(CNN) — Overhead railways today seem like an anachronism – a 19th century vision of what the future of transportation would look like. By 2022, we would surely all be commuting to work on upside-down railways!
Unlike boring ordinary train lines that remain firmly fixed to solid ground, overhead train tracks hang below a track suspended from pylons. Their cars fly over roads, rivers and other obstacles, while passengers enjoy the view.
The idea, ironically, never really took off despite a few successful albeit short-lived projects like the Braniff Jetrail Fastpark System which ferried passengers from the parking lot to the Dallas Love Field terminal for four years before the airport closed in 1974.
Today, the only suspension railways in operation are in Japan and Germany. And it is in Germany that the original, and still the best, can still be found in all its steampunk glory – the Wuppertal Schwebebahn.
It all started in the 1880s, the aftermath of the so-called Gründerzeit era of Imperial Germany’s rapid industrial expansion. The entrepreneur and engineer Eugen Langen had experimented with a suspended railway to transport goods in his sugar factory in Cologne.
Meanwhile, the nearby town of Wuppertal had a problem. A booming local textile industry had seen the area grow from a small collection of settlements along the Wupper River to an urban sprawl of 40,000 people who now needed to move.
Because the long, winding river valley made rail or traditional streetcars impossible, city officials solicited proposals to solve the problem – and Langen arose.
In 1893 he offered his suspension railroad system to the city, which pounced on the proposal. Construction began in 1898 and the line was inaugurated in 1901, with Kaiser Wilhelm II taking a test run with his wife Auguste Viktoria.
Nearly 20,000 tons of steel were used to create the elevated track that winds through the city. Its 20 beautiful Art Nouveau stations complimented the glass and wood interiors of the carriages that could carry 65 people each.
The network was extended to its final length of 13.3 kilometers (8.3 miles) in 1903, with runs beginning and ending at turning loops connected to the line’s Vohwinkel and Oberbarmen stations.
The new railway proved to be a hit with the locals. Over the next few years, the length of the trains increased from two to six wagons, running every five minutes.
The Wuppertal suspension railway is able to bypass obstacles such as roads and waterways.
Oliver Berg/picture alliance/dpa/AP
Passenger numbers plummeted during World War I, when many Wuppertal workers served in the Kaiser’s armies, but by 1925 the network had already carried 20 million passengers on the gentle Wupper River.
During World War II, the network was badly hit by Allied bombs during heavy air raids on Wuppertal in May and June 1943, then again in January 1945, but on Easter 1946, not even a year after the fighting ended. in Europe, the entire course was already back in action.
For Rosemarie Weingarten, born in the Barmen district of Wuppertal in 1933, the Schwebebahn remains the cultural jewel of the city because of its durability.
“I don’t think there’s a more iconic symbol representing both Wuppertal and Barmen than the Schwebebahn. It’s always been there for me and I’m proud it’s still going,” she said. told CNN.
The elephant in the carriage
A statue of Tuffi sits where he landed.
Tim Oelbermann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
In 1950, the Schwebebahn had its most famous passenger to date, even more publicized than the Kaiser: Tuffi the elephant.
The Althoff circus was in town and had organized a promotional trip for the young pachyderm, who at the time was a minor celebrity in West Germany. Tuffi was generally fearless around people, so circus owner Franz Althoff used her regularly to advertise his show.
She had previously ridden streetcars, drank from a holy water fountain, delivered cases of beer to construction workers and, somewhat less heroically, ate a bouquet of flowers and urinated on a Persian rug.
First, his Schwebebahn trip seemed to be going very well. She boarded the train at Wuppertal-Barmen station (where Althoff had to buy four tickets for Tuffi and one for himself).
But the car was packed with journalists and officials, so when Tuffi tried to turn around after a few minutes, she couldn’t and panicked. She first stomped on a row of seats, then jumped out of a window into the river 10 meters (33 ft) below.
The river was only 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep there, but the ground was muddy, so Tuffi only suffered a few scratches. Althoff had, apparently, wanted to jump after her, but instead continued to the next stop from where he ran to the dazed elephant and brought it back to the circus camp.
A basalt statue created in 2020 by artist Bernd Bergkemper sits on the exact spot where Tuffi landed in 1950.
Roll in the past
Today, the gently rocking Schwebebahn no longer carries elephants, but is still used as a commuter train, carrying an astonishing 25 million passengers a year, pre-Covid.
Sadly, almost all of the glorious first generation wagons are gone, and even the iconic GTW 72 wagons introduced in 1972 and which ran for 27 years have been replaced by the sleek blue “Generation 15” trains which entered service in 2016.
Even with the new trains, the Schwebebahn itself remains popular with aficionados.
“My fascination with the Schwebebahn lies in the way it was built over 100 years ago,” says Cologne architect Christian Busch. “To realize such a project without computer-aided systems would be unthinkable today.
“A ride on the Schwebebahn gives the passenger an extraordinary insight into the life of the local inhabitants and really feels like a fairground attraction from days gone by.”
The Schwebebahn, for non-elephant users, remains an extremely safe means of transport.
Until 1999, it was even considered the safest means of public transport in Germany, recording only a handful of small accidents in almost 100 years of operation.
In April 1999, however, the Schwebebahn experienced its darkest hour: five people died and 47 were injured when a train collided with a 100-kilogram iron hook left during construction work and plunged eight meters in the Wupper.
Since then the railway has had its ups and downs, especially since the last upgrade when in 2018 a 350 meter long power cable crashed into the street below and crippled the Schwebebahn for almost nine months, the longest service interruption in its history.
The railway reopened in 2019 and was once again widely and happily used by the residents of Wuppertal.
The railway carries 25 million passengers a year.
Given its incredible history and iconic look, it’s no wonder the Schwebebahn has inspired many works of art and German popular culture in general.
It was alluded to in the 1902 science fiction novel “Altneuland” (The Old New Land) by Zionist writer and political activist Theodor Herzl. He features in director Wim Wenders’ 1974 film “Alice in den Städten” (Alice in the Cities), in Tom Tykwer’s 2000 drama “Der Krieger und die Kaiserin” (The Warrior and the Empress), and in again in a 2011 Wenders film, “Pina”, celebrating another Wuppertal icon, choreographer Pina Bausch.
English artist Darren Almond, nominated for the Turner Prize, created a Super 8 cinematic work entitled “Schwebebahn” in 1995, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has in its collection a two-minute film from 1902 filmed from a Schwebebahn wagon with a unique view of the Wuppertal landscape.
For locals and visitors, the Schwebebahn remains a beloved anachronism.
“Today, for static and economic reasons, gray concrete is often chosen and characterizes our infrastructures”, explains Christian Busch, the architect. “But the iron girders of the Schwebebahn allow trains to carry its passengers without having to account for the ever-increasing volume of traffic below, and they look great.”
Japan’s Shonan Monorail is designated as the sister rail line of the Schwebebahn.
ENOSHIMA, JAPAN – AUG 16: The Shonan monorail passes over a road on August 16, 2019 near Enoshima, Japan. Scheduled to host sailing events, Enoshima is one of several areas in and around the Japanese capital that will be involved in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
And this beloved anachronism is one that could still point the way for the future. Since 2018, the Schwebebahn has been the sister railway of the Shonan monorail in the Japanese city of Kamakura, to share best practices and promote suspension railways as sustainable modes of travel.
And if you ever visit Wuppertal and want to feel really chic, there is still a glorious original car in use, the one Wilhelm II and August Viktoria used in 1900.
Known as the Kaiserwagen or Imperial Carriage, it can be booked for private functions, including weddings.