In the woods just outside of Berlin, young Germans run a relic of the former East Germany which has barely changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago.
Of the countless tourists who descend on Berlin every year, it is unlikely that too many will stray from the sightseeing magnets of the city’s Mitte district, eager for their dose of history in one of the world’s most famous metropolises. For those seeking to get a real feel of a bygone era, their best chance is 10 kilometers away in Berlin’s leafy eastern suburbs.
A little red locomotive
At Wuhlheide S Bahn station in East Berlin, a little red diesel locomotive pulling three wooden wagons winds along the S-bahn tracks and under the regional train line into a dense forest, stopping at small platforms before eventually arriving at Wulheide’s Hauptbahnhof at the park’s main entrance.
“This train is bound for Wuhlheide Station, with stops at the activity center and connections to the Berlin S Bahn and bus network,” announces the uniformed station master, a young teenager, in a well-rehearsed routine. “We wish you a pleasant day.”
Here in a wooded park in the Koepenick district, a hallmark of the Eastern Bloc is still going strong — a peculiar and unique miniature railway known as the Parkeisenbahn that winds through the forests of the Wuhlheide, run entirely by the young.
“The Parkeisenbahn has the task of offering children and teenagers a valuable educational experience,” said railway manager Holger Juergens, one of the few adult employees. “And with the kids, we are able to retain a very special and historic narrow gauge railway.”
In spite of the tracks running several kilometers, the Parkeisenbahn does not actually go anywhere. The network is made up of an intricate network of loops, turnbacks and sidings which snake through the leafy park and forest, crossing woodland trails before topping at small platforms, forming an entirely artificial railway with little to no practical use. Nevertheless, the trundling little steam and diesel trains, some of which are pushing 60 years of continuous service, attract and transport more than 60,000 visitors every year.
Built in 1956, the railway, and the youth centre it runs, used to be a major part of East Berlin and a focal point for the Young Pioneers, the socialist youth organization in East German times. It was conceived as a means of training children in building and engineering skills in a practical but enjoyable manner.
Though not of the same size as the Deutsche Bahn trains that go past Wuhlheide S Bahn station, these trains are not toys and there are strict rules on who may do what. The youngest members of the team, under the supervision of adults, work as train staff and ticket inspectors and carry out the automated tasks. The idea is that, as staff member get older, so does their responsibility. The oldest workers, aging from 16 to 18 years old, drive the locomotives and maintain the network. Beyond that, if they wish, there is the possibility of continuing into the world of real railways using the skills they have learned.
“We all have different jobs,” said Florian, 17, who has been working at the railway since 2003. “I am in charge at the station and he,” he says pointing to a co-worker in the corner, “is in charge of selling tickets.”
“There is a role for everyone, whether it is commercial or technical,” he added. “As we get older we get to do more and more.” Reasons for working on the scheme ranging from boredom to a genuine love of railways. At the main station, itself a real world in miniature complete with signals and a loudspeaker system, there is a poster advertising for volunteers which reads: “Bored? Do something.”
One young boy took up the offer. Patrick, 12, sits casually behind the information window at the main station. “It is something to do,” he said, after being asked why he works here. “I suppose I do it because it is fun. I am here every day during the summer holidays.”
Once they join, they stay
The railway has attracted many children and it seems that once they join, they stay. Several staff members are definitely at the upper end of their teenage years but still don their socks and uniforms and wave off the trains with gloved hands everyday day in the summer and selected ones in the spring and fall.
“These are real trains which are moving and it is a serious thing,” said Phillip, 15. “Railways are my hobby and by working here I hope to be able to move on to working for the S bahn.”
The work is unpaid but the committed team of volunteers takes their jobs seriously. If someone forgets to set the crossing barriers or switches the train to the wrong track, there could be serious consequences.
For those seeking a healthy dose of ‘Ostalgie’, the Parkeisenbahn is a more positive remnant of the East German state. The unashamedly nostalgic and phenomenally successful film Goodbye Lenin! even filmed some scenes here, something that demonstrates the significance of the area to all of the former Young Pioneers who worked on the railway over the years.
Just one look at the staff betrays the railway’s roots in the socialist youth movement. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, only the badges on the uniforms have changed. Boys still wear military-style hats and blue shirts, while the female staff stands out even more with their neat blue blouses, blue skirts sashes and knee-length white socks straight from a Rodtschenko photograph.
A few feet away from the tracks lies a slightly overgrown concrete statue depicting three similarly dressed Young Pioneers engaging in ‘wholesome’ outdoor activities, reading and looking out from their pedestal.
These so-called Pioniereisenbahnen sprang up across central and Eastern Europe, from Russia to Bulgaria, in the decades after World War II. These days, there are increasingly fewer of these railways and many that have survived have had to abandon their mission of training the young or are being massively downsized to cope with financial pressures: Such railways in Chemnitz and Dresden don’t adhere so strictly to using young people to operate the trains anymore or offer such intensive service as they used to.
Meanwhile, as the rest of East Germany has given way to the harsh wisdom of capitalism, this particular Parkeisenbahn still retains the Eastern Bloc mentality of giving as many people a job as possible. On a weekday visit to the railway’s headquarters and central station, staff members outnumber passengers by around two to one. For a moment, it feels as if the Communist state did not collapse but just retreated into the woods.
The same disregard for economics sadly does not apply with regards to things that cost money. A large section of the network is currently out of service and the reason is obvious — along the trackbed, the rails stop by a bridge, which needs more than a new coat of paint and a deserted station, which has not seen a train for quite some time. Set free from the security of state ownership, the Parkeisenbahn is now forced to compete for state grants, private donations and tourists to keep trundling along.
A fire in 2007 at the locomotive depot did nothing to help matters, damaging both the building and several historic carriages and locomotives, which were stored inside. Three passenger coaches were entirely destroyed in the fire and, even more cruelly, it is widely suspected to have been an arson attack, which started the blaze. Now, thanks to massive public support and repairs carried out in the workshops of the Berlin S Bahn, the railway is starting to get back on its feet.
Even if money is lacking, there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for the railway and its sense of community. “The Parkeisenbahn really is amazing,” said Phillip. “And here, I really do feel at home.”
Meanwhile, the Parkeisenbahn still ensures at least that the rail workers of the future are, to quote the mantra of the Young Pioneers, ‘ever ready for the real world.’
Back at the Hauptbahnhof, the little red engine and its carriages starts off again to repeat the circuit and the young staff members return to the station house – to await the next arrival.