Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Say hello (again) to the Dora.
For senior Berliners, there may be something strangely familiar about the latest batch of trains destined for the Berlin subway system. They actually first served the city back in the 1950s. In an unlikely decision-making twist, the system has decided to delve into its history, renovating trains constructed to run on its tracks before the city was cut in two in 1961. So old are the D and DL series trains — affectionately known as “Doras” — that there’s only one city where they are still in daily use. That’s the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to which Berlin sold 105 trains at the end of the 1990s.
The idea of recomissioning 60-year-old carriages will no doubt get train-spotters drooling, but there’s a pragmatic reason why the trains are coming back. Berlin has a desperate shortage of rolling stock. City transit body BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe) wants to avoid the costs of buying more engines and reckons it can renovate and re-kit three of the old trains for just €1.9 million — a snip compared to what three entirely new trains would cost. Three trains won’t make a whole lot of difference across an entire city, of course, which is why the refitted wagons will be confined to a single line. This is arguably the smartest part of the plan. By running on Berlin’s Line U55 from spring 2017, the 1950s trains should attract tourists to what could be Berlin’s biggest transit white elephant.
Line U55, you see, is arguably the transit equivalent of nail varnish. It looks pretty good, but beyond that it doesn’t serve much of a practical function. With just three stops, the mini-line links Berlin’s main railway station with Germany’s parliament and the Brandenburg Gate, a journey that can be managed in 10 to 15 minutes of brisk walking.
If that seems a little pointless, bear in mind the circumstances of the U55’s approval. It was begun in 1995 at the height of reunification fever, when the general official feeling was that Berlin needed a grand transit revamp to match the grandeur of the public servants who were at that time (often reluctantly) relocating there from Bonn. The original plan would have seen the line extend both to the northwest and to Alexanderplatz, where it would join up with an existing line stretching far into the city’s east. Then the money ran out.
That left Berlin with a stumpy little shuttle track. When it came to streamlining Berlin’s transit system, it was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. This is the line for which the older trains are revamped. When you think about it, the plan actually makes sense. There are already plenty of tourists in this area, and more may use the line if now they know it’s becoming a mobile 1950s theme park. And if you’re a fan of old school transit, you might be taken with the carriages’ green pleather upholstery and milky-glassed light fittings. And even if the electrics will all be reworked, the BVG plans to keep a few old signs in place, such as those warning fare-dodgers of a possible fine of 60 now defunct Deutschmarks.
There’s also a poetic justice to the plan. When these trains were constructed in the 1950s, they ran across both Berlin’s eastern and western sectors despite the strife between the city’s superpower overlords. When the Berlin wall went up, two strange truncated subway systems were created for each half of the city, with lines abruptly ending or passing through enemy territory without stopping. Now that these trains are returning, they’ll be coming to what was the first East-West line newly built after reunification, travelling under what 40 odd years ago was one of the most heavily militarized spots in the world. It’s almost as if they’ve been waiting for Berlin to reunify, then call on them again.
In 2020, the U55 should finally be extended as promised to Alexanderplatz, after which new trains will probably be introduced. Between next spring and then, the U55 and its sexagenarian trains will offer an intriguing glimpse of transit past.