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When Werner von Siemens discovered the dynamo-electric principle, he laid one of the cornerstones for electrifying rail transportation – from trams to subways to today's high-speed trains.
Ever since the electric motor was invented, engineers and designers had been trying to adapt it for transportation. But that became practical only after 1879, when Werner von Siemens presented the first electric railway, powered by electricity supplied via the rails.
Siemens immediately recognized railways' potential for mass transportation. Two years later, on May 16, 1881, it paid for the world's first tramway, which went into operation in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde. The 2.5-kilometer route joined the Lichterfelde station of the Anhalt Railway with the Kadettenanstalt on Zehlendorfer Strasse. The self-propelled cars had a size and features similar to their horse-drawn predecessors. Electric power was provided by a DC dynamo machine of the kind normally used to generate power for lighting systems. The wheels served as the power pickups, because the current ran through the rails.
This first tramway was a milestone in transportation technology, and began the triumphant development of electric railways – whether trams, subways or high-speed intercity rail.
The streets of some major cities were already jammed with traffic by the end of the 19th century. Transportation needed new options. As part of the celebrations for the millennium of the Kingdom of Hungary, in 1896 Siemens built continental Europe's first subway, in Budapest.
Twenty self-propelled cars were available for operations. Partly wood-paneled and partly painted, the cars were produced at the Schlick company's Budapest plant. All the electrical equipment, including the motors and their switchgear, was supplied by Siemens & Halske. The subway tunnel, six meters wide, had two tracks for its entire length. The tunnel segment was powered by a 2-pole electric current from mine-pit rails fastened to the tunnel ceiling. The above-ground segment was powered from double overhead wires.
The subway was a complete success. In its first year alone, the 3.75-kilometer route carried more than four million passengers. After many updates, this first subway line in continental Europe is still an integral part of the Budapest subway network. It was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2002.
In 1899 Siemens, AEG and several banks and machine construction firms joined together to form the Studiengesellschaft für elektrische Schnellbahnen (StES, society for the study of fast electric trains). To test the operation of fast electric trains, the society commissioned a high-speed locomotive from each of the two competing electrical equipment companies. As a test route, a 23-kilometer segment of the Marienfelde–Zossen military railway was made available.
Both locomotives were ready for operation in the fall of 1901, and the trial runs began. Maximum speed was controlled via the frequency of the rotary current – meaning the rpm of the powering generator – in what might be called a kind of remote speed control. But this control only worked with large steps. Arrival speeds and fine adjustments were controlled in the locomotive itself.
Finally, in 1903 the experiment achieved 210.2 kilometers per hour – a world record that would stand for about 50 years. But the obvious next step – to adopt the applied rotary-current system for rail operation – never happened. The system of three power lines stacked next to the track proved impracticable for normal railroad operations in areas around switches and crossings.
Electric locomotives were superior to diesel versions in a number of ways. They consumed less energy, ran faster, weighed less and were easier on the environment.
In 1930 Siemens built the E 44 multi-purpose electric locomotive, nicknamed "BoBo." It was a pioneering achievement in rail technology. With its all-around welded structure, designed by Siemens engineer Walter Reichel, it weighed less than half as much as conventional electric locomotives. Two years later, the first locomotives in the E 44 series were running on the Deutsche Reichsbahn rail network.
As a multi-purpose locomotive, the E 44 could pull both passenger and freight trains. It remained in use into the 1980s, primarily in southern and central Germany, and ultimately became the first electric locomotive in Germany to sell more than 100 units.
The Wuppertal suspension railway, with electrical equipment supplied by Elektrizitäts-AG vorm. Schuckert & Co., had gone into operation as early as 1901. It was a revolutionary concept that let rail traffic escape from the narrow Wuppertal valley by taking to the air. The design of that time was in competition with the "Standhochbahn" high-level railway designed by Siemens & Halske in 1887, which was rejected in part because of the potential threat of flooding.
In 1980, Siemens and DÜWAG presented a new elevated rail system in Dortmund, a late successor of its Wuppertal cousin. This first fully automated, computer-controlled gondola train used a driverless concept. The railway had two suspended cabins with room for 44 passengers each, and could reach a top speed of 50 kilometers per hour. It traveled between two institutes at the University of Dortmund, carrying up to 4,000 people a day.
The system was extended by about another kilometer in 1993, so as to connect to the local public commuter train network.
In 1985, Siemens took on heading the project to provide electrical equipment for the InterCityExperimental (ICE/V) train, now the Intercity Express (ICE). Over the course of numerous trial runs, the four- or five-car experimental train steadily increased in speed, ultimately reaching 406.9 kilometers per hour on May 1, 1988. That was a world record for locomotives, beating the previous record set by the French TGV by 26.5 kilometers per hour.
Deutsche Bundesbahn began running high-speed trains on June 2, 1991, with an initial 25 first-generation ICEs. The new routes between Hanover and Würzburg, and between Mannheim and Stuttgart, cut as much as two hours of travel time on north-south connections within Germany.
The ICE family (which Siemens named the "Velaro") steadily continued to develop. The ICE 2 came out in 1996, and the ICE 3 only four years later. The ICE 3 could operate anywhere in Europe, because it was designed to handle all four of the continent's different grid voltages. The ICE 4 of 2017 added further gains in efficiency and flexibility.
In 1957, an electric locomotive was equipped for the first time with silicon rectifiers developed by Siemens. These made trains able to travel on rail networks with different catenary-wire voltages and frequencies, without stopping to change engines.
To save on costs, in 1993 Siemens worked with Krauss-Maffei to develop the Eurosprinter modular system. Vehicles in this series can be assembled to order from different body and drive modules. In 1993, the Eurosprinter set a speed record for rotary-current locomotives, at 310 kilometers per hour.
In 2010, Siemens presented a new generation of locomotives to manage a wide range of tasks: The Vectron 2010. These engines can be used for passenger and freight traffic, nationally and internationally and can reach speeds of 160 or even 200 kilometers per hour. Their various power classes and voltage systems, in AC, DC or multi-system versions, allow for a flexible configuration to meet any need. Train control systems that are specific to a given country can easily be swapped out or supplemented.
Learn about selected events from the company’s history on our History News website, which we’re continually expanding for you.