Below is another photo from the radio tower viewing platform, looking north-east and down at station Messe Nord/ICC of the circular rapid transit line. On both sides of the rail tracks, you can see the northbound resp. southbound lanes of the infamous A100 city highway, built in West Berlin from the late fifties. After the city-state elections a year ago
, the Social Democrats (SPD) of major Klaus Wowereit used the Greens' opposition to the planned extension of this city planning crime into East Berlin as excuse to form a Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU).
Until the industrial revolution, compared to London or Paris, Berlin was a small city. The rapid expansion and population growth until WWII led to the development of a commuter rail network with separate tracks and later third-rail electrification, the S-Bahn, most of which was rebuilt after Reunification. The central part is a well-organised system with a ring crossed by an elevated east-west and a mostly sub-subterranean north-south central artery. (On the photo below, a train on the S-Bahn ring left Südkreuz, the southern junction of the ring and north-south lines.)
At first sight, the S-Bahn with its city-spanning network (which is complemented in the urban core by the separate metro network, the U-Bahn) with its mostly on-time by the minute and squeaky-clean trains and stations (below at Westkreuz, the junction of the east-west and ring lines) with selective rubbish collection and lifts for the disabled looks like a model system, but all's not well on a closer look.
- Operations are just returning to normal after massive service cancellations in the wake of rolling stock withdrawals for repairs (still I saw one cancellation notice), which was the result of bad management saving on maintenance to achieve a profit ratio sufficient for German Rail (DB)'s stock market listing.
- Can you "solve" problems that have to do with the profit motive by privatising operations? But just that is what the SPD transport minister initiated earlier this year, double-crossing his own comrades in the city parliament.
- Smoking is prohibited, but I saw violators at virtually every station. And it's not just young men with a "fuck you!" attitude or incorrigible geezers, but businessmen in suits, too.
- Was it only because of all the trade visitors in suits, or was it because of improper air conditioning, I don't know, but all the trains were filled by a stench of sweat and mouth odour.
Then there is Berlin's main station, a futuristic new construction with trains on two levels, and with a chequered history that is too long to tell here, but I mention two issues with more recent developments.
The hall of the six tracks on the elevated east-west line is spanned by gate-like office towers (photo below with two coupled ICE 2 high-speed trains), which symbolize the hubris and priorities of DB's recent CEOs. They were originally intended as DB's new headquarters, but after the first delays and considerations to drop this part of the project, DB built another expensive tower at a central Berlin square (which was too small). Then the buildings above the main station with their troublesome special design were finished anyway, in the hope of finding tenants who never came. Since 2010, DB is moving its secondary offices all around Berlin into the buildings.
Below a three-level shopping centre are the eight tracks of an underground north-south line (photo below with an ICE-T tilting train). But that north-south line is regional/long-distance only: a parallel S-Bahn line (the second north-south artery of the network) was a victim of austerity, now the first section is in the works for a 2017 opening and the full line won't be complete until after 2025. The lack of a proper metro connection is also an issue, but more on that later.
South of the main station is the government district. I am still awed by the symbolism of the new walk-able glass dome of the Reichstag: the people above their notional servants, with a transparent ceiling between them.
The Federal Chancellor's Office has a rather different symbolism. This new building, almost as big as the Reichstag and dubbed "Federal Washing Machine" for the appearance of its central cubicle, was shaped according to the wishes of former chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) but wasn't finished until after the end of his office. Its first inhabitant (from 2001), chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) was reportedly not too fond of it (in spite of being a practicioner of alpha male politics), but its current inhabitant, Angela Merkel (CDU), seems to have adopted the spirit of the place.
Then there is of course the Brandenburg Gate nearby, symbol of partition and reunification (seen below from the north-west).
The ugly building on the right is the new US embassy. At the time of its construction, the then ambassador wanted it to be even higher, and he demanded a wide-area securing of the perimeter against terrorist attacks – cityscape and tourists be damned. Fortunately, city authorities resisted. But the extra security was still visible (below on the eastern side of the gate).
Even more than the S-Bahn, Berlin's subway system has been held back by austerity measures, ones connected to the bad financial situation of the city-state. (Thilo Sarrazin, the former Bundesbank board member infamous for his xenophobic book, was tasked with some of the austerity measures in his time as Berlin's finance minister.) After the post-Reunification restoration of east-west connections, there have been almost no network expansions. In particular, a line under the very centre of Berlin, the western extension of the east-west U5 line along the Unter den Linden street, has been repeatedly put on hold. Its current state is like a joke: an isolated two-station section was built from the main station to the Brandenburg Gate, with a single two-car train shuttling in it.
Construction of the rest of U5 started recently, but it won't be complete before 2019. The middle of the Unter den Linden was torn up for the construction of the junction station with the U6, with masses of tourists & locals and trucks allowed to pass in alternating one-minute turns:
Where the road crosses an island of the river Spree, stands the Berlin Cathedral. But Berlin doesn't have a true cathedral like other major cities, in the sense of a bishopric seat with long history as main church: the current grand building is barely older than a century and the Lutheran bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg has his seat in another church nearby.
The eastern branch of the Spree river with a tourist boat. The earthworks are connected to the U5 construction (tunnelling is to start nearby).
Berlin's post-communist iconoclast wasn't complete: the park between the cathedral and the true bishopric seat is still called Marx-Engels-Forum and their statues still stand.
Berlin is a city of bikers (below at the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station on the east-west line). However, I saw taxis parking on the bike lane along the Unter den Linden.
At Jannowitzbrücke, the east-west elevated railway runs right above the shore of the Spree river (below with two coupled ICE 2 sets). The trio of buildings in the background is the office complex Trias Towers Berlin, which houses the headquarters of Berlin's traffic company BVG since 2008 – an expensive move with a story not unlike the saga of DB's headquarters.
Let's return to the radio tower for another photo, this time with a plane rising up from Tegel airport in Berlin's north (with a wind farm barely visible in the distance on the right). That plane shouldn't be there: this photo signifies Berlin's most recent scandal related to traffic infrastructure. Berlin had three airports: one each within city limits in the north and south of West Berlin, and one south of the city for East Berlin. The last one was rebuilt into a central airport replacing all three as a prestige investment, projected with a budget of 1.7 billion, a cost that ballooned to 4.2 billion (+247%) so far, and quality problems delayed opening at least a year (to October 2013).
Returning to railways: while most of the S-Bahn network was restored, some parallel normal rail lines remain disused. The weed-infested tracks on the left on the photo below belong to what was Prussia's first railway (connecting Berlin and then capital Potsdam from 1838). While a re-start of this one is now not even in the plans (there is a parallel line), the much-delayed missing sections of the lines to Rostock in the north and Dresden in the south force significant detours.
In fact, long-distance rail connections into Berlin are pretty under-developed from the viewpoint of passenger services: there is not a single 300 km/h line even in the plans, and most of the above mentioned lines to Rostock and Dresden aren't fit for even 160 km/h, with upgrade plans stretched and delayed for two decades now. On the Berlin–Dresden relation, the result is again like a joke: instead of the direct line, trains use 200 km/h sections of the Berlin–Halle/Leipzig and Leipzig–Dresden lines, and in-between chug along at 80-100 km/h (and less at slow-speed zones) on a single-track secondary mainline with old signalling. On the photo below, both my train and the freight train on a crossing line were stopped at a red light because the junction station had too many trains to handle.
While roads and homes have been renovated, the line from Berlin to Dresden is flanked by innumerable abandoned factory buildings, testimonies of the near-death of East German industry after Reunification. While significant business settled since in some urban areas, the only visible sign of new economic activity in the countryside are the numerous but still not saturation-level wind farms (see above photo) and now even solar power plants.
Reunification was more a takeover of the East by the West, and not just in the economy. This triggered a reaction in the form of a special nostalgia, dubbed Ostalgie, something Westerners (not just West Germans) who couldn't view existence in the East Bloc as anything more than a prison stay had a difficulty in understanding. The symbol of Ostalgie was the special walking/standing man figure on traffic lamps at pedestrian crossings, which escaped standardisation after a protracted battle. Here he is on a lamp in Dresden (the partly spoiled sticker at bottom is a Neo-Nazi one, indicative of the local strength of the NPD party):
Elsewhere in Dresden, though, there were pedestrian road crossings without lights and signs, which looked like applications of the theories of the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman (sorry no photo).
In Dresden, the buildings of the old city that partially survived the firestorm induced by the RAF fire-bombing in 1945 and were rebuilt shortly after the war are concentrated along the shore of the Elbe river; here the Catholic Court Church and the Semperoper. The fire-bombing wasn't the first barbaric attack aimed at the civilian population, and some of the buildings haven't been reconstructed for the first time: during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the Prussian army first torched parts of Dresden as occupier, then after they left, they bombarded the city (a scandal at the time).
At centre in the next photo is the dome of Dresden's landmark, the Frauenkirche (Ladies' Church), which was kept in ruins as a memento by East Germany but was rebuilt after Reunification. (I didn't enter it because the floor level was closed for travel groups and I had no time to climb the dome.) The building on the right is an art academy.
Further from the Elbe river, the appearance of the old city wasn't restored, instead, East Germany erected the typical monotonous high buildings of the East Bloc. The buildings along Prague Street, the main shopping street, were all renovated and sold Western brands, but the feeling of 'real existing socialism' was still there.
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