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In the late nineteenth century, Berlin’s population grew rapidly: while in 1800 around 170,000 people were living in the city, by 1871 their number had swollen to over 826,000 – also as a result of the incorporation of several outlying towns. Only a few years later the population passed the million mark as Berlin became the largest industrial and manufacturing city in Germany. The transportation infrastructure did not however keep pace with the city’s expansion. Even then the main streets were overcrowded – with the corresponding effect on the speed of the traffic and the safety and comfort of the passengers, who were transported by horse-drawn buses and trains and steam trains. The solution to the growing inner-city traffic problems was either an elevated railway on viaducts or an underground railway. But either of these posed enormous problems because of the high ground water level and the difficult ground conditions – Berlin is built on layers of sand and gravel.
In February 1880 – a good year before Siemens & Halske set the first electric streetcar in the world in motion in the Berlin suburb of Groß-Lichterfelde – Werner von Siemens had already presented his first plans for the construction of an electric elevated railway to the royal police headquarters. As a “pillar railway” modeled on the elevated railways of New York, it was to be constructed in busy Friedrichstraße. The Berlin authorities, although at first interested, refused the concession on the grounds of protests by residents. Undeterred by this refusal, in the same year the company submitted a new draft, this time for a whole network of elevated railways. But this did not find favor either.
However, the pioneer of electricity persisted with his idea of a railway running independently of road traffic: at the beginning of 1891 Siemens & Halske again handed in plans for an electric suburban railway to the Ministry of Public Works and asked for negotiations to be opened. The plans were developed by Heinrich Schweiger, who was chief engineer and planner for Siemens & Halske from 1884. The projected network had three lines and consisted of elevated railway lines as well as of flat gradient and underground railways. It connected up with the stops on the so-called Stadtbahn route completed in 1882, so that in spite of the fact that the envisaged lines were towards the edge of the city, it would attract a large number of passengers and be profitable for the company.
In accordance with contemporary practice, Siemens & Halske first requested the concession for an electric elevated railway which was to run from east to west, from Warschauer Brücke to the Zoologischer Garten station. Although the application looked likely to be accepted, especially since the plans had been so carefully prepared, the approval process dragged on for several years. In addition, the original route had to be changed, as it also had to go through Schöneberg and Charlottenburg as well as the railway area at Gleisdreieck. It was in March 1896 that Siemens & Halske at last received permission to build and operate the first section between Warschauer Brücke and Nollendorfplatz – for 90 years. The unusually long duration of the concession was due to the high investment volume; up until then similar approvals, for example for horse-drawn transportation, had been granted for a maximum of 30 years.
Construction begins at last!
Construction began on September 10, 1896 – less than four years after the death of Werner von Siemens and four months after Siemens & Halske had put the first subway on the European continent into operation in Budapest. In Gitschiner Straße builders started preparing the ground for the erection of the first iron viaducts on the route between the future stations of Hallesches Tor and Kottbuser Tor. These building measures were already drawing massive criticism from residents who complained that the viaducts “ruined the look of the street.” In addition, they deplored the noise that was to be expected and the shade into which the street would be plunged. The building work on the main route was also subsequently accompanied by continuous discussions about the architecture. There was increasing pressure to continue the railway as a subway from Nollendorfplatz – the eastern boundary of Charlottenburg.
To give this major project a broader financial basis, in April 1897 Siemens & Halske and the Deutsche Bank together founded the Gesellschaft für elektrische Hoch- und Untergrundbahnen in Berlin. This “elevated railway company,” which took over all Siemens’ previously obtained concessions, had a share capital of 12.5 million Marks. From then on, the electrical engineering company functioned as a general contractor and the elevated railway company financed the planning and completion of the rail network. The company directors were thus far from pleased when the plans for building the main western line had to be altered at the instigation of the wealthy city community of Charlottenburg. It was not until the end of 1899 that the elevated railway company received permission to build an “under the sidewalk” route from Nollendorfplatz on.
Altogether the building of the entire network took around five-and-half years; the first test runs on individual sections began in December 1900. In fall 1901, the workshop at Warschauer Brücke started assembling the vehicles. Following the commissioning of the elevated railway power plant built specially for the operation of the railway in Trebbiner Straße, trial operation commenced section by section and the railway personnel were trained.
“Today the Berlin electric elevated and underground railway has at last opened,” headlined the Berlin local advertiser (Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger) in the evening edition of February 15, 1902. In the morning the first section from Stralauer Tor (near Oberbaumbrücke) to Potsdamer Platz had been opened in the presence of Berlin and Charlottenburg dignitaries and a number of Prussian ministers. Berlin was thus the fifth European city to receive an electric subway after London (1890), Budapest (1896), Glasgow (1897) and Paris (1900).
Three days later, the six-kilometer link was opened to the public; today this primarily forms part of the U1. By December 14, 1902, the whole 11.2-kilometer main route from Stralauer Thor to Knie (today: Ernst-Reuter-Platz) had gradually gone into operation. By 1902, the elevated railway company was already transporting 19 million passengers and in 1903 this increased to 29 million. Over the next few years the route was continually extended and by fall 1913, the Berlin subway network had reached a total length of more than 35 kilometers. Further expansion came to a stop with World War One.
The “creator of electric railway operation Werner von Siemens” is still remembered today with a memorial plaque at the entrance to the Nollendorfplatz subway station.
Further reading (selection)
Sabine Bohle-Heintzenberg, Architektur der Berliner Hoch- und Untergrundbahn. Planung, Entwürfe, Bauten bis 1930. Berlin 1980 (in German only)
Die Berliner Schnellverkehrsfrage (1879–1902); in: Ural Kalender, Die Geschichte der Verkehrsplanung Berlins. Cologne 2012, pp. 91–122 (in German only)