Germany’s upside down railway: The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

 Germany’s upside down railway: The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

(CNN) – Suspension rails today seem to be an anachronism-a 19th century vision of what the future of transportation looks like. By 2022, surely we will all commute to work on the opposite rails!

Unlike tedious ordinary railway lines that are determined to stay terra firma, suspension rails hang under a rail suspended by pylons. Their carriages ply over roads, rivers and other obstructions, while passengers enjoy the view.

The idea, ironically, never got off the ground despite some successful if short businesses like the Braniff Jetrail Fastpark System that carried passengers from the parking lot to the Dallas Love Field terminal for four years. before the airport closed in 1974.

Today, the only suspension rails in operation can be found in Japan and Germany. And it’s in Germany that the original, and still the best, can still be seen firmly in all the glory of steampunk-the Wuppertal Schwebebahn.

It all started in the 1880s, after imperial Germany called the Gründerzeit a period of rapid industrial expansion. Businessman and engineer Eugen Langen is experimenting with a suspension rail for moving items at his Cologne sugar factory.

Meanwhile, the neighboring town of Wuppertal has a problem. A booming local textile industry has seen the area grow from a small collection of residences along the Wupper river to an urban sprawl of 40,000 residents who now have to roam.

Because the long and winding river valley makes traditional railroads or trams impossible, town officials are inviting suggestions to solve the problem – and Langen has emerged.

In 1893, he offered his suspension system on the city’s railroad, which jumped on the proposal. Construction began in 1898 and the line was ceremonially opened in 1901, with Emperor Wilhelm II riding the test ride with his wife Auguste Viktoria.

Damage during the war

Nearly 20,000 tons of steel were used to make the elevated track that passes through the city. Its 20 beautiful art nouveau stations compliment the glass and wood interior of carriages that can carry 65 people each.

The network was extended to its final length of 13.3 kilometers (8.3 miles) in 1903, with journeys beginning and ending at turns connected to Vohwinkel and Oberbarmen stations on the line.

The new railroad proved to be a hit with locals. Over the next few years, the length of the train was increased from two to six carriages, running every five minutes.

The Wuppertal suspension railway is capable of crossing obstacles such as roads and waterways.

The Wuppertal suspension railway is capable of crossing obstacles such as roads and waterways.

Oliver Berg/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

The number of passengers declined during the First World War, when many of the Wuppertal workers served in the Kaiser’s army, but by 1925 the network had already carried 20 million passengers over the soft Wupper river.

In World War II, the network was badly hit by Allied bombs in the heavy airstrikes of Wuppertal in May and June 1943, and also in January 1945, but at Easter 1946, not even a single one. years after the fight ended in Europe, the whole route. back in action.

For Rosemarie Weingarten, who was born in the Barmen district of Wuppertal in 1933, the Schwebebahn remains the center of the town’s culture because of its sustainability.

“I don’t think there’s a more iconic symbol that represents Wuppertal and Barmen than the Schwebebahn. It’s always been there for me and I’m proud that it’s still going strong,” he told CNN.

The elephant in the chariot

A statue of Tuffi sits on the spot where he landed.

A statue of Tuffi sits on the spot where he landed.

Tim Oelbermann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 1950, the Schwebebahn had the most famous passenger to date, much higher profile than the Kaiser: Tuffi the elephant.

Althoff Circus was in town and arranged a promotional trip for the young pachyderm, who was a minor celebrity in West Germany at the time. Tuffi is usually fearless around people, so circus owner Franz Althoff always uses him to announce his show.

He had already boarded trams, got drunk from a holy water fountain, delivered boxes of beer to construction workers and, somewhat less heroically, ate a bouquet of flowers and peed on the Persian carpet.

Before his trip to the Schwebebahn it seemed like just fine. He boarded the train at Wuppertal-Barmen station (where Althoff had to buy four tickets for Tuffi and one for himself).

But the carriage was crowded with journalists and officials, so when Tuffi tried to turn around after a few minutes, he was helpless and panicked. He first stepped on a row of seats and then jumped out the window into the river 10 meters (33 feet) below.

The river was only 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep in that area but the ground was muddy, so Tuffi suffered only a few scratches. Althoff, apparently, wanted to jump on him, but proceeded to the next stop from where he ran back to the stray elephant and took it back to the circus camp.

A statue made from basalt made in 2020 by artist Bernd Bergkemper sits on the exact spot where Tuffi landed in 1950.

Riding in the past

Today, the slowly-shaking Schwebebahn no longer carries elephants, but is still used as a commuter train, carrying a staggering 25 million passengers each year, before Covid.

Unfortunately, almost all of the glorious first -generation carriages were gone, and even the iconic GTW 72 carriages introduced in 1972 that ran for 27 years were replaced by the beautiful blue “Generation 15” trains that served in 2016.

Even with the new trains, the Schwebebahn itself remains popular with enthusiasts.

“My interest in the Schwebebahn lies in the way it was built over 100 years ago,” said Cologne -based architect Christian Busch. “The realization of such a project without computer -assisted systems is unthinkable today.

“A ride on the Schwebebahn allows the passenger a unique understanding of the lives of local residents and is truly as a fairground attraction from days gone by.”

The Schwebebahn, for non -elephant users, remains a much safer way to travel.

Until 1999 it was even considered the safest form of public transport in Germany, recording only a handful of minor accidents in nearly 100 years of operation.

In April 1999, however, the Schwebebahn experienced its darkest hour: five people were killed and 47 were injured when a train collided with a 100-kilogram steel hook left over during work. and fell eight yards into Wupper.

Since then, the railway has had some ups and downs, especially since the latest upgrade, when in 2018 a 350-meter-long power cable crashed into the road below and incapacitated the Schwebebahn by almost nine. months, the highest service disruption in its history.

The railroad reopened in 2019 and is widely and happily used by Wuppertalers again.

Movie star

The railroad carries 25 million passengers annually.

The railroad carries 25 million passengers annually.

Roland Weihrauch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Given its unique history and iconic appearance, it is not surprising that the Schwebebahn has inspired many artworks and popular German culture in general.

It was mentioned in 1902 in the sci-fi novel “Altneuland” (The Old New Earth) by Zionist writer and political activist Theodor Herzl. It was featured in director Wim Wenders ’1974 film“ Alice in den Städten ”(Alice in the Cities), in Tom Tykwer’s 2000 drama“ Der Krieger und die Kaiserin ”(The Warrior and the Empress), and also in a 2011 Wenders film, “Pina,” which celebrates another Wuppertal icon, choreographer Pina Bausch.

Turner Prize-nominated English artist Darren Almond created a Super 8 movie work titled “Schwebebahn” in 1995, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has in its collection a two-minute film from 1902 filmed from a Schwebebahn carriage with a spectacular Wuppertal landscape.

For locals and visitors alike, the Schwebebahn remains a beloved anachronism.

“Today, for static and economic reasons, gray concrete is always the choice and characterizes our infrastructure,” said Christian Busch, the architect. “But the steel girders on the Schwebebahn allow the trains to carry their passengers without having to consider the constant increase in the amount of traffic below, and it’s nice to look at.”

Japan’s Shonan Monorail has been designated as the sister rail line of the Schwebebahn.

Japan’s Shonan Monorail has been designated as the sister rail line of the Schwebebahn.

ENOSHIMA, JAPAN – AUGUST 16: The Shonan Monorail passed through a road on August 16, 2019 near Enoshima, Japan. Scheduled to host sailing activities, Enoshima is one of several places in and around the Japanese capital to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

And that beloved anachronism is one that could show the way for the future. Since 2018, the Schwebebahn is the sister railway of the Shonan Monorail in the city of Kamakura in Japan, to share the best practices and promote the suspension rails as a sustainable mode of travel.

And if you visit Wuppertal and want to feel really nice, there is a glorious original carriage left in service, the one used by Wilhelm II and Auguste Viktoria in 1900.

Known as Kaiserwagen, or Imperial Carriage, it can be booked for private events-including weddings.

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