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Rails on the North Sea Islands

One of the vehicles used for shuttling between the islands and the mainland, North Sea, Germany
Picture above: A few of the numerous units used for shuttling between the mainland and the coastal islands on the German North Sea. Picture by Ilkka Siissalo.

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The North Sea Islands Railways Story: * Railroads on the Frisian North Sea Islands * Sylt and the Hindenburger Dam * Borkum *

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Created for by Ilkka Siissalo. Pictures by Ilkka and Sanna Siissalo.

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 Railroads on the Frisian North Sea Islands

Rails on the North Sea, Germany

Rails on the North Sea, Germany
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There is a long row of narrow, sandy islands on the eastern brink of the North Sea, reaching all the way in Denmark in the north to the Netherlands in the south. These islands share a lot of common features – and many of them are interesting in terms of railway history as well.

The eastern shore of the North Sea is very, very shallow and tidal changes in water level are high. This means that hundreds of square kilometres of bare sea bottom – mud – is exposed every 6 hours during low tide, leaving a huge flat area of swampy, stinking, seemingly bottomless mud. Sailing with a boat or a ship is only possible along specially dug routes and / or during high tide. The series of islands themselves are plain sandbanks which change all the time with the sea gnawing one end and growing another. Every now and then occurring catastrophic flood tides during storms have killed thousands of people during the last few centuries. Even whole islands have vanished and new ones have emerged. This muddy shallow sea is called Wattenmeer, or mud-flats sea.

In these peculiar circumstances in past times the inhabitants of those islands often had the problem that even small sailing boats could not get quite to the shoreline of their islands and wading through the mud from the harbour places ashore was tedious and dangerous. Quite early on simple rails started to be fitted on wooden poles to support pulling of carriages. Carriages were first horse-pulled, but later proper railroads, narrow gauge, emerged. Almost every single island has - or has had - at least one railway and when during the mid 1800s it became popular to take sea baths, the islands soon became important tourist resorts. This of course quickly multiplied the need for island railways. At the same time their military value rose and especially in Germany most North Sea islands were heavily garrisoned. The army of course built tens of kilometres of railroads more to haul materials to their bunkers and airfields.

In the German part, the Germans divide the islands into two groups: The North Frisian islands (Nordfrisische Inseln), where Amrum and Sylt have had marked railways and the East Frisian islands (Ostfriesische Inseln), where Wangerooge, Spiekeroog, Langeoog, Baltrum, Norderney, Juist and Borkum have all had or still have railways in use.
This article does not even attempt to describe them all, but we try to show a variety of very different island railways from the big to the more humble. For those who understand German, there is a good book to be recommended: “Die Nordsee-Inselbahnen”, written by Hans Wolfgang Rogl and published by the Alba Publication.

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Below: Some of the rail vehicles in the pictures below are truly one of a kind! Note the inspection plate on one of them. All pictures by Ilkka Siissalo.

Rails on the North Sea, Germany Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Rails on the North Sea, Germany Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Ingeniuty on building the rail vehicles used on the North Sea Islands seems limitless. Here a large lawn mover motor has been taken into a new use. Where there are rail vehicles, the inspections exist too. Above the sign tells when the motor vehicle is to be inspected next time.
Rails on the North Sea, Germany Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Rails on the North Sea, Germany Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Add a little style to the coach with rounded sea style windows? It might get very cold on the way, so why not add a little stove with a chimney to keep the air inside comfortably warm?
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 Sylt and the Hindenburg dam

Class 215 number 911, Sylt, Germany
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Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Rails on the North Sea, Germany

Sylt is one of the largest of the Frisian islands and the northernmost on German territory. Sylt used to have two separate narrow gauge railway companies, one from the city of Westerland northwards and another one southwards. These were later fusioned into one company and finally closed down.

In addition to that Germany built during the years between WW I and WW II a huge dam structure, the so called Hindenburgdamm which connects Sylt to the mainland and which has a normal gauge railway built on top of it. Even today this is the lifeline of the island. There is no car road, but cars and other vehicles are loaded on car transport wagons and the frequently running cargo trains, so called Sylt Auto Shuttles of the DB AutoZug roll back and forth between the island and mainland. Until fairly late this line still used steam engines of the mighty Br 01 type, which then in the 1970s were replaced by the Br 215 and Br 218 diesels. Br 218s still pull these Sylt Shuttles even today, but passenger trains have already more modern diesel locomotives like the Siemens Eurorunner "Hercules". And DB is looking for replacements of the old diesels for the shuttles as well.

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Borkum Kleinbahn, Borkum, Germany
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Rails on the North Sea, Germany
Borkum Kleinbahn, Borkum, Germany
Borkum Kleinbahn, Borkum, Germany

The island of Borkum is the southernmost still on German territory and is actually by far closer to the Netherlands – or more accurately, the land of Groningen of the federal kingdom of the Netherlands – than Germany. The island is about 36 square kilometres and is about 30 km away from the German mainland. There is a village or city, as the borkumers call it, with about 8000 inhabitants and thousands and thousands of tourists during summer time.

Borkum has been inhabited by the Vikings and the Celts before the present day Dutch and Germans and even the island's odd sounding name comes from the very past. What is now Borkum, was Bork-uyin in the very first written documents hundreds of years ago. Pronounced correctly this is fonetically very close to Bork-öyn, or the isle of boars, in old Viking Scandinavian language. 

The island is a beautiful beach resort with tens of kilometres of wonderful sand beaches, great food and nice small hotels and hostels. A tourist paradise.

Borkum once had an extensive narrow gauge railway system of over 30 km, most of which was built by Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht just before World War II. Borkum was then a very important military base with a lot of bunkers and with a large military airfield. Gradually the railroad however lost importance, especially after Germany lost the war and after 1945 all military installments had to be destroyed on the islands. In the 1970s the remining railroad was close to be closed down, but luckily was eventually saved.

In the late 1990s then a lot of money was spent to make the whole remaining 7,5 km into dual track, new locomotives and new coaches were bought and now the Borkumer Kleinbahn (Borkum Small Railway) hauls all the tourists from the ferry harbour to the city and is a remarkable tourist attraction itself. It is a 900 mm gauge width narrow gauge railroad, which has 3 modern small diesel locomotives from the 1990s (Schöma, 1993, red) and one older diesel (Schöma, 1969, yellow) in day to day use, as well as one rebuilt small two-axle steam engine (the “Borkum”, previously “Dollart”, built by Orenstein & Koppel in 1945) and a so called Wismar type railcar (Wismarer Schienenbus, so called pig nose), stemming from Hitler´s Kriegsmarine´s days 1939-40, which are occasionally used for historic and touristic trains. Most of the carriages look old, but are in fact from 1992-93. Despite their wooden, old style benches they have modern air brakes and the railroad has modern automatic  warning bells and booms at major road crossings. Therefore the borkumer trains are “fast” – up to 40 km/h.

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Main > Reference > Germany > Rails on the North Sea
© Railroad Reference 2004 - 2011   -   Created 4.8.2011 Ilkka Siissalo, updated 31.10.2011 John McKey