Trains and sports are almost never things that pop up on my radar at the same time. Maybe, if I’m watching a movie like A League Of Their Own, but otherwise, not really. For the people of the municipality of Čierny Balog in Slovakia? Well, they get to watch steam trains roll right through a soccer field, sometimes when a game is playing! Even more interesting is how it all happened.
One of my dreams is to experience some of the best rail experiences the world has to offer. I want to feel the speed of a TGV, zip through Japan on a Shinkansen, and one day take a romantic ride aboard an overnight train through the mountains. I’d also love to check out the weird railways out there.
Thanks to the excellent YouTuber The Tim Traveller, I now have another destination to see one day. Tim travels around the world finding some of the most obscure transportation and architectural artifacts, presenting them in rich detail. Tim is the reason we know about that awesome and rare Citroën U55 Cityrama Currus bus from last year.
This time, Tim is presenting perhaps the only place in the world where a stream train will chug its way through an active league soccer (football for the rest of you) match.
Tim’s video is actually a follow-up to a previous video about the bizarre setup, but this one has the most current information. In the last entry, Tim asked the football club to explain the one question we all have: Why? In the first video, he was told that the football pitch was created after the railway closed in 1982. However, if you looked closely at the video, you would have realized it couldn’t have happened like that. So, this follow-up clears up the story.
Tim’s video opens up with clips showing a train steaming through a soccer field before showing another clip of a train chugging through an active game. It’s equal parts silly and awesome.
How It Began
The Čierny Hron Railway is a narrow gauge railway that runs along the Čierny Hron River in Central Slovakia. As Tim explains, the railway runs preserved equipment and when you start in Čierny Balog, you can go in three directions. To ride through the football pitch, you’ll want to choose the route to Dobroč stadium.
Today, the railway is closer to that of a museum in motion and provides tourists with a scenic ride through the valley. In the past, it served a vital role in the region’s industry. As the railway’s official website notes, logging and wood processing have been one of the main sources of income for people living in the Slovak mountains throughout history. Back in the 1800s, it was common for timber to be transported on rafts. However, in the 1900s, these rafts became insufficient to support the region’s growing wood industries.
The area’s geography presented a better option: The forest railway. Soon, the region would see the construction of narrow gauge railways that wrapped their way around rivers and tributaries while connecting sawmills and large railroads to industries all over what we call Slovakia today. Going with a narrow gauge standard, the railways could better adapt to the mountainous region while saving on construction costs. At first, these trains would be hauled by horses before steam locomotives became the preferred method. Later came diesel and electric locomotives. As the railway notes, during the first half of the 20th Century, the region was home to about 40 forest railways that ranged from several kilometers long to full-blown public transportation networks.
The Čierny Hron Railway continues, detailing its own history:
[I]n 1898, the Ministry of Agriculture in Budapest ordered the director of state forests in Banská Bystrica to develop an economic justification for the construction of a forest railway in the Čierne Hron valley. A proposal with an appropriate economic rationale was submitted in 1901, and the route began in the same year. The construction of the main section from Hronec to Čierny Blh (as it was then called Čierny Balog), 10.4 km long, began in 1908. On January 8, 1909, an official traffic-legal commission was carried out, and in the same year, regular operation.
Other branches of the ČŽŽ were gradually built with the help of prisoners of war from the First World War and led to most of the valleys of the Čierne Hron basin. Their total length reached 131.98 km and they climbed up to the mysterious Dobročská forest under the mighty Klenovský Vepro. The smallest radius of the curve of the track was 60m, the biggest slope of the track was 70 per mile. A transfer point from ČŽŽ to the state railway was established at the Hronec station. Steam sawmills supplied by the forest railway worked in Čierno Balog and Štiavnička. At the time of the largest hauling of wood, ie the period of calamities 1927 – 1929, about 260,000 m3 of wood was transported annually, and in the years 1953 – 1955 even up to 300,000 m3 of wood. Up to seven steam locomotives of various designs used to run here daily, which were later joined by 3 RÁBA diesel-hydraulic locomotives from Hungary.
The Čierny Hron Railway also explains that in 1944, the region’s rail network was vast and it became used as a supply network for Slovak resistance fighters: The Forest Railway also made its mark in the history of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944, when it ensured the importation of provisions and ammunition into the mountains for the partisans. It significantly contributed to the fact that the Germans never conquered Čierna Balog.
While it’s true Germany never took over Čierna Balog, the railways were still made a military target and during the uprising, many locomotives were destroyed. Tim believes that of all of the preserved rail equipment on the Čierny Hron Railway today, just one of the locomotives is a survivor of wartime. The others were either destroyed by war or scrapped later on. Still, that’s not stopping the railway’s volunteers from saving as much rail equipment as they can. The volunteers will save equipment from other railways and restore them back to their former glory. I told you this place is like a living museum!
After World War II, the region started seeing rapid improvements in road infrastructure. This, along with the adoption of cars and trucks, started bringing an end to the rail networks. Paved roads, cheap diesel fuel, and advanced machinery made trucking logs down cheaper than getting them loaded onto steam trains. At the same time, tourists gravitated toward luxury coaches as steam trains were seen as dirty and out-of-date at the time. As the Čierny Hron Railway explains, trains started falling by the wayside as people hopped into cars and there was a dearth of others who wanted to modernize rail technology. Railway after railway closed until only Čierny Hron Railway and its 36 km (22.3 miles) of track were left.
Then, even it closed down in 1982. The government ordered the rails to be ripped up and the equipment either sold off or scrapped by 1985. That began happening, but then railfans fought back by putting the tracks back and successfully getting the railway listed as a state cultural monument. The railfans were faced with an uphill battle of essentially rebuilding the entirety of the Čierny Hron Railway from scratch. It took a decade, but by 1993, the first steam locomotive rode down the railway.
What About That Soccer Field?
The amateur Tatran Čierny Balog league football club at Dobroč initially told Tim that the football pitch (that’s a soccer field for us Americans) was built after the railway closed in 1982. But that cannot be correct because you can see the grandstands and the rails in the background of the team’s historical photos predating 1982. Even the clubhouse was there long before 1982. The best guess is that in reality, the football pitch has been alongside the rails since the team formed in 1933.
Here’s another video of trains going through the stadium:
This still doesn’t really answer the question of why there are not just one but two football pitches along this rail line.
Tim did not get a definitive answer, but the region’s geography gives some clues. There’s not a lot of flat land out there in Čierny Balog and Dobroč. What is pretty flat is the land near the rails. Tim thinks it’s possible that at the time, there just wasn’t anywhere better to put large sports fields.
Then, as Tatran Čierny Balog grew, it needed to build facilities including seating and a clubhouse. The field was already there, as was the railway, so perhaps the easiest decision was to build the seats on the other side of the rails rather than move the field or the rails.
If you want to ride on the Čierny Hron Railway it runs daily from April until mid-September. As Tim explains, the trains are somewhat accessible. Tickets are 12 euros each and it’s half-price for kids, students, and passengers with disabilities.
Today the Čierny Hron Railway not only remains in operation, but its volunteers even have ambitious plans such as restoring and introducing electric trains onto the line. The Čierny Hron Railway has survived war, getting replaced by cars, getting scrapped by the government, and even a temporary blockade from a property developer, but it stands triumphant today as a piece of local and national history. If it weren’t for railfans wanting to preserve history, the story would have a much sadder ending.
If you’re interested in obscure transportation history presented by a charismatic tourist, I highly recommend giving The Tim Traveller a watch. His videos are short, sweet, and super informative!
(Screenshots: The Tim Traveller on YouTube)
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