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Berlin U-Bahn: rebuilding after
100 years of turbulent history
By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor
23 August 2009: Berlin’s Untergrundbahn (or U-Bahn) is a vibrant part of the German capital’s cityscape and something of a paradise for modernists. Begun in 1896, its history closely follows that of Germany itself, with two world wars and the post-war division of the city affecting its development. Today the network carries 1.4m passengers each day across nine lines serving 170 stations in the city.
| History | Design & layout | User experience | Ownership | Future expansion | National comparison |
Throughout its 100 years or so in existence, the history of the U-Bahn is one of rivalry with other modes of public transport (the overground S-Bahn, for instance) and the precarious role of Berlin as the nation’s capital or otherwise biggest city. This applies to all eras of the city’s history, from the network’s origins under the German Empire in 1902, through the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, the Cold War split of the city and under the reunified city state entity of Berlin after unification in 1990. The situation Berlin now finds itself in, burdened with debt, has had some effect on the network’s development and while a more stable city treasury could lend itself to a world-beating network, the overall effect is not noticeable to visitors to the capital. Like the city itself, it is as Mayor Klaus Wowereit famously remarked, “poor but sexy”.
As with other expanding European capitals in the late nineteenth century, Berlin was prone to traffic congestion owing to the advent of the motorcar and road-based public transport. City planners and local councils could not agree on the ideal solution, with years of negotiations between them and potential providers (mirroring the situation in London where surface and underground rail companies clashed over future lines). Work began on Berlin’s first elevated line in 1896 and this section opened in 1902, where its popularity led to proposed extensions to outlying areas of the city. The introduction of underground rail to Berlin came through the efforts of the town of Schöneberg (part of Greater Berlin from 1920), which the surface rail company did not wish to extend its lines to, leading to Germany’s first underground railway being constructed. A further line was developed alongside this through the efforts of the Charlottenburg borough, which drove much of the early construction efforts. However, the advent of the First World War was to stymie growth of the network for a decade, with the last line opening in 1913.
Following the war, workers in outlying areas of the city were vocal in their demands for the network to serve them and the formation of the Greater Berlin city by annexing surrounding boroughs was to create the political momentum to drive this forward, rather than rely on awkward negotiations between the boroughs and companies. Lines continued to be built and operated by several companies until the formation of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG, or Berlin Transportation Company) in 1929 as the city transport authority. Again, the Second World War was to halt any further expansion of the network, in spite of grandiose plans drawn up by the National Socialist government for a comprehensive pan-city network. While the U-Bahn did not expand during this period, its use grew massively owing to limitations on car travel and the protection afforded from underground tunnels to Berliners during air raids.
Reconstruction of the U-Bahn, as with the rest of the war-ravaged built environment, took place in the immediate post-war period and was complete by 1950. However, the post-war division of the city into its respective demarcated East and West zones was to halt any major extension of the network, though the physical traversal through the city which was prevented above ground was not replicated underground on the network, which allowed trains to run through the zones without stopping (and therefore prevent breach of the strict border). Expansion of the network in the West was facilitated via the largesse of the West German government in Bonn, while the East’s lines remained largely untouched until just before reunification of the city in 1989.
The immediate challenge post-unification was to integrate the two systems, which involved opening stations which were closed during the Cold War division, switching voltage systems on some lines and abandoning the West Berlin M-Bahn (Maglev) line.
Design & layout
The Berlin U-Bahn network consists of 10 lines, the most recent of which (U55) opened in 2009. The reunification of the capital in 1990 caused some significant issues in the reordering of line numbers and suchlike, not least considering the demarcation caused by the Cold War division of the city and the practical (but fortunately not insurmountable) need to circumvent this. While the network services the inner boroughs reasonably well, connection to the outlying boroughs is patchy, though ameliorated by services on the S-Bahn with interconnected stations.
The U-Bahn uses two distinct types of trains, the Kleinprofil (small) and Grossprofil (large). These designations apply to the physical size of the train’s coaches as both utilise the same standard gauge and voltage supply (though both sets receive different forms of voltage, to some disarray). To some extent the disparity can be viewed as a historical consequence of the post-war divided city.
Frequent users of other city metros in Europe generally provide favourable reports of Berlin’s. The U-Bahn is undeniably well-maintained, clean and safe, both in terms of crime on the network and train safety. In fact, since its inception in 1902, only 19 people have died as a result of train collisions on the network, an enviable safety record when contrasted to that of Paris or London, its most comparable peers.
In addition to the clean, well-maintained environment, the U-Bahn has a civic identity in keeping with that of the rest of the city, especially in terms of branding. Station architecture is as functional and precise as one would expect from the city. In particular the Alexanderplatz and Hermannplatz stations are notable for their iconic modernist features owing to the architect Alfred Grenander, who also redesigned the existing Wittenbergplatz station building along modernist lines.
Ticketing on the U-Bahn is available both on and away from platforms, allowing for ease of journey. Overall, the ticketing system is well integrated with that of other providers, both in the city and also for journeys to surrounding areas. It also offers easy ticketing for visitors to the capital through its ‘WelcomeCard’ scheme.
The Berlin U-Bahn remains under the operational ownership of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, which also manages the Strassenbahn tram network, bus routes and river transit. The company, established in 1928, is in public ownership under the supervision of the Berlin state government (or land). It does not run the extensive S-Bahn overground train network, which is instead operated by the S-Bahn Berlin GmbH, a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bahn. The BVG introduced the MetroNetz in 2004, which provides bus and tram services to areas of the city not served by either the U-Bahn or S-Bahn.
Owing to the precarious financial state of Berlin, ostensibly expansion of the network has been continually deferred, though a small number of extensions have either opened recently or are scheduled to do so shortly. In particular this concerns extension to a number of outlying S-Bahn stations in order to truly render the network pan-city. However, a number of extensions have been purely predicated on serving the government district following the transfer of capital functions from Bonn to Berlin. In 2009 the costly U55 line opened, serving just three stations in the district, though an extension to Alexanderplatz is planned by 2017. There is a possibility that the U-Bahn will be extended to the city’s new international airport Berlin-Brandenburg International (currently Airport Schönefeld) after its completion in 2011. Berlin Tegel Airport, which will close in 2012, is served by a regular TXL bus that provides links to the central district.
The Berlin U-Bahn is the largest underground network in Germany. Other German cities with U-Bahns are Frankfurt (seven lines, opened 1968), Hamburg (three lines, 1912), Munich (six lines, 1971) and Nuremberg (three lines, 1972). All are owned either by state governments or jointly with city governments. There are also a number of U-Stadtbahn (city railways) in Germany, tunneled light rail systems likened to U-Bahn, such as those in Bonn, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Essen, Hanover and Stuttgart.