From A(lexanderplatz) to Z(ossen): Public Transit in East Berlin

Train type A I near Schönhauser Allee, October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons)

East Berlin subway running on elevated section of track on Prenzlauer Berg’s Schönhauser Allee in October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons).

The scene is Saturday afternoon in February 1989 and I am in East Berlin with a group of fellow German language students from around the world. Someone in our group has gotten word that Prenzlauer Berg is the place to be to experience “cool” in the “Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, so maps are consulted and before too long we are underground at Alexanderplatz looking for the train headed for Pankow. We find the platform but when the train pulls in several moments later I remember us looking at each other incredulously, as if to ask, “Are we supposed to get into that?” “That” being a wooden subway car that looked less like part of a modern rapid transit system and more like an exhibit I’d see at the Western Development Museum in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the locals scurry to get in, we do likewise and seconds later we’re rumbling our way in a rather quaint, wood-paneled subway car that Wikipedia tells me was at least 60 years old at the time. Apparently the East Berlin Transit Authority retired the last of these cars on November 5, 1989.

For a taste of what a ride on the East Berlin subway was like, check out the YouTube video below shot in June 1989. The train that pulls in at about the 2:15 mark is similar to the one I took in February 1989.

Did you know? – After unification, the Berlin Transit Authority offloaded a number of its Iconic orange subway cars, from both the eastern and western parts of the city, to North Korea for use in the Pyongyang subway

Public transit belonged to a number of services which were heavily subsidized in the GDR. Tickets for a trip on the bus, tram or subway in East Berlin ran a mere 20 Pfennig for adults. Trips on commuter trains, the S-Bahn, which linked towns and neighbourhoods on the edge of the Berlin to the city centre were also incredibly cheap starting out at 20 Pfennig for a short haul and capping out at 1,30 Mark for the longest trip. At such low prices, it is little surprise that many riders simply didn’t bother paying at all. And given the nominal amount of money raised from the fare box, I suppose it stands to reason that those running the system were left to rely on infrastructure from the Weimar-era.

East Berlin Transit Map (1980)

Berlin OePNV - map__1

Berlin OePNV - map__2

Note how West Berlin appears as empty space in these maps.

The East Berlin transit network featured two subway lines, one running from central Berlin to Pankow in the city’s north (today the U2), the other from Alexanderplatz out to Berlin’s eastern edge (today’s U5). This second line featured the only subway construction undertaken in the GDR-era, an extension of the second line from Friedrichsfelde to the town of now via several socialist-era housing developments (Marzahn, Hohenschönhausen and Hellersdorf; map above – from 1980 – doesn’t reflect this project). With the limited reach of the subway net, however, buses and trams played an important role in getting East Berliners around. To get a sense of what that would’ve been like, watch these excerpts of a ride on the #58 tram from Falkenberg to Hackescher Markt as shot on Monday, January 8, 1990. (The variations on brown and grey in the colour (!?) clip are remarkable!)

If that wasn’t enough, here’s a compilation of tram and bus rides in East Berlin during the summer of 1989. I believe that NHL star Jaromir Jagr is driving the first tram. Note that his station announcements enjoy the same level of comprehensibility as those made on Toronto’s subways today!

S-Bahn Service in the Divided Berlin

The Berlin S-Bahn network was built up over the first half of the 20th century and was made up of nearly 300 kilometers of track. The routes ran from Berlin’s fringes into the city core and on a ring line circling the city’s edge. In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied powers gave the East German train service, Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR), the responsibility for running this service in the entire city of Berlin. In the 1950s East German authorities made considerable efforts to decouple their portion of the S-Bahn system from lines running through West Berlin, a project that involved building a ring line just beyond the city limits which connected East Berlin to Potsdam, a city on Berlin’s southwest edge that sat on GDR territory. The S-Bahn played a key role in East Berlin’s transit mix, carrying 35% of all riders on a daily basis.

West Berlin transit map circa 1988. In July 1990 got one of the large versions printed on sticky back paper which were used in the subways and S-Bahn cars for 1 DM! Note how everything behind the Wall is in black and white, while the West is vibrant with colour. Not too far from reality actually!

West Berlin transit map circa 1988. In July 1990 got one of the large versions printed on sticky back paper which were used in the subways and S-Bahn cars for 1 DM! Note how everything behind the Wall is in black and white, while the West is vibrant with colour. Not too far from reality actually!

(From http://berliner-verkehr.de/html_neu/hauptstrasse83f.de/liniennetz/alte-netzspinnen/index.html)

In the West, the fact that the S-Bahn system was run by the East German DR gave rise to frequent conflicts between the western Allies and the West Berlin city government on the one side and the Soviet Union and GDR on the other. At issue were things such as the ownership of the S-Bahn stations and tracks as well as the matter of who had policing authority on the system and in its stations. For the GDR, control of the West Berlin the S-Bahn system allowed them to set up “in the middle of the capitalist half-city, an exclave of ‘real exisiting socialism’ in which the comrades of the Socialist Unity Party of Westberlin (SEW) [the SED’s ‘sister’ Party in the western part of city – ed.] ran the show.” (From Spiegel 39/1980, “DDR Reichsbahn: Bein ab” – accessed online on Feb. 24, 2016 – http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14332022.html).

Lapel pin of the Socialist Unity Party Westberlin (photo: Jo Zarth).

Lapel pin of the Socialist Unity Party Westberlin (SEW) (photo: Jo Zarth).

1980 S-Bahn Employees Strike in West Berlin

Despite these frictions, however, the S-Bahn did play a significant role in West Berlin’s public transit system in the first 15 years after the war transporting roughly 500,000 passengers daily. The building of the Berlin Wall, however, changed the situation dramatically. First, the system lost the many East Berlin-based riders who had previously commuted from East to West for work. Further exacerbating the situation was a successful boycott of the service led by several West German unions and local politicians who argued that S-Bahn revenues helped prop up the oppressive Ulbricht regime. By the late 1970s, ridership had fallen to 70,000 per day (as a point of comparison, the rest of West Berlin’s transit operators moved 2.4 million guests daily) and the GDR found itself in the bizarre position of having to subsidize West Berlin S-Bahn riders to the tune of approximately 140 million marks a year. By 1976, the situation was so bad, that East Germany’s Transportation Minister offered to lease the system to West Berlin. City fathers there, more interested in Cold War political victories than improving public transit for their residents, were standoffish, preferring to leave the East to figure a way out of the situation.

In January 1980, the DR made a number of layoffs within its West Berlin workforce, this move incensed the workforce, including many generally predisposed towards the GDR, and morale sunk. When DR announced further cuts to West Berlin service later that year, workers recognized the impact that this would have on their already low rates of pay and a large group of the 3,500 employers went on strike demanding improvements to pay packages and benefits along with job guarantees. The strikers occupied key work sites shutting down not only passenger traffic, but also freight shipments, the one branch of the S-Bahn’s West Berlin operations that made a profit for the GDR. The DR, and the East German government, labelled the strike an “acto of terror”, refused to negotiate and sent in GDR transportation police armed with dogs, axes and crowbars to evict the employees occupying S-Bahn offices and sites. In the days that followed approximately 10% of the S-Bahn’s West Berlin employees were fired. While the strike faded quickly from view, the entire affair left the GDR, and its West Berlin allies in the SEW, with a PR defeat and no solution to its financial problems.
(From http://library.fes.de/FDGB-Lexikon/texte/sachteil/r/Reichsbahnstreik_in_Berlin_(1980).html, accessed online Feb. 24, 2016).

Recognizing that the status quo was no longer an option, the GDR began behind the scenes negotiations with West Berlin to transfer operations of the S-Bahn there to city control. In 1983, this transaction was completed and the S-Bahn was integrated into the service offerings of the West Berlin Transit Authority, the BVG. After the fall of the Wall, the BVG and Deutsche Reichsbahn moved quickly to cooperate on reintegrating the two S-Bahn systems, and in the days immediately following the opening, the DR even brought larger capacity trains to West Berlin as the BVG’s own had proven too small to accommodate the number of East German visitors to the city. (From Wikipedia – https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-Bahn_Berlin#Die_Zeit_der_Teilung, accessed online on Feb. 24, 2016).

Crush of East Germans trying to get the S-Bahn from Friedrichstrasse to West Berlin on Nov. 18, 1989 (photo: Wikicommons, Frits Wiarda).

Crush of East Germans trying to get the S-Bahn from Friedrichstrasse to West Berlin on Nov. 18, 1989 (photo: Wikicommons, Frits Wiarda).

 

Postscript: One of the most rewarding things about doing this blog has been connecting with others who share my interests. This post generated a response from Sam Merrill, a recent PhD grad in cultural geography from University College London, who pointed me to a very informative piece he has written on the division and reconnection of Berlin’s public transit system in the post-WW II era. Entitled “Identities in transit: the (re)connections and (re)brandings of Berlin’s municipal railway infrastructure after 1989” it appeared in the Journal of Historical Geography last October and is available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305748815001024. It’s well worth the time.

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3 comments
  1. Great article! Last summer I took a ride with the U5 from Alexanderplatz to Hönow. The part from Tierpark Friedrichsfelde to Hönow was the only U-Bahn line developed by the GDR. It didn’t go underground. It was a fantastic experience and U-Bahn station Hönow still looks ‘very GDR’

    • Susan said:

      Related piece of trivia: The Wuhletal stop (on the GDR-built stretch mentioned by Wilfred) is the only stop where you can change between S- and U-Bahn on the same platform (and they are scheduled to stop there at the same time).

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