Einsteigen Bitte! The U-Bahn turns 100

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The transportation of choice for "little people" — now Germany’s largest subway system — celebrates its centennial this month. Ulrike von Leszczynski reports on a part of German transport history.

"Tunneleule" (tunnel owl) was the name people in Berlin fondly gave their subway train, a description derived from the two yellow headlights shining from the dark tunnel as the train approached the station.

Today, some people still use the term, and the owl-like headlights will be shining brightly when Berliners celebrate Germany's oldest subway, which marked its 100th birthday on 15 February.

At the time, Berlin had almost passed up the opportunity for a subway, because the city fathers had long hesitated about providing approval for its construction, according to authors Juergen Meyer-Kronthaler and Klaus Kurpjuweit.

In their book marking the Berlin subway's centennial, they note that the city did not lack the technical knowledge back then. As early as the 1880s, electrical engineer and inventor Werner Siemens had submitted his initial plans for an elevated urban rail system.

But the government feared that such a construction would throw shadows on the streets and drip oil down on pedestrians. Or even worse, the train might crash onto the people below.

Engineers however were not to be thwarted. The electro-engineering company AEG proved on its factory grounds in 1895 that tunnels could be built even despite Berlin's famously ample groundwater.

The decisive factor were the examples set by other cities. In 1890, London opened the first underground urban rail system in Europe, and six years later, Glasgow and Budapest followed.

Berlin's residents had a lot to complain about in terms of the disruption to traffic before the first subway train — built by Siemens and operated as a private share company — began rolling in February 1902 in a route combining both elevated rails and underground tunnels.

The complaints were also based on visual aesthetics about the first 6km stretch of the U1 line. A theatre critic, Alfred Kerr, said the rail trestles were "barbaric, repulsive, godforsaken, sickly and stupid".

Nor was Kaiser Wilhelm amused or inclined to praise the new method of transportation.

When the U1 line was opened, he merely sent a minister in his place for the first ride.

And according to one account, when the Kaiser first rode on the Berlin subway in 1908, he managed to knock his Prussian spiked helmet off his head because the doors to the train were so low.

The subway was something only for "little people", his majesty is supposed to have mumbled as he got in a car for a drive back home.

The "little people" however loved the subway from the very first day. The train offered refuge from the increasingly chaotic road traffic in the city, while guaranteeing mobility.

Even the only serious accident in the entire 100 years — in 1908, when a train toppled from the elevated rails and 18 persons were killed — did nothing to stop the triumphal march of the subway.

In fact, there developed a lively competition among project developers to build new subways.

The wealthy district of Schoeneberg, in a move driven by prestige, built its own subway, what is today the U4 line. The city of Berlin then launched a north-south route, today's U6 train.

In 1928, by which time Berlin was claiming to be "the fastest city in the world", the city established an urban transit company, so that public transportation, initially a private business initiative, became the business of the public community sector.

Berlin's subway system survived the bombings of World War II with serious damage. Then came the Cold War east-west division of the city, and trains rolled beneath the communist eastern part without stopping. The subway stations were sealed off and eerily empty, except for armed guards.

But occasionally, some East Berliners managed to escape to the West through the tunnel.

When The Wall fell on 9 November 1989, the Berlin subway system was the quickest thing to be reunited. On 11 November, the Jannowitzbruecke subway station in the east was reopened.

Today, the Berlin subway system is the largest in Germany, consisting of 152km of track used by nine main lines, with 170 stations. The Berlin traffic authority says around 400 million travellers use the subway each year.

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