Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Depending on the criteria and personal preferences, the history of the electric street-tram began either in Russia in a small seaside town of Sestroretsk near Sankt Petersburg in 1880 or in Berlin a year later. On May 16 1881 Werner Siemens, the vehicle´s German inventor who had previously contacted Fyodor Pirotsky, the Russian engineer, opened his first electricity-powered tram line near the Prussian Military College in Lichterfelde.)
Even though the idea behind the project was brilliant, engineers involved in developing it still had a lot of work to do. The main problem were the rails, initially used as electricity conduits. They provided an invisible but very palpable power which not only propelled carriages along the 2,500-metre long line at an until then unknown speed but, on the downside, if you accidentally stepped on them, an electric shock stopped you in your own tracks for quite a while, if not for good. To prevent such incidents the Lichterfelde tram line had to be fenced off.
It is probably understandable then that the initial response, full of awe as it was, met with rather subdued enthusiasm. Siemens´s Lichterfelde tram remained a test-line, an experiment for over a decade. It was not until fifteen years later, in May 1896, that Berliners saw their first regular electric tram line: it opened just in time for the legendary Berliner Gewerbeaustellung (Berlin Industrial Exposition) in today´s Treptower Park and conveyed excited visitors from the city centre to what was then an independent municipality on the outskirts of the Prussian capital. This time, however, trams were propelled with electricity provided through an overhead bow collector – the public was safe.
Soon all of Berlin public transport companies began to convert and modernise their horse-drawn fleets and by 1902 nearly all hooves were replaced by electric batteries. By 1929 the city had 643 km of tram rails and over 90 different lines. In 1938 2,800 carriages served on 71 tram lines and Berlin´s public transport company, BVG, employed 12,500 Straßenbahner.
The war destroyed most of Berlin´s infrastructure but already on May 20, 1945 first trams set off to pick up passengers in the suburban areas of the German capital: in Mariendorf, Tegel, Treptow and Schöneweide. Berliners, who always had a very emotional, personal relationship with their Elektrische – trams were also fondly referred to as Blechbahn (Tin Railway) or Bimmelbahn (Chime-Trains) – saw it as a sign of the city´s and their own resurrection.
However, although East Berlin tram network flourished and was regularly expanded, West Berlin authorities chose a completely different direction: their planned and partly realised project of turning their section of Berlin into an Autogerechte-Stadt, a Car-Friendly City, brought the over a century old tradition to an end.
On October 2, 1967 – exactly fifty years ago – West Berliners bid farewell to the last tram in their city: a long line of ten Line 55 trams, each with two carriages, “paraded” between Hardenbergstraße at Bahnhof “Zoologischer Garten” and their last station in Hakenfelde while crowds of moist-eyed Berliners watched their chapter of the Blechbahn history come to an end.
Today two of the last carriages of the West Berlin Line 55 can be found at the Tram Museum in Kiel: on October 2, 1967 they drove along the doomed line as Zug Nr. 7.
Here´s a short film showing that moment (produced by a local public broadcaster RBB, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg). You will find more interesting, often surprising and mostly lesser-known facts about Berlin´s trams, trains, ferries and buses in our 2016 book, Notmsparker´s Berlin Companion, now available as an e-book.