Take the Dart, cross it with the M50, sprinkle a few crazies among the commuters and you know what to expect on Berlin’s circle line, the Ringbahn.
It’s a 38km loop with no start and no end, running 24 hours through 27 stations. Literally and figuratively, the Ringbahn is an open-ended, open stage that reflects the rhythms of the city.
Early morning it’s the nurses in white and bleary-eyed builders in blue overalls, then come the office workers and students; early afternoon, the builders and plumbers again, nursing beers. In between come the families, tourists and chancers.
In 1906, shoemaker Friedrich Voigt donned a Prussian captain’s uniform, rounded up soldiers in a local barracks and ordered them to stand guard while he plundered the local town hall treasury. So dazzled were the soldiers by Voigt’s authority that none asked why their important military mission involved taking the Ringbahn.
Berlin’s circle line came into being 150 years ago, just six months after the united German empire, as a semi-circular railway line for cargo running north-east-south, far out from the then city centre. The first section took just four years to build while the western half followed six years later. A multibillion-Reichsmark prestige project, the new circle line drove Berlin’s expansion as an industrial powerhouse and imperial capital of the new German Reich.
By 1910 the train line, now for passengers only, had grown to four tracks. It was electrified in 1926 and the last station added in 1933.
As with the surrounding city, the second World War devastated the Ringbahn. The Red Army stripped as much of the rail infrastructure as they could carry and shipped it back east. And when East Berlin divided the city 60 years ago, on August 13th, 1961, the Ringbahn was severed, too.
Fun fact #1: the rump rail line in West Berlin was operated by the East German state-owned Reichsbahn. But in protest at East Berlin’s wall – and the subsequent casualties – then West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt called for a rail boycott to starve East Germany of revenue. Citizens followed his call, in huge numbers, and eventually the line closed down in 1980.
The unification of Germany – and Berlin – a decade later saw the Ringbahn emerge from its sleeping-beauty slumber, but it was only in 2002 that the trains ran again in a complete circle.
Today 400,000 Berliners – one in 10 of the population – use the train daily. Mostly above ground, it is a gentle journey through Berlin geography and history. My favourite stretch is the southern run with Tempelhof Airport in the distance and, before it, the vast expanse of the airfield that is bigger than Monaco.
I’ve been writing this article on the Ringbahn, on and off, for 40 minutes now, lulled along by the gentle electric hum of the motor.
Fun fact #2: Strictly speaking it’s not really a circle line at all: study a map and, if you squint your eyes, you may see a dog’s head.
Sitting next to me is Manfred, a Berlin pensioner in a beige jacket, beige cap and badly fitting face mask. He participated in the boycott but, today, uses the Ringbahn almost every day. The trains run at five-minute intervals at peak times, with up to 12 circling the line at once. If one is delayed, the system can snarl up fast.
“Even so, it’s still the fastest way for me to get around,” he says.
Listening in and nodding along is Markus, a tattooed care-giver with the word “Schnaps” carved into his knee. He’s another Ringbahn regular and remembers train-surfers on the roof – and the graffiti duo.
“One pulled the emergency brake and the other began spraying the exterior,” he says. “But those people are the exception. On the S-Bahn you mostly get the typical Berlin mix.”
Though it’s prone to delays, and not all wartime wounds have been fixed, Berlin’s Ringbahn wears herself well for a 150 year old: a red-and-yellow coat with an eye-watering turquoise interior.
Local politician Sven Heinemann, author of a book about the birthday girl, says he is most impressed by the vision of the Ringbahn planners.
“These days,” he said, “we don’t built in such a far-sighted way.”