The Sazava Pacific

Photo: Jakub Dzurny,

434.2186 is the number of a famous historic locomotive that has appeared in countless Czech films including "Pani Kluci" about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, a favourite among children and adults. Last Saturday visitors to Prague's Main Station were able to see the jet-black steam engine prepare for a rare but much anticipated journey along part of one of the most picturesque routes in the Czech Republic.

Seating had been sold out for days but families still bought standing room, headed for destinations like Davle, Tynec nad Sazavou, and the final stop Cercany all within thirty or so kilometers from Prague. Petr Pavlik, the event's main organizer, told me more about the train's history:

"The steam locomotive pulling this train is called a 'Ctyrkolak' and it was built in 1917. It's a very strong all-purpose locomotive which primarily transported goods but at times was also used by the public. On horizontal track it can pull up to 2,400 tonnes which is really quite something."

Posazavsky Pacifik is a well-known nickname for the route the train follows along the meandering Sazava River.

"The moniker was originally thought up by Czechs who loved what came to be known as 'tramping' in the First Republic - that is traveling around the country with a love for nature, with a rucksack and guitar. They had a real love for the stories of cowboys and Indians and the history of the Wild West. The route along the Sazava, with its cliffs and valleys was in many ways reminiscent of the American landscape. 'Pacifik' is a reference to the great old railway routes and companies like Colorado or Union Pacific."

Says Petr Pavlik, nostalgic train rides first gained popularity in 1980s Czechoslovakia, when people became increasingly nostalgic about steam trains and the Czechs' "tramping" heritage. More and more wanted to relive the age of steam, and it remains immensely popular even today. Czech Railways organizes around twenty events per year, the Sazava Pacific just one of them.

"In its entirety the 'Pacifik' is 157 kilometres long. It's an amazing route. There are cliffs, viaducts, tunnels. Parts of the route were built in four stages and the area we're at now is 110 years old. Some of the most impressive areas are in the area of Davle, not far from Prague. There is a gorgeous cliff face there known as Pikovicky Komin. In Davle the route climbs up from river-level up into the cliffs and there's really a beautiful view."

No kidding: the view is extraordinary. On the train passengers crowd the corridor to look out the windows. Children - some of them in conductor's outfits - run back and forth as a band in one of the train cars plays.

Father of three: "Yeah, my daughters are ten and seven and my son is three. It's fantastic, it's a great canyon and we can see the river. Fantastic!"

Young Man: "I've heard about this train for years and rode a similar line near the Krkonose Mountains. The train is beautiful and everything's been renovated like new."

Train buff: "You aren't supposed to stand out here between the cars but that's what they used to do. Romantic would-be tramps played guitar out here and smoked. I don't know how they did it but they used to even climb onto the roof of the wagon car and sit up there. I've seen it on old photographs."

As the train makes its way through the country side blowing its whistle, pedestrians, cyclists, cottage owners and their children wave. They're always waving, agrees Miroslav Vondrak, the train's engineer:

"People wave to us from their cottage gardens when we go by. And why not? Watching a bunch of sweaty guys break their backs to keep this thing going is not bad at all when you're in your garden having a beer! But we get a kick out of it. When we come into the station kids run up to get a look at the locomotive. Eyes like saucers, 'The engine's here!' It's perfect."

All the same, running the Sazava Pacific is no joke. Organizer Petr Pavlik:

"The Sazava route is very up and down: there are a lot of steep climbs. The engineer and others running the train are real fans of steam and they know what they're doing. You have to have experience and knowledge: a boiler man can fire it up well, but if you don't time it right you can run out of steam on a hill!"

Engineer Miroslav Vondrak admits you have to know your stuff: all kinds of little details that the old-timers used to know.

"I've been a train engineer since 1975 but first worked on this locomotive in 1970 as a boiler man. I know this locomotive like the back of my hand. There are huge differences between this and new trains. Nothing's automatic: during the journey you have to keep your eye on the engine and make sure you don't overdo it: you have to make sure you travel at a reasonable pace. You have to listen to the machine to make sure everything's running right: enough steam and water and that the boiler man is doing his job. In the summer it's incredibly hot, in the winter you freeze your behind. With all the coal, too, it's a messy job. At the end of the day we're black as devils!"

Still, all the effort pays off. There's nothing quite like taking an historic train on such a journey. Members of the crew sweat it out and complain under their breath there are too many things to patch and fix and take care of to keep trains like the "434" out of the museum and on the track, but you know they really wouldn't have it any other way. Theirs is an obsession that goes beyond work or hobby: a real appreciation for historic machines and by-gone days. They're not alone: last Saturday it was a fascination shared by some 800 passengers:

"I'd say riding historic trains is more popular than ever. It's really nostalgic. There's a lot less of it now and people want to experience it. Sometimes you get some of the old guys who haven't been back for thirty years and suddenly they come on board and reminisce. It's good: a good way to get away and relax from work and our hectic age."