Letter from Europe

Tracking through Berlin

Issue no. 2018/10

Picture above: A 1950s-era West German railcar at Lichterfelde West station. This heritage railcar makes special journeys in the Berlin region, often traversing railway lines which are rarely used by passenger trains (photo © hidden europe).


This year marks the 180th anniversary of the opening of the first railway in Prussia. This was the line from Berlin to Potsdam. So we joined fellow Berliners on a 1950s-vintage railcar that went from Lichterfelde West to Gesundbrunnen station.

Dear fellow travellers

On a sultry Saturday evening, when saner souls might sensibly have retired to their gardens, we headed out to explore our home city by train. With the temperature still around 30 degrees, we went to a nearby station, in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde where we live, and boarded an extraordinary train.

This year marks the 180th anniversary of the opening of the first railway in Prussia. This was the line from Berlin to Potsdam. The railway station at Lichterfelde West wasn't actually opened until much later. But that's a detail no-one worried about yesterday as Lichterfelde marked 180 years of Prussian engineering prowess. The station at Lichterfelde West is a very fine mock Tuscan villa, opened in 1872 to serve a new community of villas which are full of architectural interest.

The 7.30 pm train from Lichterfelde West to Gesundbrunnen last evening was not a journey back into the heyday of Prussian steam. It was, rather, a chance to get an oddball view of our home city. The train itself was a 1950s-vintage railbus of the kind that gave sterling service on minor branch lines in West Germany in the second half of the last century. The one we travelled on yesterday evening had seats for 60 people, but human beings were evidently smaller in those days. Even with just 40 aboard, the train felt pretty crowded.

Period piece advertisements extolled the merits of taking a holiday in Denmark, but the attention of those on board was focused more on the view from the train as we took a very unusual route through Berlin's western suburbs, using railway lines which do not normally have any public train service. Heads turned as we rattled through Mexikoplatz, bystanders evidently surprised at the sight of an antique passenger train on a railway used only rarely - and then normally only by freight trains.

We saw parts of the shunting yards at Grunewald that we never knew existed, and tracked through urban edgelands where dense vegetation crept up close to the railway, slipping over the River Spree to regain more familiar territory around Jungfernheide. Here and there, photographers waited to snap the special train - a man balanced on a step ladder at Zehlendorf and another perched on the roof of a garden shed near Grunewald.

One interesting thing about this evening foray was that our fellow passengers were not at all as we had expected. We misjudged that completely. We had assumed that this special evening journey would attract travellers with a keen interest in vintage trains. Indeed, we would not have been at all surprised to find that we were the only women on board. But, on the contrary, the gender mix was pretty even, and there were several families with children. There were people of all ages and those aboard seemed a fairly representative mix of wider Berlin society.

It was a chance for hardcore rail enthusiasts to bag some rare track but, if the latter were there at all, they were heavily outnumbered by Berliners just keen to ride an old train through their home city on a summer evening. It was fun, and not quite as sweaty as we feared. Antique trains with windows that open make for a breezy ride and everyone gave a nice round of applause when we arrived all too quickly at Gesundbrunnen.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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