The islands of Germany could be described as the nation’s best-kept secret. In a nation famed for its gleaming cities and efficiency, the islands offer the other side of Germany, relaxed and laid-back, individual and full of character.
The railways that serve these isles are as individual as the islands themselves and each has its own character and story. On one island international trains can be seen racing past, en route to one of the last train ferries in Europe, while on another home-made locomotives rattle across narrow causeways to reach the mainland.
Borkum is the furthest west of the German Islands, and is served by a ‘main line’ narrow gauge railway, with double track and regular trains, while car-free Langeoog runs separate passenger and freight to bring goods to the town. Cars are also banned from Wangerooge, which contains an unknown gem, the last narrow gauge railway run by Deutsche Bahn (German railways), running from the harbour to the two main settlements.
Dagebüll and Lüttmoorsiel, which belong to the Hallig islands, have no regular train service; instead local people use their own, home made motorised wagons to cross the causeway to the mainland, although at high tides the line disappears under the sea. Standard gauge still reaches the Sylt, best known of all the Islands, although the metre gauge line with its unique homemade railbuses is no more. Standard gauge also runs across Fehmarn although now it is mostly Danish intercity trains running between Copenhagen and Hamburg.
Rügen manages to have three gauges on the island: Standard gauge trains meet broad gauge in the harbour complex at Mukran, which receives a regular train ferry carrying 1520 mm freight trains from Russia. Meanwhile the 750mm Rügensche Kleinbahn, known as the “Racing Roland” pulls in the tourists with steam services. Finally, Usedom on the eastern border with Poland has a modern standard gauge line, which has recently been reconnected to the mainland by a futuristic lifting bridge, but which retains the semaphore signals from former times.
The islands of Juist, Baltrum, Amrum, and Neuwerk all used to have railways, traces of which can still be found. A great reward awaits anyone prepared to invest the time and energy to seek out the secrets of the other Germany …