The Rings in the Tree | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 20.02.2002
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The Rings in the Tree

Built in swampy soil, home to floods and fights and once severed in two – Berlin’s underground system celebrates its 100th anniversary in February.

The Berlin Underground - above the ground

The Berlin Underground - above the ground

Berlin may not have catacombs like Rome or a 700 year-old tunnel system like Paris. But the city’s underground system is definitely interesting: Berlin’s network of bright yellow trains, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year – has its roots in the swampy soils of 19th century Berlin and is a reflection of the city’s tumultous past.

"The way to follow the history of the city is by looking at its subway system – like the rings of a tree", U-Bahn expert Jürgen Meyer-Kronthaler says. As early as 1880, German engineer Werner von Siemens considered building a railway system for Berlin. He contemplated, however, an elevated railway, as Berlin was well-known for its soft, swampy soil.

Soggy soil

The lowland plain of the Berlin-Warsaw glacial valley, which originated in the ice age, led many years later to a water ground level which made underground building virtually impossible in Berlin.

The first people to attempt underground building in Berlin’s soil were beer brewers, who dug beer cellars up to 18 metres under the ground. However, these were constructed on the Teltow and Barnim heights, hills which bordered the glacial valley and were more firm and less soggy than most of the ground in and around Berlin.

First attempts at constructing a railway network for Berlin were finally made in 1896 in the district of Kreuzberg – above the ground. The line was opened in 1902 and stretched from Stralauer Tor to Postdamer Platz.

By 1903, the 11 kilometres of track were used by 29 million passengers. A small, but significant part of the track was built underground – as had been demanded by the wealthy and independent district of Charlottenburg. This novelty proved that underground railways were possible – contradicting previously voiced doubts as to the realisation of a "Berliner U-Bahn".

Further underground tracks followed. Slowly, but surely, the city’s districts were connected – underground. By 1913, 35 kilometres of track had been completed, a speedy expansion only to be halted by World war I.

Work on Berlin’s underground system was soon recommenced after the war, leading to the city’s deepest line – reaching 18 metres underground – in 1930.

During World War II, the network underwent new damages - a third of the tunnels were flooded, and fighting took place in those that did not find themselves under water.

Severed in two

Only three years after the first post-war expansions were completed, the growth of the Berliner underground network was yet again stunted by the erection of the Berlin Wall. While the western part of the system spread steadily, the east stayed much the same size as it was to that day.

After unification, it took two years to reconnect the network. Today, around one million Berliners are said to use the Berliner U-Bahn daily. Berlin’s citizens can now travel from east to west and north to south alike on the 143 kilometres of the underground system.

With nine lines open from 4.00 am to 12.30 am, two open throughout the night and trains reaching speeds of 32.5 km/h, the Berlin underground is a few tracks ahead of Werner von Siemens first U-Bahn dreams.

It is the combination of the old – such as the extravagant Wittenberg Platz station built in 1912 – and the new – the introduction of modern trains built by Adtranz in 2000 - that makes the Berlin U-Bahn so charming. "You could be travelling on a stretch of the subway where the stations are 100 year old, but the people sitting opposite you are from the modern world – a fascinating contradiction" Meyer-Kronthaler says.