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In the early 1890s, the capital city of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had an extensive network of horse-drawn streetcars and a first electric streetcar built and financed by Siemens & Halske. Plans to construct a streetcar line on Andrássy Avenue, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, had to be shelved repeatedly due to resistance on the part of the authorities. In those days, Budapest’s grand boulevard was reserved for the exclusive use of landau carriages and horse-drawn buses. In view of the upcoming Millennium festivities, the expansion of the public transport network was top priority.
At the end of January 1894, the Budapest Electric City Railway Ltd. and the Budapest City Railroad Co. presented the relevant municipal authorities with a proposal from Siemens & Halske for an underground railway, requesting approval for the project. The 3.75-kilometer route was to run, for the most part underground, from Gisela Square in the center of Pest via Waitzner Boulevard and Andrássy Avenue to the fairgrounds. The primary purpose of what became known as the Franz-Josef electric underground railway was to provide safe and speedy transport for the many visitors expected to attend the Fair.
Racing the clock
Because time was of the essence, the project was approved by the relevant committees more quickly than expected: within just a few months, on August 9, 1894, a building and operating license was issued – on the condition that the railway be ready for operation in time for the Millennium Fair. A mere 20 months would have to suffice for building the underground system and providing the electrical equipment for the locomotives. Construction began on August 13; due to the time pressure, work was done in two shifts. After dark, workers labored by the light of arc lamps. A total of 138,000 cubic meters of soil were excavated, and 47,000 cubic meters of cement and 3,000 tons of iron were required for the support structure.
The construction of the underground proceeded one phase at a time. First, the road surface was opened up and the underlying soil was excavated and removed – nearly 142,000 cubic meters of material. Then the foundation was laid and the side support walls were built. With time being so short, the open-trench, cut-and-cover method of tunnel construction was used. The tunnel, which was located just below the pavement, had a uniform height of 2.85 meters. Its foundation, side support walls and ceiling were made of concrete. Steel pillars were erected on the base slab to support the steel beams of the tunnel ceiling. After the steel construction was completed, the spaces between the individual supports were filled with concrete.
As was the practice for transport systems at the time, the Budapest underground was supplied with electricity by its own small power plant. For this purpose two extra compound steam engines were added to the existing machinery in the Gärtnerstraße (Gardener Street) power plant of the Budapest Electric City Railway Ltd. These each drove a Siemens inner pole direct current machine with an hourly output of 1100 amps and a voltage of 300.
The Franz-Josef electric underground goes into operation
In spite of various problems which could not have been foreseen during the planning of the pioneering project, the underground was completed on time. The opening ceremony took place on May 2, 1896.
The underground operated with 20 railcars, some of which were wood paneled and some painted. They were manufactured in the Budapest factory of the firm of Schlick. The entire electrical equipment including the motors and their switching devices was supplied by Siemens & Halske. The trains ran on two tracks throughout the six-meter-wide underground tunnel. In the tunnel stretch there was a two-pole power supply from rails attached to the tunnel ceiling, while the overground section was supplied via double overhead wires.
Because of the dimensions of the underground tunnel, the railcars were comparatively small, so the line was also known as the “little underground.” Each railcar could accommodate 28 seated and 14 standing passengers. By contrast with the usual streetcars of the day, the driver’s cabin was entirely separate from the passenger compartment.
The underground ran from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. for the duration of the Fair, and at peak periods there was a train every two minutes. Up until the end of September alone, the trains transported just under 2.3 million passengers and covered a total distance of 370,000 kilometers.
The first underground line on the European continent – now known as the “Millenium Underground” – has been modernized many times since and is still an established part of the Budapest underground network. In 2002 what is now the M1 line was included together with Andrássy Avenue in the World Heritage List.