Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Verbindungsbahn, a junction line connecting the main terminus railway stations of the Prussian capital, opened on September 15, 1851 as a product of desperate necessity. Berlin´s five main railway stations – Stettiner Bahnhof, Hamburger Bahnhof, Potsdamer Bahnhof, Anhalter Bahnhof and Frankfurter Bahnhof (Ostbahnhof today) – were by all means gems of architecture and wonders of railway engineering, however, those gems hang rather loosely on the city´s railway-track string – they lacked proper and fast connection among them.
For both goods and passengers arriving at one of the stations with the perspective of changing for another line setting off from another terminus, it meant what felt like an endless journey through the crowded streets of Berlin in the hope of reaching the next station before the other train left for Görlitz, for Hamburg or Potsdam. The odds, as you can easily imagine, were rather against them.
Berlin city planners and administration were very much aware of the problem and planned to put all the railway termini on one “string” as early as the 1840s. It being Prussia, however, disputes lasted for ever and, as was the habit, it was again the military who finally brought the necessary impulse. This train began to roll after the army mobilisation after the March Revolutions of 1848/49: King Friedrich Wilhelm IV realised his chances of crushing the riots in the bud would have been significantly bigger, had he been able to bring more troops into the city faster. And the best way to do that would have been the railway.
At that point in Prussian history it also became imperative to re-reconsider and re-design the Prussian-Austrian relationship – a move sparked by, among others, The Hessian Question (for those happy to dig further, more about the roots of the conflict here). The threat of another war resulted in both armies closing their ranks and bracing themselves for impact.
Safe and fast transportation of the troops and the equipment became paramount. This conflict and the possibility of war, which luckily for many could eventually be averted, is by the way considered to be the birth hour of the highly specialised military railway transportation.
The King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV could no longer ignore either the military´s pleas or his non-military subjects´ complaints about the growing chaos in the streets of the capital. The King´s advisers assured him that a railway line within the city would be a much better means of conveying goods and passengers from A to B than any given number of carts and carriages constipating Berlin at the time.
And so in December 1850 the construction began. The tracks were laid first from Hamburger Bahnhof, in today´s Berlin-Mitte, along Invalidenstraße and further east. They were single, regular gauge tracks running along public streets. It is interesting to know that the Invalidenstraße section was also used by Borsig´s machine factory and iron foundry, which then still had its seat in Kirchstraße in Moabit, to deliver their goods to the clients.
From Hamburger Bahnhof the junction train continued across Berlin-Spandau Ship Canal over the swing-bridge known as Sandkrugbrücke and arrived not much later at Stettiner Bahnhof (today Berlin Nordbahnhof). In order to allow the train to enter and then obviously also leave the station, this terminal as well as the first station on the line had to be equipped with a turntable (Drehschscheibe).
Setting off from Stettiner Bahnhof another bridge and another turntable were waiting ahead: almost exactly on the same spot as today´s Moltkebrücke stood another bridge constructed especially for the new railway line, the Unterwasserbrücke. Across the bridge the train passed Königsplatz (Platz der Republik today), Platz vor dem Brandenburger Tor and the Akzisemauer.
The train went along the Akzisemauer, or Berlin Customs Wall, in Sommerstraße (today Ebertstraße), then reached today´s Stresemannstraße and went through the gate in the Wall at the Potsdamer Tor only to arrive at a small but significant junction. Here the railway switch to the right enabled the trains to leave the main line and reach Potsdamer Bahnhof. Alternatively, they could follow the main tracks heading south, which took them to Askanische Platz and Anhalter Bahnhof.
The reason why the first section of the Verbindungsbahn ended right here was simple: lack of military interest in pushing the project any further. Once the troops were at Anhalter Bahnhof, sending them off to the front was easy. Therefore, private initiative as well as private money were needed to proceed with the line´s construction.
The second, „non-military“ section of Berlin junction line was built for purely economic reasons. It made sense and would make transportation cheaper. It opened only a month later after the first section did: on October 15, 1851.
And so on it went: along Hallesches Ufer to Hallesches Tor (back then still a pretty lonesome looking spot). Then off it chugged through Gitschiner Straße: dangerous, polluting and almost unbearably loud. Soon things would turn for even worse there: the Verbindungsbahn made it impossible for the house-owners of Gitschiner Straße to claim any damages on the loss of their property value when Hochbahn – the future U1 – was built (more about it in the following post ).
But moving on. Wassertorplatz with the Wassertor was the next stop on the line. Here the train had to wait for the swing bridge to turn and span then still very busy Luisenstädtische Kanal. Minutes later it reached Skalitzer Straße, Kottbusser Tor and in the end Lausitzer Platz.
From Lausitzer Platz – after 1868 when Görlitzer Bahnhof opened – there were two ways to go. One was to use the switch and continue down the tracks in Wiener Straße to reach the aforementioned railway station where the line stretched further south towards Silesia. Alternatively the engine driver could go north-east along Eisenbahnstraße (albeit today´s Railway Street is not the original Eisenbahnstraße – since 1852 it has been known as Manteuffelstraße), cross another swing bridge over the river Spree (the later Brommybrücke of which today only a ruin in the middle of the river bed remains) and head for today´s Ostbahnhof.
Still before the bridge, on the Kreuzberg side of the Spree, the Verbindungsbahn passed the massive Heeresbäckerei (land army bakery also called Kommissbrotbäckerei) built in 1802 and in 1890 extended and replaced with the still existing yellow-brick buildings. Sometimes the train stopped there to pick up deliveries for the barracks or for the front.
The last station on the line was Frankfurter Bahnhof, in 1852 re-named Schlesischer Bahnhof – after the Second World War in 1950 it re-opened as Ostbahnhof. The Verbindungsbahn reached it through a large eastbound curve behind Mühlenstraße.
Useful as it was, however, the junction line was a mixed blessing. There is no doubt that it facilitated transportation within the city and became especially useful for the both gasworks in Gitschiner Straße: English or Imperial-Continental-Gas-Association gasworks and for the municipal Städtische Gasanstalt once standing where Böcklerpark is today.
After the extra railway tracks were laid there, some 150,000 tonnes of coal reached Kreuzberg´s “gas-fields” every year. The pollution caused by the industrial facilities as well as by the trains themselves must have been enormous.
Noise was another huge problem. The trains were disturbing residents of the buildings standing along the line so much that they vowed to stop them entirely. Every time the line was used their homes shook and shivered, causing the inhabitants to curse the industrial progress loud (very loud when they wanted to be heard). Plus, the fact that the railway tracks were part of regular public streets made them extremely dangerous for other users – a loud, shrill train whistle was absolutely indispensable on board. And it was used a lot.
It is not hard to guess that under such circumstances the Verbindungsbahn trains must have caused never-ending jams and gridlocks. Not surprising, with sometimes more than 50 axes in length which makes around 22-23 railway carriages full of cargo or people! Or both. The long, heavy snake of a train going along not particularly broad streets, through small swing bridges and pirouetting slowly on heavy turntables was bound to get stuck among the streams of carts, carriages, horses and pedestrians.
When on November 16, 1864 the authorities announced that from now on the line would only be used between midnight and 7 AM, it seemed like an improvement but soon proved to be a ticket to hell. At night the train engines were obliged to sound their bells non-stop to announce their passage in the dark… Understandably, the wave of complaints turned into a tsunami.
In 1871 the construction of a new Berliner Ring began further outside the city centre and at a safer distance from the densely populated boroughs. After six years the Ring was ready. Today it is the line of the Ring S-Bahn circling the city of Berlin and the vital part of one of the best urban transportation systems in the world.
The end of the Verbindungsbahn came in two acts. The line was officially closed on July 16, 1871. However, not all was gone: the section between Schlesischer Bahnhof-Görlitzer Bahnhof and the gasworks in Gitschiner Straße was used for delivering the coal from Silesia kept going until 1927! Apart from the trains the Verbindungsbahn tracks were also used by first horse- and then electric trams which were later made redundant by the Hochbahn line.
Today the only things that remind people of the once very strong presence of the junction line in Berlin-Kreuzberg is the name of one street (Eisenbahnstraße) and a tiny bit of railway tracks with a plaque in Stresemannstraße. But who knows? Perhaps on cool winter nights when returning home under the fuzzy warm gas light of Kreuzberg street-lamps you will be able to hear the distant hissing of steam and the heavy click-clack of the wheels? Just remember to jump aside when you hear the whistle.