(CNN) — Hanging railways seem like an anachronism today – a 19th century vision of what the future of transportation would look like. Surely by the year 2022, we would all be commuting to work on reverse railways!
Unlike boring regular train lines that hang determinedly to the ground, suspension tracks dangle under a track suspended from pylons. Their carriages whiz over roads, rivers and other obstacles, while passengers enjoy the view.
Ironically, the idea never really took off, despite a few successful, if short-lived, ventures such as the Braniff Jetrail Fastpark system that took passengers from the parking lot to the terminal at Dallas Love Field for four years before the airport closed in 1974. .
Today, the only suspended railways in use are in Japan and Germany. And it is in Germany that the original, and still the best, is still in full swing in all its steampunk glory – the Wuppertal Schwebebahn.
It all started in the 1880s, in the wake of Imperial Germany’s so-called Gründerzeit era of rapid industrial expansion. Entrepreneur and engineer Eugen Langen had experimented with an overhead conveyor for moving goods in his sugar factory in Cologne.
Meanwhile, the nearby town of Wuppertal had a problem. A thriving local textile industry had seen the area grow from a small collection of settlements along the Wupper River to an urban sprawl of 40,000 residents who now had to relocate.
Because the long and winding river valley made traditional train or tram lines impossible, city officials solicited proposals to solve the problem — and that’s where Langen popped up.
In 1893, he offered his suspended rail system to the city, which jumped on the proposal. Construction began in 1898 and the line was ceremoniously opened in 1901, when Kaiser Wilhelm II took a test drive with his wife Auguste Viktoria.
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Nearly 20,000 tons of steel were used to create the elevated track that winds through the city. The 20 beautiful Art Nouveau stations complemented the glass and wood interiors of carriages that could each carry 65 people.
The network was extended to its final length of 13.3 kilometers (8.3 miles) in 1903, with journeys starting and ending at loops connecting the line’s Vohwinkel and Oberbarmen stations.
The new railway proved to be a hit with the locals. Over the next few years, train lengths were increased from two to six carriages, which ran every five minutes.
The Wuppertal suspension railway can bypass obstacles such as roads and waterways.
Oliver Berg/photo alliance/dpa/AP
Passenger numbers declined during World War I, when many of Wuppertal’s workers served in the Kaiser’s armies, but by 1925, the network had already carried 20 million passengers across the gentle Wupper River.
In World War II, the network was badly hit by Allied bombs during heavy air raids on Wuppertal in May and June 1943, and again in January 1945, but by Easter 1946, less than a full year after fighting in Europe had ended, the entire route had been destroyed. was already in action.
For Rosemarie Weingarten, who was born in 1933 in the Barmen district of Wuppertal, the Schwebebahn remains the city’s cultural flagship due to its durability.
“I don’t think there is a more iconic symbol representing both Wuppertal and Barmen than the Schwebebahn. It has always been there for me and I am proud that it is still running,” she told CNN.
The elephant in the carriage
In 1950 the Schwebebahn had its most famous passenger to date, even more talked about than the Kaiser: Tuffi the elephant.
Circus Althoff was in town and had arranged a promotional trip for the young pachyderm, a minor celebrity in West Germany at the time. Tuffi was usually fearless around people, so circus owner Franz Althoff regularly used her to advertise his show.
She’d already ridden trams, drank from a holy water fountain, delivered crates of beer to construction workers and, less heroically, ate a bunch of flowers and peed on a Persian carpet.
At first her trip with the Schwebebahn seemed to go well. She got on at Wuppertal-Barmen station (where Althoff had to buy four tickets for Tuffi and one for himself).
But the carriage was packed with reporters and officials, so when Tuffi tried to turn after a few minutes, she couldn’t and panicked. First she trampled a row of chairs and then jumped 10 meters lower through a window into the river.
The river was only 50 centimeters (20 in) deep at that location, but the ground was muddy, so Tuffi only suffered a few scrapes. Althoff had apparently wanted to jump after her, but instead proceeded to the next stop from where he ran back to the dazed elephant and led him back to the circus camp.
A statue made of basalt, created in 2020 by artist Bernd Bergkemper, stands exactly where Tuffi landed in 1950.
Driving to the past
Today, the gently heaving Schwebebahn no longer carries elephants, but is still used as a commuter train, carrying an astonishing 25 million passengers annually, pre-Covid.
Sadly, almost all of the glorious first-generation carriages have disappeared, and even the iconic GTW 72 carriages introduced in 1972 that lasted 27 years have been replaced by the sleek “Generation 15” blue trains that entered service in 2016.
Even with the new trains, the Schwebebahn itself remains popular with enthusiasts.
“My fascination with the Schwebebahn lies in the way it was built over 100 years ago,” says Cologne-based architect Christian Busch. “Achieving such a project without computer-aided systems would be unthinkable today.
“A ride on the Schwebebahn gives the passenger an extraordinary insight into the lives of the local residents and really looks like a fairground attraction from a bygone era.”
The Schwebebahn, for non-elephant users, remains an extremely safe mode of travel.
In fact, until 1999, it was considered the safest mode of public transport in Germany, with only a handful of minor accidents in nearly 100 years of use.
In April 1999, however, the Schwebebahn experienced its darkest hour: five people died and 47 were injured when a train collided with a 100-kilogram iron hook left behind during construction work and plunged eight meters into the Wupper.
Since then, the railway has seen some ups and downs, especially since its last upgrade, when in 2018 a 350-meter power cable crashed into the street below, shutting down the Schwebebahn for nearly nine months, the longest service interruption in its history.
The railway was reopened in 2019 and has been used again on a large scale and with great pleasure by Wuppertalers.
Given its incredible history and iconic look, it’s no wonder the Schwebebahn has inspired many works of art and German popular culture in general.
It was alluded to in 1902 in the sci-fi novel “Altneuland” (The Old New Land) by Zionist writer and political activist Theodor Herzl. It appears in director Wim Wenders’ film “Alice in den Städten” (Alice in the Cities) in 1974, in Tom Tykwer’s drama “Der Krieger und die Kaiserin” (The Warrior and the Empress) in 2000, and again in a Wenders 2011 film “Pina”, in honor of another Wuppertal icon, choreographer Pina Bausch.
Turner Prize-nominated English artist Darren Almond made a Super 8 movie titled “Schwebebahn” in 1995, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City has in its collection a two-minute film from 1902, filmed from a Schwebebahn carriage with a unique view of the Wuppertal landscape.
The Schwebebahn remains a beloved anachronism for locals and visitors alike.
“Today, gray concrete is often the choice for static and economic reasons and characterizes our infrastructure,” says Christian Busch, the architect. “But the Schwebebahn’s iron girders allow the trains to carry their passengers without having to deal with the ever-increasing traffic below, and they look great.”
The Japanese Shonan monorail has been designated as the sister railway to the Schwebebahn.
ENOSHIMA, JAPAN – AUGUST 16: The Shonan Monorail passes through a road on August 16, 2019 near Enoshima, Japan. Enoshima is slated to host sailing events and is one of a number of areas in and around Japan’s capital that will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
And that beloved anachronism is one that may yet point the way to the future. Since 2018, the Schwebebahn has been the sister railway to the Shonan Monorail in the Japanese city of Kamakura, to share best practices and promote suspended railways as sustainable modes of transport.
And if you ever visit Wuppertal and really want to feel fancy, one glorious original carriage is still in service, the one used by Wilhelm II and Auguste Viktoria in 1900.
Known as the Kaiserwagen or Imperial Carriage, it can be booked for private functions, including weddings.