10 things you never knew about train travel in Germany

Jörg Luyken
Jörg Luyken - [email protected] • 22 Sep, 2017 Updated Fri 22 Sep 2017 15:47 CEST
image alt text

One of the greatest things about living in Germany is getting to use its first-class rail service. But how many of these curious facts were you aware of?

For all The Local's guides to visiting Germany CLICK HERE

1. The German word for railway dates back to mining

The German word for railway is Eisenbahn, meaning literally iron track. Before the first locomotive steamed along a German track, horses heaved coal-laden carriages along iron tracks in the mining areas of the Ruhr region. The more durable steel replaced iron relatively early in rail history. But while the technology moved on, the name stuck.

2. Born in obscurity

In 1835, the first German train line was opened. But before the major cities like Berlin and Hamburg got their own Eisenbahn, the tiny town of Fürth in northern Bavaria had the luxury, with a service that chugged to Nuremberg.

Fürth central train station, built in 1863, was recently put up for sale by Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) with bids starting at €0.

Fürth central station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Magnus Gertkemper

3. The first international train line was German

The first ever cross-border train line was built between Cologne and the Belgian town of Antwerp by the Rhenish Railway Company. The line took four years to build and was completed in 1843.

It was actually Belgium that came up with the idea. The young state, which had recently gained independence from the Netherlands, saw the rail line as a way of getting around heavy customs duties imposed by the Dutch. The Prussians at first didn't think much of the idea, but were eventually convinced that an "iron Rhine" could cement Cologne's place as the urban powerhouse of the region.

4. A German invented the electric train

The first electrically powered locomotive was completed by inventor Werner von Siemens in 1879. 

The founder of the electrical company Siemens presented his invention at the Berlin trade fair that year. It was small enough for the driver to sit on top of it, and had an inbuilt direct current motor. It was a groundbreaking moment in rail history, which would lead to train propulsion via power lines.

It took a while for electric trains to take over, but by the 1950s, they had almost completely replaced steam trains across Europe.

5. Going nationwide

In the early years, railway development in Germany progressed via a hodgepodge of private and state companies in the various German states. Even after unification in 1871, railways were owned at the state level, despite Otto von Bismarck's best attempts to nationalize the rail system.

It was only after the First World War that the first national rail company was founded. The Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft came into existence in 1922. But a large part of the profit it made went to paying off reparations imposed on Germany after defeat in the First World War.

6. Breaking speed records

The Flying Hamburg at a 1999 train show in Nuremberg. Photo: DPA

The rail line between Berlin and Hamburg - Germany's two largest cities - has a history full of records.

When it opened in 1846, it was the first long-distance line in Germany, rising above the mosaic of regional lines in Germany's patchwork state system.

In the 1930s, it was a line that became know for one thing above all else: speed.

In 1933, "the Flying Hamburger" sped from Berlin to Hamburg in less than two hours. The sheer pace of the diesel-powered locomotive signaled the death knell for steam powered trains. Even today, the high-speed train between the two cities is not a huge amount quicker, taking 1 hour and 43 minutes.

In 1936, a Flying Hamburger broke the 200 km/h barrier, dashing between the two cities at a top speed of 205 km/h.

7. At the end of the Cold War, East Germany still used steam trains

The rundown Camburg station may not reflect it now, but at one time it was a bustling rail stop in Thuringia, employing hundreds of people while it was part of former East Germany.

The station built in 1874 in the tiny town of less than 3,000 people was an important stop along the journey between East and West Germany during the Cold War.

An American train that ran daily between Munich and West Berlin passed through Camburg, and had to stop for up to 20 minutes to change locomotives from electric to steam engine, which was still being used in the East.

8. Route over mud flats

One of the most unusual rail routes in Germany runs over mud flats to two small islands in the very north of the country.

The journey starts at Dagebüll construction yard in Schleswig-Holstein before gliding over mud flats to the islands of Oland and Langeneß.

The line was built in the late 1920s and was redeveloped at the start of the 21st century so that trains could run at all times of the tide.

The track isn’t officially open to the public, but outside of the construction yard's business hours, locals are allowed to take heir own motorized platforms on the track.

9. Twenty-nine Thuringian tunnels

In June 2017, an "historic moment" in German rail transport history took place. The new high-speed ICE service between Berlin and Munich embarked on its maiden journey. The route was only open to select guests, and will fully go into service in December.

Construction took two decades, cost €10 billion, and the route through the Thuringian Forest is set to be spectacular. Passengers will cross 22 bridges and pass through 29 tunnels on a trip that will cut two and a half hours off the current journey time.

One of 22 bridges on the new Munich-Berlin route. Photo: DPA

10. More rail track than Australia

Germany has the biggest rail network in the EU by quite some distance. According to the CIA World Factbook, the Bundesrepublik has 43,468 kilometres of rail track, way ahead of nearest rival France, which has 29,640 km of track.

In fact, Germany has the sixth longest rail network in the world, more than continent-country Australia, and only less than the USA, China, Russia, Canada and India - all countries with much larger land masses.



Jörg Luyken 2017/09/22 15:47

Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also