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Germany

Berlin's New Rail "Palace" Nears Completion

As Berlin continues to wrangle with monuments of its inglorious past, one last big post-unification project is almost finished: Europe's largest train station.

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By May, these halls will become Europe's busiest train station

In the heart of former East Berlin, work has begun to tear down a relic of GDR times, the concrete monstrosity known as the Palace of the Republic. Not far away, another testament to the inglorious history and architecture of communist times is slated for demolition, the faded Hotel Unter den Linden.

But a few kilometers away, construction workers are racing to finish the city's glamorous new central train station, also known as Lehrter Bahnhof. It's the last of the big projects after German reunification in 1990, which included the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag.

This 10-year, 700 million-euro ($842 million) construction project, which is due to open in May, just before the soccer World Cup, will have a three-story shopping mall and serve as Europe's biggest rail hub, essentially putting Berlin's two older train stations out of business.

Die Großbaustelle des Berliner Hauptbahnhofs

Even while still under construction, the massive building has already become one of the city's new landmarks

City officials hope that the new station will be the end of the post-reunification phase and start a new chapter for a city, which has seen lower growth in population than expected and suffered through tough economic times.

"We had big dreams for the city after the Berlin Wall fell and many of those were pulled down by reality," said Michael Baufeld, a spokesman for the station project. "But we hope that with good infrastructure and attractions such as the new station, we will draw more investors and visitors."

Uniting the city

The station will feature twin 12-story glass towers for offices and 46-meter arches rising gracefully. Filigreed-glass roofs will cross a glass-latticed hall, more than 300 meters (328 yards) long, spanning the east-west tracks and adding sparkle to an empty landscape. The ultra-modern lines mixed with traditional proportions are typical for Berlin's post-Wall architecture, in which past meets future, the station's architects said.

"The design is a cross, an intersection of east and west, past and future," said Jürgen Hillmar, a partner at the firm GMP (von Gerkan, Marg und Partner), who is responsible for the project. "In Berlin, architects often design incorporating elements of the past such as proportions and structure, while the building material and design go in a new direction."

Like Berlin itself.

The new station, taking up 180,000 square meters (1.9 million square feet), will be Europe's largest hub, serving 300,000 passengers with almost 1,300 long-distance, regional and local trains passing through daily, officials say. It will centralize train travel in the city for the first time -- west-bound passengers currently use Zoo station; east-bound, Lichtenberg or Ostbahnhof.

Ein Modell des Berliner Hauptbahnhofs (Lehrter Bahnhof)

A model of the new station, which will have trains arriving and departing from several levels

The station will also feature a three-level, 15,000 square meter shopping center that will stay open late nights and on weekends, including Sunday.

And officials hope it will draw the crowds and revitalize the area.

"For years, that area was a desert," Baufeld said. "But we have had 10,000 visitors annually to the site since we started building. It is a good start to begin to develop this whole area."

Rising from the ashes

Bildgalerie Lehrter Bahnhof ca. 1910 Nr 5

The old station opened just in time for the first unification of Germany

Lehrter Bahnof originally opened in 1871 and was named after the first stop on the line leading to Hanover, Lehrte. It was called a "palace" because of its classical and renaissance architecture and remained the key departure station in Berlin for decades. It was also a main economic engine for the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The station was severely damaged by bombing during World War II. While it continued to serve passengers, its importance in the divided city declined. In 1952, the GDR, responsible for Berlin railways, decided to stop service to the station and demolition begun a few years later. Only the local trains serving the city's suburbs remained, the last western stop before the border with East Germany -- and the once-thriving area fell into decay and desolation in the no-man's land.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin's reemergence as Germany's capital, officials decided that the city needed to better integrate and centralize their transportation networks -- and the old Lehrter Bahnhof, which lies close to the government district, Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, was deemed the perfect place.

Deflecting critics

As German officials hope that the World Cup games bring in tremendous economic benefits and shows a new German face to the world, so too do they hope that the new station provides an economic impetus and adds to Berlin's makeover.

Spezialbild: Lehrter Hauptbahnhof in Berlin, durchfahrender Zug

Until now, trains have just passed through the new station

The station will add capacity to departure options and facilitate travel, city officials say. It will provide jobs and revive a key area. It will add to the tourist attractions.

But critics say the station was a waste of money and time as bankrupt Berlin, with a double-digit unemployment rate, doesn't need a flashy new station or more shops. They also complain that construction time was triple that initially projected and that the project cost more than twice what was originally expected.

Many also worry about the impact on the beloved Zoo station in the heart of the former West Berlin.

But supporters of the new station say it is time to move on.

"Berlin's new train station, with its central location, its modern architecture and its extensive transportation opportunities will help distinguish Berlin even more," said Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, a Berlin official responsible for development. "And it will serve as an invitation to our ever-changing and interesting city."

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