Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.
My first view of the Schwebebahn was from my living room as a 10-year-old watching the Travel Channel on TV. I remember being amazed by the dinky rail cars, precariously suspended above a river by wrought iron trusses. The centenarian transit system in Wuppertal, Germany, looked like a cross between Disneyland’s monorail and the Eiffel Tower.
Years later, the Schwebebahn segment still sticks with me. After all, a great transit system that endures for generations is not only an efficient means of moving about the city, it is also a portal to an imagined future—a past vision of a better, more modern city. While visiting Germany last November, I made a point to stop in Wuppertal, half an hour from Düsseldorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to see how that vision was working out, nearly 120 years into its lifespan. There may be no better place to study not only the economic and political power of high-quality mass transit, but also its social and emotional power.
I caught my first unmediated glimpse of the Schwebebahn from a hill overlooking the Ohligsmühle station, near the center of this industrial city of about 350,000 residents, just days before the system was shuttered until next summer for a fallen power rail*. Like the majority of stations on the one-line, suspended monorail system, this one stands about 30 feet above the Wupper River. I watched trains come and go with surprising frequency: The Schwebebahn runs 18 trains per direction, per hour during the day—making it more frequent than just about any transit line in the U.S., and many German lines, too. It’s also an exceedingly rare train design. The wheels sit atop the singular rail, and the trains hang below it, connected by supports that look like the Iron Giant’s knuckles.
The first train I boarded was the newest model, from 2015, with a baby-blue exterior and an Apple-Store-white interior. It was packed, despite the fact that the last train going in that direction had departed only moments before. Each Schwebebahn train is two cars long with a total capacity under 200 people per car. They’re also narrower than conventional trains, with enough room for two seats, an aisle, and a solo seat running the width of each car. The system’s high frequency is necessary to transport an average of more than 65,000 passengers per weekday.
I maneuvered my way to the back of the train where, through a window, passengers can see the Wupper River unfurling beneath them. The Schwebebahn traces the river for nearly its entire length, but the scenery is remarkably diverse. In the central Elberfeld Mitte neighborhood, handsome 19th-century buildings hug the river, interspersed with a few wacky mid-century mid-rises. The hard, masonry landscape soon gives way to tranquil wooded riverbanks near the Wuppertal Zoo, and then becomes a surreal tangle of colorful pipes near the Bayer plant.
For the Schwebebahn’s first riders at the turn of the 20th century, these vistas along the eight-mile route must have been a revelation. Many of them would have ridden trains and elevators, but the unobstructed, straight-down views from the suspended monorail would have been novel, if not terrifying.
The varied neighborhoods on display from the train begin to tell the story of Schwebebahn, and the city it united. By the late 19th century, the Wupper valley towns of Elberfeld and Barmen had become major manufacturing hubs, explains Elmar Thyen, head of Corporate Communications and Strategic Marketing for the Schwebebahn. Friedrich Bayer founded his namesake chemical company in Elberfeld in 1863, which began by providing dyes for the region’s textile mills, like the ones owned by Friedrich Engels’s father. The large and powerful capitalist class was eager to leave its mark on the city with civic projects like the Elberfeld Zoo, founded in 1879. The zoo quickly proved to be such a success that it caused major horsecar traffic jams on weekends, while the thriving manufacturing sector required ever more workers to travel longer distances to work.
“We had a situation with a very rich city, and very rich citizens who were eager to be socially active,” said Thyen. “They said, ‘Which space is publicly owned so we don’t have to go over private land?... It might make sense to have an elevated railway over the river.’”
In the 1820s, an Elberfeld steel mill played host to a test track for a horse-drawn suspended monorail, recently invented by the English engineer Henry Robinson Palmer. Decades later, city leaders felt that the electrified version of that old concept being developed by German inventor Karl Eugen Langen would fit their geographic constraints. The privately funded line connecting destinations in Elberfeld and Barmen began operation in 1901, following a ceremonial test run with Kaiser Wilhelm II the year prior. The Kaiser was both emperor of Germany and king of its most powerful state, Prussia, with a taste for neo-Baroque architecture and other outward projections of imperial power.
“In the end, this is what the merchants wanted,” Thyen said. “They wanted the emperor to come and say, ‘This is cool, this is innovative: high tech, and still Prussian.’”
The line saw high ridership from the beginning, but the Schwebebahn was also something of a showpiece for the young German empire, says transportation historian and CityLab contributor Jonathan English.
The Ruhrgebiet—the mega-region encompassing the Wupper Valley and the nearby cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne—could be called “the Silicon Valley of its day,” English said. “So it’s not at all surprising that this unique, experimental technology was first tried out in a place like that.”
While there was backlash to the undulating new landmark—one turn-of-the-century cartoonist called it “the devil’s work,” according to Thyen—the Schwebebahn quickly became an essential part of life in the region. Local German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schuler dubbed it the “iron backbone of the city,” and that is literally what it became. Once Barmen and Elberfeld were linked by the Schwebebahn, it made increasingly little sense for the cities to go on as two distinct entities, so in 1929 they merged and became Wuppertal.
“It didn’t change the city, it created the city,” Thyen said. “Wuppertal without the Schwebebahn—you can’t imagine it. We would still be separated without the Schwebebahn. That thing gave us a backbone.”
After World War II, the city fell on hard times, as manufacturing began to flee the region. “It literally is Germany’s Rust Belt,” English said, noting that the city continues to have a working-class reputation.
But the Schwebebahn links the city to its glory days, and provides a great deal of emotional, as well as practical, value to city residents. “Unique transportation infrastructure often becomes this civic symbol, or a source of civic pride,” English said, also citing the Personal Rapid Transit System in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the extra-narrow subway cars of Glasgow’s original “Clockwork Orange” subway line. None of these systems proved to be significant harbingers of new transportation technologies. Still, the Schwebebahn, in particular, works for its hometown, linking this linear city and providing connections to local and regional transportation. “It shows that showpieces can work, even if the technology is theoretically a failure in terms of universal adoption,” said English.
And it is precisely this lack of mass adoption that makes the Schwebebahn interesting from a historical perspective. At the time of its planning and construction, there was little precedent for urban rail mass transit, no global handbook of best practices. The Schwebebahn is an urban Galapagos, a vision of a different evolutionary track that never quite spread beyond the Wupper Valley. It calls to mind the familiar yet fantastical depictions of European cities in Miyazaki films like Howl’s Moving Castle—but instead of transporting novice witches, this thing takes people to dentist appointments.
As dusk began to settle on the city beneath the rail, I saw a little girl with pigtails gazing out of the back window with even more intensity than I had been. Maybe she could see river sprites splashing in the currents below. Maybe she felt like she was flying with them. Of this I was certain: With infrastructure like the Schwebebahn, it’s no wonder Germany continues to produce generation after generation of transit supporters.
This story has been updated to note the Schwebebahn’s temporary closing until summer 2019.