Railfuture’s Director of Policy, Ian Brown CBE was invited to visit Berlin for a few days in June, travelling out on the day of the Brexit referendum announcement. His first visit to Berlin saw the Berlin Wall come down, this visit ironically saw the barriers begin to rise. He took the opportunity to have a good look at the transport system, take photographs of good practice and compare the system with London.
Berlin's new Hauptbahnhof, a practical symbol of Germany's modern railway. All photos by Ian Brown for Railfuture.
Berlin's new Hauptbahnhof, a practical symbol of Germany's modern railway. All photos by Ian Brown for Railfuture.
Berlin does not as yet have a smart Oyster or Metro ticketing system and many people travel on discounted price programmes. Tickets for 7 day integrated travel as used are priced similarly to London and New York. For a weeks travel around the city the price comparison is:
Berlin €30 Zone A and B ie most of the city
London £32.10 (plus buying the Oystercard £3) Zones 1 and 2 only
New York $31 (plus buying the Metrocard $1) The whole system
The big five
The game reserves of Africa have their defining, must see “Big Five” safari park animals. There is a comparable “Big Five” group of cities of the world that have set the scene for the development of modern cities. Berlin, albeit smaller in population (c 3.5m) is one of the five alongside London, Moscow, New York and Paris, establishing its Underground system as early as 1880.
The current chapter in Berlin’s Transport History
A significant element of the reunification programme of Berlin was the merger of the two transport organisations East (the BVG East) and West (BVG West) into the BVG from 1st January 1992. The physical integration of the two networks continues but takes time, now stimulated by a return to population growth and political concerns about road congestion.
The "Verkehrsverbund" model
Many German cities have a transport organisation to plan, integrate and run the transport system, including national rail – the City or S Bahn systems.
Transport for London was set up on this model where fares, maps, service levels are truly integrated but is not quite there for National Rail services except for the London Overground, as these currently remain government train operating franchises which in many cases collect fares and retain revenue risk.
In Berlin the BVG collects all the fares income and contracts out services. The German system is where TfL wants to get to. Interestingly this approach also facilitates private sector rail operators to compete for individual routes so bringing investment onto the regional rail system, just as is the case here for London Buses.
It was in December 2004 when the BVG launched its totally integrated road and rail transport plan for Berlin. Investment was assisted by the designation of Berlin as the Capital City, but moderated until recently by population moves out of the city (not paying city taxes). Given the regional importance of Berlin and potential boundary issues another body – the VBB (Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg) covers the wider regional area and coordinates services and fares for around 40 public transport companies including the BVG. Such an approach is not replicated in Britain although Rail North may be a move in this direction, for rail, co-ordinating rail services in Northern England. The most well known example in Germany is the Verkehrsverbund Rhein – Ruhr where there are many closely spaced cities as in Northern England.
An integrated Rail and Metro system for Berlin –the U Bahn and the S Bahn
Berlin's integrated S Bahn rail and underground U Bahn map showing the zones like in London. However it does not show Regional Rail services or the Tram network. london has just added Croydon Tramlink to the Tube map but the Berlin network is far more complicated to show on the same map.
The U Bahn is operated by the BVG. It is now working as a unified system. It works well but the trains are small and many of them quite old. The stations are quite old too and many have rather austere decor but the interchanges between U Bahn lines were built for high volumes.
The old 2 car trains (shown) are gradually being replaced by walk through Overground inward facing bench seat designs. Alexanderplatz interchange station shows the former East Berlin style architecture, plain, not cluttered and functional and actually in a world of station "cladding" quite attractive.
The U Bahn, a largely underground system (except for the original Line 1 which is on trestles) is an open system with no ticket barriers like all the other rail transport modes in Berlin.
The U Bahn has not been the focus of investment on the scale of the regional and light rail systems except in one area – access for the mobility impaired. Access to the system is by steps but a major advantage of the open station system is the ability to install lifts directly to the platforms from street level without worrying about ticket barrier considerations. Many U Bahn stations have these lifts so allowing many more people to use the system.
Wheelchair access lift directly from street to platform. A cost effective solution on systems without ticket barriers.
There are however some developments on the U Bahn system, although not as extensive as on the rest of the Berlin transport network. These take the form of tidying up the system, particularly in linking up the new Berlin Central station with the U Bahn network (as was also done for the light rail system). The U5 line which terminated at Alexanderplatz, the hub of the U Bahn network, is being extended via key city centre locations to Berlin Central, potentially greatly enhancing city centre distribution from the new station.
The map shows the U5 extension from Alexanderplatz to the new Hauptbanhhof station. The BVG has gone to great lengths to mitigate the disruption by a visitor centre in the form of a tunnel boring machine (shown) and hoardings round the work sites describing the work. The station box shown is at Rathaus station. The Crossrail station boxes in London looked much the same at this stage.
S Bahn systems in Germany generally operate over the national network and are operated by DB, the state railway operator, or more recently put out to tender as a concession as is the case with the London Overground. Berlin is different in that the national network in Berlin is largely 4 track allowing a seperate S Bahn organisation to be set up using two of the previous 4 tracks, using trains inherited from the DB (and the East German Deutsche Reich). This is now almost physically separate from the main line system using a different supply voltage (third rail), very much akin to the London Underground District Line operation over the Southend line between West Ham, Barking and Upminster. The S Bahn was controlled by an automatic manual control system now being replaced by a communications based control system similar to that used on the DLR in London.
The trains operated by the separate DB subsidiary S Bahn Berlin are a bit dated but comfortable with 2 plus 2 seating and 100% seat to window alignment. They are now subject to replacement. They carry 400m people per year. This picture is one of the ex Deutsche Reich versions, not much longer for this world.
The trains are quite old and looking rather tired and dated, but comfortable with good window views, a basic information system with some seat areas removed to provide for bikes, wheelchairs and pushchairs. All this is about to change as S-Bahn Berlin has recently signed a framework contract with Siemens/Stadler for a replacement fleet of modern trains.
The S Bahn network is limited by its specific technology in terms of its ability to extend outside Berlin to serve the wider growing catchment area. It is not surprising therefore that it is regional and longer distance commuter operations that are seeing the greatest change. DB has provided comfortable bi-level locomotive hauled trains for contracted regional services. Some routes have been let to, and are now run by private sector operators. For regional services this is probably a better model than the UK franchise system.
Considerable investment into comfortable air conditioned bi-level Regional Express trains. The pictures show the upper level and the large space for bikes, prams and wheelchair. These trains compare very favourably with regional trains in Britain which are generally cramped with little provision for these items.
The other issue being addressed is integration with S Bahn services. It has not gone unnoticed that much of the developable land in Berlin is West to East along the railway and the parallel ex Berlin Wall axis. Regional services do serve several central area stations in general but huge commercial developments are taking place at points where the West to East main line intersects with the ring S Bahn line eg Ostkreuz and also at key U Bahn and tram locations such as Warschauer Str. Regional trains currently sail through these locations which are served only by S Bahn services. Massive new interchanges are under construction to form the basis of sustainable office and residential development. The spin off is eventually a far more integrated regional rail system with the city based transport distribution system.
Map of Berlin's extensive Metrotram and Tram system concentrated on the former East Berlin section of the city.
Draw a line across Berlin from the North West to the South East through the centre equates roughly to the former East and West Berlin. West Berlin disposed of its trams, East Berlin retained them. In the East side the plan has been to upgrade the system up to modern light rail standards with station infrastructure and information. This is a continuous process using the potential for segregated tracks to the maximum, nicely integrated into the surroundings.
These 7 section Bombardier Flexity light rail vehicles are the most modern in the Berlin fleet and operate on the busiest routes. The picture is of one not despoiled by advertisements restricting the view of the city from the tram.
The routes most resembling modern light rail are designated Metrotram. Some routes remain as ‘tram’ routes also with new vehicles differentiated only by route description and more closely spaced stops, again with light rail infrastructure where possible. There is some street running including carefully managed centre street stops. If a tram stops in the centre of any road without a separate platform the rule is that all road vehicles must stop and allow passengers to leave safely. This is common practice on many systems but in Berlin tram stops are generally located before signalled junctions and a separate advance traffic light is located to the rear of the tram stop causing road vehicles to stop at a distance from the stationary tram, so enhancing the feeling of personal safety (as well as actual safety) when people leave the tram.
View taken from a tram stopped on street to let people off. The separate coordinated traffic light and road marking has stopped all traffic at a safe distance whilst people leave and cross the road to the pavement safely.
The old Eastern block style high floor trams, the Tatras, are disappearing fast, now largely replaced by attractive Bombardier Flexity low floor vehicles which come in 3, 5 or 7 sections according to demand on the route.
The old eastern block Tatra trams are rapidly being replaced by the new Flexities. The picture shows these being assembled in the depot at Pankow prior to disposal.
There are several areas of good practice including the display of next stop with transfer information, the next 4 stops are also shown. There is a departure from the norm in terms of seat design which appears quirky to the visitor, but well liked by passengers, which matters more. Light rail vehicles used are not wide enough for 2 + 2 seating as used on the S Bahn and regional trains. Many trams have double seats on one side and a wider single seat on the other. This allows for people with children or bags and doesn’t materially reduce the central corridor space for free movement.
The picture shows an example of a good passenger information showing next stop and connections but also showing the next three or four stops, particularly useful in allowing people to be prepared to alight.
Another feature is a separate request stop button for wheelchair users which is excellent. Although the vehicles are low floor with level platform access and a small gap, special provision is made for wheelchair users who may lack confidence in leaving the vehicle unaided. The procedure is that the separate stop button alerts the driver who leaves the cab and manually flips over a hinged plate fitted only to the wheelchair door. This is a well used facility allowing more people with mobility issues to confidently use the system
The general ambience of the light rail system, despite having a separate map from the S and U Bahn systems, is that it is run for the passengers with 24 hour operation on most routes at weekends. Like the other rail systems it is an open system, with no barriers but a 5% ticket check enforced by plain clothes ticket inspectors. Observation suggests that fare evasion is low, particularly as a very high proportion of passengers enjoy reduced rate travel which they do not want to lose.
Berlin’s light rail system compares with anywhere in the world in terms of the passenger experience and passenger focused innovation.
It is worth briefly mentioning the former Western sector not served by light rail. The aim has been to replicate the light rail experience as far as practicable by the use of buses. The bus fleet has been subject to reinvestment just as the light rail system has. Berlin uses attractive high capacity double decked buses with the same passenger information as light rail. The design, in contrast to the London Boris Bus, is not constrained by exterior design considerations and awkward nostalgic door configuration resulting in a very nicely designed substitute for a light rail vehicle. The downside is road traffic congestion which is a serious issue in Berlin as in London. The tram management system at tram and road junctions avoids much of this although it can break down as witnessed.
Berlin Central Station "The Hauptbahnhof"
A new main line station was opened in 2006 with six platform tracks on the upper West to East alignment (4 for main line and two for S Bahn services) and 10 platform tracks (8 for main line and two for U Bahn services on the new North to South alignment so forming the centrepiece of the German Rail network. All platforms are islands.
Access to the busy lower level platforms by escalators is shown here. Also shown (but you have to look carefully) is the overhead steel bar conductor rail in place of the normal overhead catenary, which is unusual on a main line railway. Crossrail in London will also use an overhead steel bar. In both cases this is for reliability and to reduce maintenance.
As the West to East track are elevated and the new North to South tracks are in tunnel, crossing under Berlin’s River Spree just beyond the platforms. There is ample space for a mezzanine concourse level between the two platform levels. All the shops etc are in two blocks one at either side with the mezzanine level in between devoted to glass sided lifts and escalators and circulation. Information is excellent and the station extremely easy to use as the passenger can see and understand the layout of the station.
Access to platforms is by escalators from the mezzanine concourse augmented by these glass lifts, providing direct interchange between the two rail levels without needing to use the concourse and access from all floors for the mobility impaired.
If we compare this with London at Farringdon where Crossrail crosses Thameslink and connects with the Underground the comparison could not be more stark. In London we have three separate adjacent station concourses, one each for each of the three rail operations with poor interchange between them and no meaningful interchange with buses. To be fair, Farringdon is not the centre of the main line Inter City operation as Berlin Central is and Berlin’s version was on brown field land unlike Farringdon. Berlin Central was seen as a white elephant when it opened but construction of the German parliament building and a multitude of corporate offices has changed that. 250,000 passengers now use it every day.
Outside but with level access are taxis to the south and the light rail and bus station to the north.
Main line rail in Germany is not covered in this article as it is a subject in itself not restricted to Berlin. However it is difficult to avoid noticing that open access is on the rise for long distance. On the cut-throat motor coach infested Berlin to Hamburg route the suburban operator DB Regio uses the very same comfortable double deck local trains as it does for regional services to compete with its own DB Inter City services - irresistible at 19 Euros!
Berlin is a great City to visit and enjoy with some of the best museums and galleries so befitting its status as one of the Big Five original transportation systems (as well as being the capital of Germany!)
This is one of the series of Go and Compare articles. All photographs were taken by the author.