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Culture

Rail Travel in Berlin Comes Full Circle

With the restoration of Berlin's urban rail loop line, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War that divided the city has vanished. More than 300,000 people turned out for its historic reopening over the weekend.

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Making history: An S-Bahn train chugs past the new Lehrter station in Berlin.

Rail traffic on Berlin's historic S-Bahn loop line ceased 41 years ago with the construction of the Berlin Wall, abruptly severing one of the city's crucial transportation arteries.

Decades later, after two years of construction that cost the city 54 million euro ($51 million), the 3 kilometer gap that rendered the popular circular route incomplete has been restored.

Twelve bridges and the defunct Wedding station were rebuilt along the stretch of track between the Gesundbrunnen and Westhafen stations in east and west Berlin that were divided by the Wall.

"Berlin is celebrating another step toward reunification," Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of Germany's national railway, the Deutsche Bahn, said at the opening ceremony.

With the ring finally coming full circle again, the days of having to bridge the gap by transferring between S-Bahn lines are over. And the time savings are tremendous: Travelling clockwise from the Pankow district to the Berlin Messe trade fair used to take 39 minutes. The direct route now plies the same distance in 19 minutes.

A sentimental journey

More than 300,000 people took the historic ride on the new ring as it opened last weekend. Wielding cameras and camcorders, the passengers boarded the two new lines S41 and S42 that circumnavigate the route and make stops at 27 stations along 37 kilometers of track.

For many passengers, crossing the chasm of what used to be the barbed wire and mine-filled "No Man’s Land" between East and West Berlin is a sentimental journey.

"Back in the days of the GDR, traveling the ring took 20 minutes from Ostkreuz to Ostkreuz," an elderly man says, recalling the truncated version of the ring that continued to operate under East Germany's communist government.

Upon passing Pankow station in the Northeast, East Berliners could catch glimpses of border guards patrolling with packs of watchdogs. One rider recalls: "It was odd, the way the tracks led we were practically on Western territory at that point."

The line's intersection with critical junctures of post-World War II history are now on display at the Westhafen station in west Berlin.

Construction commenced in 1871, and electricity was first added in the course of the "great electrification" of the city's rail lines between 1928 and 1929. Service on the line, among the most advanced in the world for its time, continued until the construction of the Wall.

Although the gash left by the Wall has now been filled, there are still plenty of Cold War memories to be found along the route.

The new stretch passes Bornholmer Bridge, over which many East Berliners took their first steps into the West on the eve of the fall of the Wall in 1989. "One after the other, no mass panic," the border patrol officers had urged the flock of people, recalls Doris Jaenner, 29.

An Ongoing Process

While the ring is now complete, one of the main arteria in the heart of Berlin's railway system is temporarily cut off for construction. The popular S1, S2, S25 and S26 lines will be affected by the restoration of the Nord-Süd-Tunnel until mid October. Stations like Unter den Linden and Oranienburger Straße are out of service for the time being.

The construction efforts are part of a greater 770 million euro ($730 million), five-year spending plan undertaken by Federal Transportation Minister Kurt Bodewig of the Social Democrats to modernize Berlin's S-Bahn railway system.

"Berlin is the only city in which one can do without an automobile," Bodewig said.

To promote that fact, a new advertising campaign for the loop line asks Berliners to "Dare to ride the new ring."

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