Germany’s upside down railway: The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

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(CNN) – Suspension railways seem like an anacronism today – a 19th century vision of the future of transportation. By the year 2022, we will all be traveling to work on the upside down railway!

Unlike the boring normal train line that stays firmly fixed in the terra firma, the suspension hangs under the tracks hanging from the railings. Their vehicles roll over roads, rivers and other obstacles, while passengers enjoy the view.

Ironically, the idea never got off the ground, despite the success of short-term ventures such as the Branif Jetril fastpark system, which carried passengers from the Dallas Lovefield parking lot to the terminal for four years before the airport closed in 1974.

Today, only one suspension railway operates in Japan and Germany. And it is in Germany that the original, and still the very best, is still strongly found in all its steampunk grandeur – Wuppertal Schwebeban.

It all started in the 1880s, in the aftermath of the rapid industrial expansion of the so-called Grunderzeit era of imperial Germany. Entrepreneur and engineer Eugene Langen was experimenting with suspension railways to move goods to his sugar factory in Cologne.

Meanwhile, nearby town Wuppertal had a problem. The booming local textile industry saw the area grow from a small collection of settlements along the Wupper River to an urban area of ​​40,000 inhabitants that now needed to move around.

Because long and winding river valleys made traditional rail or tramways impossible, city officials invited proposals to solve the problem – and Langen popped them.

In 1893, he offered the city its suspension railway system, which jumped on the proposal. Construction began in 1898, and in 1901 Emperor Wilhelm II formally opened the line with his wife, Victoria, taking a test ride.

Wartime loss

About 20,000 tons of steel were used to build the elevated track that runs through the city. Its 20 beautiful Art Nouveau stations admire the glass and wood interiors of trains that can carry 65 people each.

In 1903 the network was extended to its final length of 13.3 kilometers (8.3 miles), with the beginning and end of the journey at the turning loops connected to the Wohwinkel and Oberberman stations of the line.

The new railway proved to be a hit for the locals. Over the next few years, the length of trains running every five minutes was increased from two to six carriages.

Wuppertal suspension is capable of bypassing obstacles such as railways and waterways.

Wuppertal suspension is capable of bypassing obstacles such as railways and waterways.

Oliver Berg / picture-alliance / dpa / AP

The number of passengers declined during World War I, when many Wuppertal workers were serving in the Kaiser’s army, but by 1925 the network was already carrying 20 million passengers on the gentle Wupper River.

During World War II, in May and June 1943, and again in January 1945, heavy air strikes on Wuppertal severely damaged the network by allied bombs, but by Easter 1946, less than a year after the end of the war in Europe, the whole route was already back in action.

For Rosemary Weingarton, who was born in 1933 in the Barman district of Wuppertal, Schwabebahn is the city’s cultural staple because of her endurance.

She told CNN, “I don’t think there’s any more symbolic representation of both Wuppertal and Barman than Schweibban. It has always been for me and I’m proud that it’s still going on.”

The elephant in the cart

Tuffy's statue sits where he landed.

Tuffy’s statue sits where he landed.

Tim Olberman / Picture-Alliance / DPA / AP Images

In 1950, Schwabebahen had the most famous passenger ever, even more high-profile than Caesar: Tuffy the Elephant.

Elthof was in the circus town and planned a promotional trip for the young Pachiderm, who was a young celebrity in West Germany at the time. Tufi was generally fearless around people, so circus owner Franz Althof regularly used him to advertise his shows.

She had already ridden the tram, drunk from the fountain of holy water, delivered crates of beer to construction workers and, somewhat less heroically, ate a bouquet of flowers and urinated on a Persian carpet.

At first, her sister-in-law’s trip seemed to go well. He boarded the train to Wuppertal-Barman station (where Althoff had to buy four tickets for Tuffy and one for himself).

But there was a crowd of reporters and officials in the car, so when Tufi tried to turn around after a while, she couldn’t and panicked. First she crushed a row of seats and then jumped out of a window into the river 10 meters (33 feet) below.

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At that point the river was only 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep but the ground was muddy, so Tufi had to deal with only a few debris. Apparently, Elthoff wanted to jump behind him, but instead he kept going to the front stop from where he ran back to the stunned elephant and took him to the circus camp.

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A 2020 basalt statue by artist Bernd Bergkamper sits where Tuffy landed in 1950.

Riding in the past

Today, the lightly swaying Shwebeban no longer transports elephants, but is still used as a commuter train, which surprisingly carries 25 million passengers annually, pre-covid.

Sadly, almost all of the magnificent first-generation carriages have disappeared, and the iconic GTW 72 carriage, introduced in 1972, has been replaced by the sleek blue trains of the “Generation 15” that ran for 27 years before entering service in 2016.

Even with the new trains, Schwabebahen herself is popular among lovers.

“My fascination with Swabeban is in the way it was built 100 years ago,” says Christian Bush, a colon-based architect. “It would be incredible today to carry out such a project without a computer-assisted system.

“Riding in Shwebeban allows travelers an extraordinary insight into the lives of local residents and really feels like a fairground attraction from days gone by.”

Schweibaban, for non-elephant users, is an extremely safe way to travel.

Until 1999 it was also considered the safest mode of public transport in Germany, with only a handful of minor accidents reported in almost 100 years of operation.

In April 1999, however, Schwebbeh experienced its darkest hour: five people were killed and 47 were injured when a train collided with a 100-kilogram iron hook left during construction and sank eight meters into Wooper.

Since then, there have been some ups and downs in the railways, especially since the recent upgrade, when a 350-meter-long power cable collapsed on a street below in 2018, disabling Schwabebahn for nearly nine months, the longest service disruption in its history.

The railway reopened in 2019 and was re-used extensively and happily by Wuppertalers.

Movie star

Railways carry 25 million passengers every year.

Railways carry 25 million passengers every year.

Roland Wehrrach / Picture-Coalition / DPA / AP

Given its wonderful history and iconic appearance, it is not surprising that Schweibeba has been inspired by numerous artifacts and German popular culture in general.

It was mentioned in 1902 by the Zionist writer and political activist Theodor Herzl in the sci-fi novel “Altunuland” (The Old New Land). She starred in director Wim Wanders’ 1974 movie “Alice in Dan Stadton” (Alice in the Cities), Tom Ticker’s 2000 play “Der Krieger and Die Kaiserin” (The Warrior and the Empress), and again in the 2011 Wanderers movie, choreographer Pina Bowsh, another. Celebrating the Wuppertal icon “Pina.”

Turner Prize-nominated English artist Darren Almond made a Super 8 movie work called “Schwebeban” in 1995, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has a 1902 two-minute film in his collection filmed from the Schwebeban carriage. A unique view of the Wuppertal scenery.

For locals and visitors alike, Schwabeban is a favorite anacronism.

“Nowadays, for stable and economic reasons, gray concrete is often the choice and is a feature of our infrastructure,” says architect Christian Bush. “But under the iron girder of Schwebebahn allows trains to transport its passengers regardless of the ever-increasing amount of traffic, and that sounds pretty cool.”

Japan's Shonan Monorail has been designated as Shwebebehan's sister rail line.

Japan’s Shonan Monorail has been designated as Shwebebehan’s sister rail line.

Anoshima, Japan – August 16: The Shonan Monorail runs along a road near Anoshima, Japan on August 16, 2019. Scheduled to host sailing events, Anoshima is one of the areas in and around the Japanese capital that will participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Carl Court / Getty Images)

And that favorite anacronism is yet to show the way to the future. Since 2018, Shwebeban has been the sister railway of Shonan Monorail in Kamakura, Japan, to share best practices and promote suspension railways as sustainable modes of travel.

And if you ever visit Wuppertal and really want to feel fancy, there’s a gorgeous original car left in the service, used by Wilhelm II and Augustus Victoria in the 1900’s.

Known as the Kaiserwagon or Imperial Carriage, it can be booked for private functions, including weddings.

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