Steam Locomotive Ml-657, the Witness of the Narrow Gauge Train Era
‘Mazbānītis’ is the Latvian name for the railway of the narrowest gauge in Latvia, the 600 mm, or rural, gauge railway, which came to Latvia along with World War I and the German army. These railways were mostly used for the delivery of supplies to the front, transportation of timber and other strategic purposes. In 1920, the total length of the 600 mm gauge railways in Latvia was 611 km; however, it has to be taken into account that part of the railways was dismantled as the German army retreated. It is estimated that during World War I the maximum total length of the 600 mm gauge railways in Latvia was around 1000 km.
It is even harder to guess the exact number of vehicles in the years of war as large amounts of locomotives and carriages were exported from Latvia in 1918. Plausibly, several hundreds of locomotives within the territory of Latvia were operated on rural railways. In 1919, Latvian Railways acquired approximately 60 locomotives, many of which were in a very bad condition – abandoned in forests, with missing bronze parts, shafts and parts of steam distribution mechanism. Forty-two of the obtained locomotives were of the same type and were assigned Class Ml (rural gauge shunters). In 1923, twenty-five more Class Ml locomotives were purchased from Germany.
Between 1905 and 1919, Class Ml locomotives were manufactured in several German factories: Henschel, Borsig, Orenstein & Koppel, Hartmann, Jung, Krauss, Maffei, Esslingen, Linke-Hofmann, Humboldt, Hohenzollern, Schwartzkopff and Vulcan. They were built for the German army and, due to their military application, were called Brigade locomotives. Nearly 3000 locomotives of this type were built.
In Latvia, Class Ml narrow gauge locomotives served longer than their counterpart broad gauge steam locomotives – up to the 1970s. It was mainly due to the 600 mm gauge atypical to public railways, which locomotive manufacturers did not offer suitable vehicles for. There were several attempts to eliminate these railways in Latvia with offers to either close or at least rebuild them to 750 mm gauge. The early 1960s saw the first efforts to eliminate this type of railways, which were both physically and morally outdated, and on 31 August 1972 the last 600 mm gauge public railway in Latvia between Zasa and Daudzeva stations was closed.
Both the railways and the rolling stock were eliminated. Some locomotives and carriages found new homes: Seaside Open-Air Museum in Ventspils, Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia in Riga, Kalēji Agricultural Machinery Museum in Talsi and Viesīte Town Council; but, it seems, the Ml-657 was forgotten.
Ml-657 with factory No. 3887 was manufactured in Germany in 1918 by Maschinenfabrik Esslingen. In 1923, the locomotive was included in the Latvian State Railways rolling stock and designated with Ml-657. Until 1973, the locomotive was operated on the rural railway network of Viesīte. In 1981, after the initiative of Jānis Stabiņš, head of Jelgava Locomotive Depot, and Jānis Račko, head of Jelgava Department, the unique locomotive was transported to Jelgava Depot. Restored in Ventspils, the locomotive returned to Jelgava, where railwaymen actively debated on the best place and way of exhibiting it.
In 1986, the locomotive was placed on a pedestal in the territory of Jelgava Locomotive Depot. Despite the depot personnel’s efforts to protect the locomotive from the adverse effects of weather and criminal activity, in the 1990s the technical condition of the locomotive started deteriorating. Furthermore, the chosen place of exhibition did not provide free access to this unique historical object to railway history enthusiasts and others.
At the end of 2007, the locomotive was transported to the Latvian Railway History Museum in Riga. In the autumn of 2008, SIA Metserviss in Ventspils began the restoration of the locomotive, after which, on 18 June 2009, it was returned to Riga. After its official unveiling in honour of the 90th anniversary of Latvian Railways, locomotive Ml 657 has become one of the most popular exhibits at the museum.
Maximum tractive force of the cylinders 1930 kg
Maximum speed 20 km/h
Maximum operating steam pressure 1.5 MPa
Length of locomotive 5945 mm
Diameter of wheels 600 mm
Weight of equipped locomotive 12 t