From the archive: Budapest’s secret steam – Hungary’s hidden time capsule

Photography: BEN JONES

Out of public view in Budapest’s Istvántelek railway works is an extraordinary collection of historic steam locomotives and rolling stock.

Imagine for a moment Stratford Works, in east London, had not been demolished and redeveloped.

Instead, it remained open as a works and depot serving the modern railway of the capital, maintaining 1970s electric locomotives and modern EMUs side-by-side.

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Now imagine the reaction of British enthusiasts if, deep within that works, out of public reach, there were dozens of unrestored steam locomotives and historic items of rolling stock.

A tenderless MÁV Class 324 2-6-2 and Class 424 4-8-0 in unrestored condition. Several hundred ‘324s’ were built between 1909 and 1923 and used right across central and eastern Europe.

It’s difficult to believe such a remarkable place could exist in the UK in 2017, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but exist it does, and it’s just a two-hour flight from London.

For decades, important artefacts ranging from an 1882-built double-frame Austro-Hungarian 0-6-0 to powerful postwar 4-8-0s and a fin de siècle Wagon-Lits ‘Orient Express’ saloon car, have waited silently inside an increasingly decrepit 19th century building at Budapest’s Istvántelek Works.

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Even more remarkably, these forgotten survivors sit just a few metres from one of Hungarian Railways’ (MÁV’s) most up-to-date depots, maintaining modern Swiss-designed ‘FLIRT’ EMUs.

A heavily stripped Class 424 4-8-0 stored in the main works building. A total of 514 mixed traffic Class 424s were built between 1924 and 1958, with the last examples remaining in service until 1984.

However, the increasingly dangerous state of the building, with crumbling brickwork and falling glass roof panels, means safe access to the vehicles is increasingly difficult, and out of bounds to all but a few visitors.

National Collection

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Still wearing a Communist-era red star on its smokebox door, Class 424 4-8-0 No. 424.053 stands beneath the roof of the old works building, just a few yards from one of MÁV’s most up-to-date EMU maintenance facilities.

Hungary is rightly proud of its engineering and railway heritage and maintains a large national railway collection under the MÁV Nosztalgia division.

Much of this is based at the Budapest Railway Museum Park (Füsti), which has housed a superb range of exhibits, both static and operational since 2000.

An elevated view of the main works building, showing the scale of the site. Prominent to the right is Hungary’s oldest working steam locomotive – MÁV No. 269 – a double-frame 0-6-0 dating from 1870, and currently stripped for overhaul.

However, MÁV Nosztalgia also has its own dedicated works facility at Istvántelek, repairing, maintaining and overhauling vehicles from the historic fleet.

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Venturing into this 10,000sq m building, complete with traverser, the scale of the operation immediately becomes clear.

A large collection of historic locomotives and vehicles is stored at Istvántelek, in various states of repair. MÁV No. M31 2035 (left) represents a class of 450hp 0-6-0 diesel-hydraulic shunter, similar in outline to a BR Class 08. Sandwiched between it and Bo-Bo electric No. V42 517 is a Budapest tramcar. 

Largely untouched since the 1940s, the building houses more than 20 historic steam, diesel and electric locomotives in various states of repair, many stored, but others, including well-known MÁV 4-6-0 No. 109.109, undergoing comprehensive overhauls.

Just 11 full-time staff are now employed, compared to 950 in its heyday, but the works is still fully equipped for repairing steam locos, even being able to roll its own boiler plates.

Outside the works, a number of historic and withdrawn vehicles are gradually being reclaimed by nature. In the background is one of the buildings containing stored locomotives and rolling stock.

It also undertakes contract repairs for Hungary’s growing number of private open access operators – a useful source of additional income. 

During my visit, streamlined 4-4-4T No. 242.001 and 1900-vintage 4-4-0 No. 204 were present after recent main line outings.

Also inside, being dismantled for overhaul, was Class III No. 269 (MÁV No. 333.095) of 1870 – one of the world’s oldest operational steam locomotives.

Devoid of its varnished teak panelling, the Wagon-Lits sleeping car shows off its solid wooden-framed construction.
Its Austro-Hungarian origins clearly evident, No. 326.267 is a double-framed 0-6-0 goods locomotive dating from the late 19th century. It is one of several items owned by the National Museum of Transportation rather than MÁV Nosztalgia.

Istvántelek Works also repairs narrow gauge locomotives from Budapest’s world-famous Children’s Railway.

Further down the depot yard, gradually disappearing into the vigorous undergrowth, were more historic vehicles awaiting the call for restoration.

For some, that day will come eventually, but others may not be as lucky.

A study in decay as rust gradually eats away at the metalwork of a Class 324 2-6-2. 

Hidden gems

A second building, typical of late 19th century railway depots across Europe, houses the real hidden gems of Istvántelek.

Peering through the shed doors, you’re immediately confronted by the impressive face of a 137-tonne Class 424 4-8-0 – one of several on site – still wearing the red star of the communist era on its smokebox door.

Further back, through the broken glass and saplings growing between the tracks, it’s possible to see numerous historic railcars, coaches and goods wagons, a tender from a US-built ‘S160’ (nobody knows where the loco is) all part of an extraordinary strategic reserve quite unlike anything else in Europe.

No. 326.160 is a second Austro-Hungarian double-frame 0-6-0 stored on site, albeit without its tender.

Some of the items are part of the National Collection that never made it to Füsti, while others are owned by the National Museum of Transportation.

This includes the vintage double-frame 0-6-0s Nos. 326.267 and 326.160, survivors with unmistakable roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The remains of one of only two surviving Class 301 Pacifics – No. 301.006 – awaits removal to become the centrepiece of a new display at Budapest’s opera house, but an uncertain future awaits its long-time companions.

Whatever eventually happens to this unique place, it’s a rare privilege to see such historic railway vehicles surviving in 2017, thanks to the efforts of the Hungarian railwaymen and women who have protected them from disposal over the decades. 

A remarkable sight in 2017 – a traditional railway works filled with historic steam, diesel and electric locomotives. Few, if any, places in the world can match the time capsule effect of Istvántelek Works. 
Many of the locomotives have been stripped of reusable parts to keep others in steam, or had valuable materials such as brass and copper removed over the years. 
A couple of pre-Second World War express passenger coaches, possibly of German origin, give some clue to the extraordinary contents of this attractive, but dilapidated 19th century works building.

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About the Author

Sam Hewitt