zum 130. Jubiläum der Vennbahn präsentieren wir die 3. Auflage unserer Hommage à la Vennbahn. Das Buch ist komplett neu bearbeitet und beinhaltet neben der Vennbahn auch ihre Nebenbahnen.
Bibliographische Daten: ISBN 978-3-00-061956-4, DIN A4, 332 Seiten farbig, 542 Abb., 9 Tab., bilingual deutsch/französisch, Erscheinungsort St. Vith, Belgien, 46€
Vertrieb in Deutschland über mich (firstname.lastname@example.org), Vertrieb in BeNeLux & F über den Kgl. Geschichtsverein St. Vith (email@example.com)
''Hommage à la Vennbahn'' is an unusual book in many ways but also fascinating. Three local authors and enthusiastic historians have combined forces to produce a large (332 pages) well-illustrated volume in two languages, all the text and all the captions being in both German and French and the title being in a combination! This is symbolic, for it deals with the history of railways in an area which is or has been at various times in the modern period the western part of Germany or the eastern part of Belgium. For centuries prior to this various duchies and bishoprics and kingdoms had fought over who should control this area which, even now, falls close to the ''Corners of Three Countries'' (Dreilanderecke) south of Aachen. The Netherlands, the Bishopric of Stavelot-Malmedy, the Duchy of Limburg, Prussia, France and others fought for control. There was even a small area, a village of 250 with a zinc mine, that was formally called 'Neutral Moresnet', belonged to no-one and formed a refuge for many fleeing military service elsewhere; the text describes many of the foolish, pig-headed moves of the countries who drew borders here and there on the map, often with the silent consent of the local population, often against it, often splitting it. By coincidence your reviewer read this book during the 'Brexit' weekend.......
To attempt to summarise the railway history is difficult and this review will have no maps but let us imagine that from the first ever international railway, that of 1843 running west-east from Antwerp to Cologne via Aachen, a north-south line runs from a four-way junction (Raeren) south of Aachen and a line built in 1889 roughly southwards across this deserted heathland area called ''The Venn'' via unimportant tiny villages between the woods and fields and heath such as Sourbrodt, Weywertz, Born, St. Vith and Lommersweiler to a junction on the Liège - Luxemburg line which the Germans called Ufflingen and the Belgians Trois-Vierges. (Maybe the Germans could find the virgins?) This line was built to link the coal mines around Aachen and Herbesthal with the steelworks in Luxemburg, and traffic grew to the extent that the line had to be doubled, with new additional tunnel bores, until this traffic collapsed in the 1930's and the line was singled again.
To the west runs (still) the roughly north-south (or north-west - south-east) now electrified line from Liège to Luxemburg via Trois-Ponts, Vielsalm, Gouvy and Trois-Vierges. To the east runs still the north-south 'Eifelbahn' from Köln (Cologne) via Gerolstein and Jünkerath to Trier. So far so good.
Then the German Military got involved. The Schlieffen Plan called for a swift mobilisation and transport of troops, horses and artillery from east to west and so the Germans promoted and built a line east-west from Jünkerath to Weywertz, then onwards via Malmedy to Trois-Ponts. (The 'Vennquerbahn', the line across the Venn); another line south of this went west from Gerolstein to Lommersweiler, then further westward to Gouvy. Between these two northern and southern routes a third cross-line was projected, the western section from Born to Vielsalm was completed but the eastern section from near Jünkerath to St. Vith was never finished. In this way there were two links between the Eifelbahn and the Vennbahn, and four links between the main Vennbahn line and the Liège - Luxemburg route. And what links! Built with no concern for cost they involved double track, triangular junctions, flyovers, viaducts and tunnels - all built to enable just one specific military push and serving nowhere-places along the way. These were also part of a larger planned complex involving more lateral lines from the Rhine to the Eifelbahn and new bridges across the line - such as that at Remagen. All were built with no realistic commercial prospect in mind (though some considered a future with four-track trunk routes from the coast to the Rhine).
As we know, the First World War ended with a stalemate and defeat for Germany; most of these lines lost any purpose, especially when the borders of Belgium were pushed eastwards in different places at different times. One significant development was that from 1920 and the Versailles Treaty the entire Vennbahn north-south line became and has remained a part of Belgium, even in places where it ran through Germany! Now stations became border posts and customs posts were erected at level crossings, smuggling flourished (as did counter-smuggling measures), ''corridor roads'' enabled buses to run through the other country non-stop, villages and even farms and - famously - pubs found themselves divided, with one door in Germany and one door in Belgium - this at a time when goods such as coffee had different prices and availability in the different countries. This was a real-life version of Spike Milligan's novel 'Puckoon' about the problems of drawing such dividing lines in Ireland, and the problems in the Middle East have not subsided either. Timetables especially on the lateral routes dwindled as, quite simply, very few people wanted or needed to travel from the German-speaking villages to the French-speaking ones and vice versa.
Then came 1940 and history repeated itself a bit, although swift sabotage by Belgian sappers destroyed viaducts and prevented easy German access (by camouflaged and armoured diesel railcars at dead of night) westwards to capture certain towns. Nevertheless military transports flowed over the rebuilt sections into Belgium and France. The population now found themselves divided into 'Volksdeutsche' and 'Reichsdeutsche' (do not worry about trying to explain this difference, it ran through families and was of meaning only to fanatical nationalist racists and to those who, falling into one or the other category, found themselves called up for Wehrmacht service or were evacuated or deported...)
Four years later the Americans first crossed into Germany around Aachen and Roetgen, were then involved in the bitter December fighting in the Ardennes which saw much destruction and attacks on railway installations and trains before the German forces had to give way, and the USATC and US Engineers ten soon had some of the lines provisionally repaired and worked trains of supplies and munitions with their GE switchers and S160 steam locos. Once again as a war ended there were territorial tweaks with different sets of laws, currencies, customs duties, language requirements for official service, all in an area where most lines saw at most three short passenger trains and one freight a day. Simply put, there was almost nobody to serve, no large centres of population, no industries, and also a great deal of mistrust between different ethnic and political groups in an area filled with derelict fortifications. The lines were either not reopened post-1945 or suffered a gradual lingering death.
What can one do with unwanted railway lines through beautiful but deserted countryside? A brief flowering of tourism saw the 'Vennbahn' formed as a tourist railway operating German and Belgian locos, diesel and steam, and a similar mixture of rolling stock, over sections of the line south from Stolberg. It failed financially, however, under rather mysterious circumstances, and the stock dispersed.
It is one of those ironies that the last major rail traffic was military because the beautiful but sparsely-populated landscape offered opportunities for military training at the camp at Eisenborn, reached by a branch from Sourbrodt; this camp had been built by the Germans, was used by the Belgians and then post-second-world-war by NATO forces, the rail access even being very expensively modernised in the late 1980's, just in time for the fall of the Iron Curtain and the eventual diminution of military use. So amongst the last trains were indeed those formed of carriages for troops and bogie wagons for tanks which headed along these winding, lonely lines built for similar trains (but other purposes) some eighty years previously.
The final (for now?) irony is that although there is often no money available to restore or maintain railway lines, one simply has to whisper the word ''Cycle Track'' and suddenly money is available to clear undergrowth, restore tunnels, rebuild bridges and lay surfacing and now many of these lines have reopened as routes for long-distance cyclists, self-powered tourists; in certain spots a 'Draisine' section runs or odd items of rolling stock stands as memorials to former rail traffic but although there are no rails any more, the Vennbahn cycle route is still a part of Belgium, even where it runs through Germany!
In the nature of things the sparse and mostly military traffic in isolated regions over only a short period has meant that finding photographs has not been an easy task for the authors; there are however many, and also many modern views, some providing 'Then and Now' contrasts whereby the 'Then' may also be only twenty years ago and yet wholly different. Public transport now remains as sparse and divided as before and place names have different versions. There are numerous maps and diagrams and excerpts from passenger and freight timetables showing how the lines were worked differently by the DR and the SNCB; even in Belgian periods the locomotives and stock were mainly of German origin, the Class 55 G8.1 0-8-0's becoming SNCB Class 81, the T14 class 93 2-8-2T's (SNCB 97) and T12 (BR 74) 2-6-0T's (SNCB Class 96) hauled German four-wheel coaches taken over together with the lines and depots.
This book provides - especially for those with the language skills - a good insight into the way borders run through people's heads as well as right through the middle of their countries and their stations, depots and railway careers. As such it provides much food for thought.
''Hommage à la Vennbahn'' by Michael Heinzel, Klaus-Dieter Klauser and Roland Marganne.
Published by 'ZVS' ('Zwischen Venn und Schneifel'), Schwarzer Weg 6, B-4780 St. Vith, Belgium (firstname.lastname@example.org) ISBN 978-3-00-061956-4
Also available from: Michael Heinzel, Ehrlichstrasse 12, D-53127 Bonn.