would have been true without the Morava. It all just seemed, well, WRONG.

The next summer I returned to the same area, but spent more time inside the rolling hills of the 'V', in picturesque villages and little-visited towns like Mistelbach, rather than on the flat lands abutting the Morava river. In places, between the vines or the crops in the fields, a donkey pump revealed the location of oil, far below ground.

The locals were friendly: more than once, this slightly weirdo stranger with a rucksack on his back and cameras around his neck, when walking past houses, was invited in to drink a coffee or a Spritze. In pubs, people struck up conversation: I rarely had to buy a drink.

The closest I got to the forbidding land of Czechoslovakia on this second trip was in the northern town of Retz, with its picture-postcard main square famed for its wine cellars. But the border was probably two or three miles distant, and I didn't see the anti-human fence or the watchtowers jutting out of the undergrowth. Still, I remember looking over the hills and thinking they were there, this barrier between peoples.

For the locals, it must have been the accepted norm. But for me, hailing from a country where the border in any real sense of the word meant the sea, it just seemed unacceptable: people were, to all intents and purposes, barred from travelling north of their town. And 'over there', they were barred - at the risk of their lives - from venturing south.

If I might put it in a more sophisticated, philosophical framework, I would say it felt just plain bonkers.

(To Be Continued.)

Photographic details: I think I shot this with my Exakta VX1000 camera and a 180mm Soligor pre-set f 3.5 lens. Probably using Ilford FP4 film. This was either my first, or second photo published commercially (for the grand reward of about £3.00 ! :)) in Railway World magazine in June or July of 1975.

Technical addendum: For those so minded, the steam locomotive illustrated is an Austrian Class 77 4-6-2T, probably built in the mid-1920s. Once very common in the region (they were the Class 18 in Yugoslavia, for example) there remained but a handful by this time in Austria. These locos, along with even fewer, more modern Class 78s, worked these last four commuter trains into and then out of Vienna until, I think, 1975, when they succumbed to diesel haulage. And I had thought they were designed by the Austrian Locomotive engineer Gölsdorf.

But to check my scant knowledge, I wrote to the Railway Museum of Austria, VEF - Verband der Eisenbahnfreunde, Geschäftsstelle Eisenbahnmuseum Schwechat and have just received this reply. It is a tribute to these machines that, having been designed before WW1, they were still soldiering on 60 years later. (Thank you kindly, Herr Harrer.)

1) No, class 77 was not designed by Gölsdorf, but by Ernst Prossy, director of the Locomotive Department of the Südbahn Gesellschaft, the biggest private railway company of the monarchy, together with Chief Engineer Hans Steffan of nearby StEG locomotive works (Lokomotivfabrik der Staats-Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft in Wien).

The first 6 machines were delivered 1913, 3 further ones 1915, all built by StEG. 6 more followed the same year, built by Wiener Neustadt locomotive works.

This class, being very successful on Südbahn, so Gölsdorf recommended kkStB to buy such locomotives. This was in 1917, and 15 were built by StEG in the same year, 10 more 1918.

15 of those kkStB locomotives went to Czechoslovakia after WW I; Škoda delivered a lot more with some alterations.

Poland shortly after the war had no locomotive works of its own, so they ordered 10 at Krauss locomotive works in Linz.

Some of the now called Class 77 machines stayed in Yugoslavia after WW II.

Austria was short of modern locos, too, and ordered 55 modified ones. They were used nearly to the end of steam traction in Austria in 1976.

2) So 1975 is the correct date for those locos having worked the trains to Retz and Bernhardsthal for the last time.

Hope I could help!

Greetings from Vienna

Herbert Harrer, VEF

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Mar 05, 2021

Hello Kester, This is definitely one of your finest works. You capture the essence of a foreign visitor's youthful exhuberance and discoveries in Eastern Europe in the 60's and 70's, You capture the ubiquitous grime and grittiness. You capture the spirit of poor places and poor people who smilingly share what little they have. You allude to the dismal constraints of a confined society, and its pathetic structural decay best explained by one phrase told me by my Aunt Gizi. "That which is everone's, is no-one's!"

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