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History of rail transport in Germany

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History of rail transport in Germany

This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series

German Railway history officially began with the opening of the steam-hauled Bavarian Ludwig Railway between Nuremberg and Fürth on 7 December 1835. This had been preceded by the opening of the horse-hauled Prince William Railway on 20 September 1831. The first long distance railway was the Leipzig-Dresden railway, completed on 7 April 1839.


  • Forerunners 1
  • Railways prior to the formation of the German Empire in 1870 2
    • Development 2.1
    • The first railways 2.2
    • First trunk lines 2.3
    • Central European network 2.4
    • European network 2.5
    • State railway ambitions 2.6
  • The Länderbahn era (1871 to 1920) 3
    • Nebenbahn 3.1
    • Important lines 3.2
  • Deutsche Reichsbahn (1920–1945) 4
  • Transition period (1945–1949) 5
  • Deutsche Bundesbahn (1949-1994) 6
  • Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) (1949–1994) 7
  • Deutsche Bahn (1994-present) 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
    • Notes 10.1
    • Bibliography 10.2
  • External links 11


A German Georgius Agricola (De re metallica Libri XII), the forerunner of all modern rail wagons


The forerunner of the railway in Germany, as in England, was to be found mainly in association with the mining industry. Mine carts were used below ground for transportation, initially using wooden rails, and were steered either by a guide pin between the rails or by flanges on the wheels.

From 1787, a network of wagonways, about 30 kilometres long, was also built above ground for the coal mines of the Ruhr in order to streamline the daily transportation of coal to loading quays on the River Ruhr. But the railway network in the Ruhr was not utilized as public transport. Some of these tracks were already using iron rails - hence the German term for railway, Eisenbahn, which means "iron way". The Rauendahler Schiebeweg in Bochum (1787) and the Schlebusch-Harkorter Kohlenbahn (1829) are examples of railways from those early days that can still be seen today. From 1827-1836, a wagonway was also built in Austria and Bohemia from Budweis to Gmunden via Linz.

The railways in Germany were given a significant impetus by the development of the first working locomotives in England (by Richard Trevithick in 1804 and John Blenkinsop in 1812) and the opening of the first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, in 1825. In Germany, even before the first real railways opened, there were attempts to use locomotives for railway operations. For example, in 1815, Johann Friedrich Krigar built a copy of the Blenkinsop steam engine at the Royal Iron Foundry, Berlin, for Königshütte in Upper Silesia; and, in 1818, he built another locomotive for the 1.8-kilometre-long Friederiken-Schienenweg, a coal line near Geislautern in the Saarland, which had been converted in 1821 from wooden to iron rails. This engine worked, but failed to meet expectations due to its poor performance.

2010 postage stamp

Railways prior to the formation of the German Empire in 1870

In the first half of the 19th century, opinions about the emerging railways in Germany varied widely. While business-minded people like Friedrich Harkort and Friedrich List saw in the railway the possibility of stimulating the economy and overcoming the patronization of little states, and were already starting railway construction in the 1820s and early 1830s, others feared the fumes and smoke generated by locomotives or saw their own livelihoods threatened by them.


No. 302 of the private Mecklenburg Railway, built in 1866

The political disunity of three dozen states and a pervasive conservatism made it difficult to build railways in the 1830s but the growing importance of the Zollverein made the construction of a coherent infrastructure a necessity. The initial impetus to build was hampered by complicated negotiations on land ownership. However, by the 1840s, trunk lines did link the major cities; each German state being responsible for the lines within its own borders.

During the 1820s, the nobility favoured costly and economically inefficient (but prestigious) canal projects over railroads. In the 1830s, the growing liberal middle classes supported railways as a progressive innovation with benefits for the German people in general as well as for the shareholders in the joint stock companies that built and operated the railroads. Though private concerns such as the Nuremberg-Fürth Railway were superseded by state railway companies in the 1840s, the government companies copied many of the private companies' methods and organizational structures.[1] Economist Friedrich List, speaking for the liberals, summed up the advantages to be derived from the development of the railway system in 1841:

First, as a means of national defence, it facilitates the concentration, distribution and direction of the army. 2. It is a means to the improvement of the culture of the nation…. It brings talent, knowledge and skill of every kind readily to market. 3. It secures the community against dearth and famine, and against excessive fluctuation in the prices of the necessaries of life. 4. It promotes the spirit of the nation, as it has a tendency to destroy the Philistine spirit arising from isolation and provincial prejudice and vanity. It binds nations by ligaments, and promotes an interchange of food and of commodities, thus making it feel a unit. The iron rails become a nervous system, which, on the one hand, strengthens public opinion, and, on the other hand, strengthens the power of the state for police and governmental purposes.[2]

Lacking a technological base at first, the Germans imported their engineering and hardware from Britain, but quickly learned the skills needed to operate and expand the railways. In many cities, the new railway shops were the centres of technological awareness and training, so that by 1850, Germany was self-sufficient in meeting the demands of railroad construction, and the railways were a major impetus for the growth of the new steel industry. Observers found that already as early as 1890, (14 years after the invention of the Otto cycle engine by Nikolaus August Otto and his partner Eugen Langen) their engineering became superior to Britain's.

The following years saw a rapid growth: By the year 1845, there were already more than 2,000 km of railway line in Germany; ten years later that number was above 8,000. Most German states had state-owned railway companies, but there were several large private companies as well. One of these private companies, the Rhenish Railway (Rheinische Eisenbahn), built the first ever international railway line. The line connected Cologne to Antwerp in Belgium and was opened in 1843.

The first railways

In 1833 the economist Friedrich List (1789–1846) published in Leipzig a design for a German railway system

In 1820 Friedrich Harkort founded a consortium with the aim of building a wagonway from the Schlebusch Coal Region (Kohlerevier Schlebusch) to Haspe. The Schlesbusch-Harkort Coal Railway (Schlebusch-Harkorter Kohlenbahn), with a length of one Prussian mile, was largely completed by 1828 and was the first railway to operate over such a distance. The haulage of coal on this narrow gauge railway was carried out by horses. On 1 April 1876, steam locomotives took over the work. The railway is now closed and has been dismantled, although parts of the line may still be seen. The tracks and wagons were later used in a roughly similar way in the construction of the Deilthal Railway. With the laying of iron rails from Essen by the Deilthal Railway Company, founded in 1828, the first proper railway line was built on German soil. According to one description, the tracks of this line consisted of oak sleepers one which so-called Straßbäume (wooden rails), each 3.30 metres long, were laid in pairs and fixed with wooden nails. Iron rails, 40 millimetres thick, were fastened onto the Straßbäumen, again with wooden nails. The track gauge was initially just 82 cm. The line was one Prussian mile or 7½ kilometres long. On 20 September 1831 the Deilthal Railway was ceremonially opened by Prince William, a son of the Prussian king, Frederick William II, and was to be called from then on the Prince William Railway Company (PWE). Until 1844 it was operated as a wagonway for the transportation of coal, but as early as 1833 passenger wagons were available "for enjoyment". In 1847 the railway was converted to standard gauge and was worked between Steele South and Vohwinkel as a steam-driven railway with the name Steele-Vohwinkel Railway (Steele-Vohwinkler Eisenbahn). The trackbed is used today by S-Bahn line no. 9.

The Adler (built 1835) in an 1850 photograph

The majority and official view, however, is that the Stephenson and Co. in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Englishman, William Wilson drove the locomotive on this first journey and became the first engine driver in Germany. In contemporary publications this first journey by a steam locomotive was seen as the beginning of a new era. The decision of the Ludwig Railway Company to opt for the English system, including its rail profile and track gauge, flanges, wagons and so on, also had a normative effect because subsequently, the German railways adopted the same standards based on what was clearly a mature system.[3] The development of the German railway network bypassed this line and it was never connected to other railways. Finally, it had to compete with electric trams running between Nuremberg and Fürth. On 31 October 1922 it was closed and used for a tramway.

The railway network in 1849

This was followed by the first railway in Prussia, the Berlin-Potsdam Railway: the 11-kilometre-long stretch from Zehlendorf to Potsdam which opened on 22 September 1838; its 12-kilometre extension from Zehlendorf to Berlin was opened on 29 October 1838.

From 1 December 1838, the Duchy of Brunswick State Railway operated between Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel. this was the first railway in Germany to be in state ownership, probably intended to prevent a takeover by Prussia, but it was later sold to Prussia in 1869 due to the financial difficulties which the Duchy found itself in.

The Düsseldorf-Elberfeld Railway opened the line between Düsseldorf and Erkrath on 20 December 1838, thus becoming the first steam railway in the Rhineland and the Prussian Rhine Province.

The first railway line in Hesse was the 41.2-kilometre-long Taunus Railway between the free city of Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, the capital of the Duchy of Nassau, which was taken into operation in four stages between 26 September 1839 and 19 May 1840.

First trunk lines

The first section of the Leipzig-Dresden Railway, from Leipzig to Althen, was opened on 24 April 1837, becoming the third German railway to be built. The line was completed through to Dresden on 7 April 1839. With a total route length of 120 kilometres, this was also the first German trunk or long-distance railway and the first exclusively steam-powered railway in Germany. Its route also included the first German railway tunnel.

On 29 June 1839, the first section of the Magdeburg-Leipzig Railway, from Magdeburg to Schönebeck was opened. After being extended to Halle and Leipzig in 1840 it became the first international main line and had a route length of 116 kilometres.

Between 1839 and 1843, the Rhenish Railway was built from Cologne to the border station of Herbesthal, with its connection to Antwerp. The line was opened on 15 October 1843 and was the first railway line that crossed an external border of the German Confederation.[4]

On 12 September 1840, the Grand Duchy of Baden opened a state railway: the route from Mannheim to Heidelberg and the first section of the 285-kilometre-long Baden Main Line from Mannheim to Basle, which reached Freiburg im Breisgau on 1 August 1845, and which was completed in 1855. Unlike all the surrounding railways, Baden used a broad gauge of 1600 mm until 1854/55.

On 12 September 1841, the Berlin-Anhalt Railway Company began working the route from the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin to Köthen (Anhalt), where the line met the Berlin-Potsdam-Magdeburg Railway. As a result, Köthen became the first railway hub in Germany.

With the opening of the Berlin-Frankfurt Railway on 31 October 1842 from Berlin's Silesian station to Frankfurt (Oder) the now loosely connected German railway network now had a total length of just under 1,000 km.

On 22 October 1843, the 16-kilometre-long Kreuzbahn ("cross railway") was opened from Hanover to Lehrte, the first line operated by the Royal Hanoverian State Railways. Lehrte became an important railway hub, with routes to Berlin, Cologne, Hildesheim and Harburg in front of the gates of Hamburg.

The first section of the Cologne-Minden Railway, from Deutz to Düsseldorf, was opened on 20 December 1845; the second section to Duisburg followed on 9 February 1846. The line was extended the following year, reaching Hamm via Dortmund on 15 May, and, on 15 October 1847, the entire 263-kilometre-long line to Minden was completed, initially just single-tracked. On the same day the line from Hanover to Minden was opened by the Royal Hanoverian State Railways.

On 1 September 1846, the last section (Frankfurt (Oder)Bunzlau) of the 330-kilometre-long Lower Silesian-Märkisch Railway was opened, linking the two great cities of Prussia, Berlin and Breslau. At the same time the main line of the Upper Silesian Railway that started in Breslau reached Gleiwitz in October of that year. Within three years the railway network in the German Confederation had more than doubled in length.

Three and a half months later, on 15 December 1846, the Berlin-Hamburg Railway went into service: a 286-kilometre-long diagonal connection between the two largest cities of what became the German Empire.[5]

Likewise in 1846 the Main-Neckar Railway from Frankfurt (Main) to Mannheim and Heidelberg went into service.

Central European network

Locomotive of the Cologne-Minden Railway supplied in 1848 by Borsig

In the north the line from Celle to Harburg owned by the Hanoverian State Railway in the Kingdom of Hanover reached Harburg on the River Elbe on 1 May 1847. In autumn of that year continuous east-west links were established:

Berlin's termini were not linked within the city until 1851, when the Berlin Link Railway entered service.

On 18 October 1847, there was a continuous line from Breslau to Cracow for the first time when the Upper Silesian Railway was linked to the Cracow-Upper Silesian Railway. With the completion of the railway within Breslau on 3 February 1848 that connected its termini, there was now a continuous rail link from the Rhine to the Vistula And with the closure of a short gap between the William Railway in Upper Silesia and the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway in Austrian Silesia on 1 September 1848, the first contiguous Central European network was formed, reaching as far as Deutz, right of the Rhine, in the west, Harburg in the north, Warsaw and Cracow in the east and as far as Gloggnitz at the northern foot of the Semmering Pass in the south. Among the northern lines there were still small gaps in Berlin and Hamburg.

In the following year, 1849, a connexion from Berlin to Kassel via Halle (Saale)/Gerstungen was established when the Halle–Bebra railway owned by the Thuringian Railway and the Frederick William Northern Railway in the Electorate of Hesse were completed. The connexion of the southern German states of Baden and Bavaria took somewhat longer:

European network

Baden Class IX, built 1854–1863
The railway network in 1861

Following the takeover of Cöln-Crefeld Railway at the turn of 1855/56, the Rhenish Railway Company, which was founded to build the line to Belgium, began work on a railway from Cologne upriver along a section of the left bank of the Rhine. This line reached Rolandseck on 1 January 1857, Bingerbrück in 1859, today Bingen Central Station, to where in the same year the main line of the Hessian Ludwig Railway was extended, linking Mainz with Ludwigshafen from 1853.

With the opening of Cologne's Cathedral Bridge on 3 October 1859 the west European rail network, consisting of the French and Belgian networks and German lines west of the Rhine, were joined to the central European network that, meanwhile, had been extended to Flensburg, Königsberg (Prussia) (now Kaliningrad), Rzeszów in Galicia, Hungary beyond the Theiß, and to Triest on the Mediterranean.

In 1860 the Prussian Eastern Railway was extended to the Russian border beyond Eydtkuhnen (today Chernyshevskoye) in German East Prussia. With the opening of the branch from Vilnius (German: Wilna)–KaunasVirbalis (German: Wirballen, Russian: Вержболово and Polish: Wierzbałowo) on the Saint Petersburg–Warsaw Railway to this border crossing near Kybartai, the first junction between the European standard gauge and the Russian broad gauge networks was established.

State railway ambitions

Locomotive of the private Mecklenburg Railway, built 1866

The governing bodies of the German states had differing attitudes to the railway. Some left the initiative to private operators, others attempted to establish a state-owned railway, especially in the southern German monarchies of the Grand Duchy of Baden, Kingdom of Bavaria and Duchy of Württemberg. Prussia, on the other hand, initially encouraged private railways, but later took several railway companies into state ownership that had run into financial difficulties, such as the Berg-Mark Railway Company.

Locomotive of the Berlin-Hamburg Railway, supplied in 1873 by Borsig

Following the unification of Germany in 1871, attitudes changed in Prussia; Otto von Bismarck, in particular, pressed for the development of a state railway system. The railway was seen as having great military-strategic importance. Numerous ways were tried in order to create a common, German state railway. This was finally achieved during the inter-war years (1918–1939): in accordance with the Weimar Constitution the Deutsche Reichsbahn was founded.

The Länderbahn era (1871 to 1920)

Borsig engine for Berlin–Hamburg Railway, built in 1873
Prussian state railways' P8,
built 1906–1923

  • Animated map of railway lines in Germany 1835–1885
  • The Leipzig-Dresden railway line through time

External links

  • Knipping, Andreas (2013). Die große Geschichte der Eisenbahn in Deutschland: die illustrierte Chronik [The Great History of Railways in Germany: The Illustrated Chronology] (in Deutsch) (special ed.). München: GeraMond Verlag.  


  1. ^ David J. S. King, "The Ideology Behind a Business Activity: The Case of the Nuremberg-Fürth Railway," . Business and Economic History, 1991, Vol. 20, pp 162-170
  2. ^ List quoted in John J. Lalor, ed. Cyclopædia of Political Science (1881) 3:118 online
  3. ^ Wolfgang Mück: Deutschlands erste Eisenbahn mit Dampfkraft. Die kgl. priv. Ludwigseisenbahn zwischen Nürnberg und Fürth (Dissertation at the Universität Würzburg), Fürth, 1985 (2nd revised edition), p. 196, OCLC 214732497
  4. ^ The first international railway route had already been opened on 14 November 1842; this was the cross-border line from Valenciennes in France to Quiévrain in Belgium.
  5. ^ By contemporary definitions the larges German city in 1846 was Vienna with 521,289 inhabitants (c.f. Berlin 408,502, Hamburg 148,754).
  6. ^ by Colleen A. Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (1994).
  7. ^ Allan Mitchell, Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry, 1815-1914 (2000)
  8. ^ Rainer Fremdling, "Freight Rates and State Budget: The Role of the National Prussian Railways 1880–1913," Journal of European Economic History, Spring 1980, Vol. 9#1 pp 21-40
  9. ^ Alfred C. Mierzejewski, The most valuable asset of the Reich. A history of the German National Railway: Vol 1: 1920-1932 (1999); Vol 2: 1933-1945 (2000)
  10. ^ Alfred C. Mierzejewski, The collapse of the German War Economy, 1944-1945: Allied Air Power and the German National Railway (2007)
  11. ^ Lutz, Friedrich; Lange, Bernd and Müller, Matthias (2003). "DB launches new locomotive strategy". International Railway Journal 43 (11): 42. (subscription required)
  12. ^
  13. ^ http://www.forbes.coms/oliverwyman/2015/10/20/european-bus-upstarts-snatch-20-of-passengers-from-rail/2/



See also

The German railways have long been protected from competition from intercity buses on journeys over 50km. However in January 2013, this protection was removed,[12] leading to a significant shift from rail to bus for long journeys.[13]

In 1989, the Wall fell. Train frequency rapidly increased on the existing East/West corridors; closed links which had formerly crossed the border were re-opened. On 3 October 1990, Deutsche Bahn).[11]

Deutsche Bahn (1994-present)

Text to follow.

Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) (1949–1994)

In 1988 the prototype InterCityExperimental (ICE V) set a new German railway speed record of 406.9 km/h (254.3 miles/h) on the new high speed line between Fulda and Würzburg. In 1991 the new high speed lines Hannover-Fulda-Würzburg (280 km/h) and Mannheim-Stuttgart (250 km/h) were opened for service including the new ICE 1 train sets.

The DB started in 1968 with changing the locomotive and passenger car serial numbers to the UIC norm. In 1970 the DR followed. The DB started experimenting with the Intercity trains in a new livery (bright orange).

Unlike the DRG, which was a corporation, both the DB and the DR were federal state institutions, directly controlled by their respective transportation ministries. Railway service between East and West was restricted; there were around five well-controlled and secure checkpoints between West and East Germany, and about the same number between East Germany and West Berlin. Four transit routes existed between West Germany and West Berlin; citizens of West Berlin and West Germany were able to use these without too much harassment by the East German authorities.

From 1949, the new governments assumed authority for railway operations. The DRG's (or DR's) successors were named Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB, German Federal Railways) in West Germany, and Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR, German State Railways) in East Germany kept the old name to hold tracking rights in western Berlin.

Deutsche Bundesbahn (1949-1994)

Deutsche Reichsbahn (1949-1993)

After World War II, Germany (and the DRG) was divided into 4 zones: US, British, French and Soviet. The first three eventually combined to form the Federal Republic of Germany (the West) and the Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic (the East). German territories beyond the Oder were ceded to Poland except for the northern part of East Prussia, which was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945.

Transition period (1945–1949)

During the Second World War, austere versions of the standard locomotives were produced to speed up construction times and minimize the use of imported materials. These were the so-called war locomotives (Kriegslokomotiven and Übergangskriegslokomotiven). In the absence of a good highway network and trucks, Germany relied heavily on the railways, supplemented by slower river and canal transport for bulk goods.[9] The rail yards were the main targets of the "transportation strategy" of the British and American strategic bombing campaign of 1944-45, and resulted in massive destruction of the system.[10]

The grave lack of passenger coaches resulting from World War I reparations led to the design and production of all-steel, standard passenger coaches in the 1920s and early 1930s. These four-wheeled, branch line coaches, nicknamed Donnerbüchsen, lasted into the 1970s and can still be seen today on museum lines.

The standardisation of goods wagons under the German State Railway Wagon Association, that had produced the Verbandsbauart ('Association design') wagons, continued as new designs using interchangeable components were introduced from about 1927. These were the Austauschbauart ('interchangeable design') wagons. The 1930s saw the introduction of welded construction and solid wheels replacing spoked wheels on new goods wagons. As the Second World War loomed, production was geared towards the war effort. The focus was on fewer types but greater numbers of so-called Kriegsbauart or wartime designs for the transportation of large quantities of tanks, vehicles, troops and supplies.

New construction standards since 1925 resulted in Einheitsloks (DRG Standard design), using similar mechanical parts to lower costs, which allowed fast and reliable manufacturing, repair and operating. New DRG Standard design locomotives were mostly large passenger and freight locomotives, like the Class 01 or Class 41. In 1928 the Rheingold Express started riding between Hoek van Holland and Basel. On 11 May 1936 the streamlined steam locomotive 05 002 established the first railway speed world record above 200 km/h: 200.4 km/h, between Hamburg and Berlin. The record was finalised by Mallard in 1938 at 203 km/h.

The more than 200 steam locomotive types of the different German Länderbahnen were grouped into Baureihen (BR) (roughly translates as classes) of engines with similar wheel notations, like the "BR 18" which covered all 4-6-2 Pacific express train engines.

In 1920 after World War I the Länderbahnen were united to form the Deutsche Reichsbahn. According to the "Dawes Plan", it was by law in 30. August 1924 transformed into Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (DRG, German State Railway Company), a private company, which was required to pay reparations of about 660 million Marks annually.

Deutsche Reichsbahn (1920–1945)

At the end of the First World War, most of the state railways lost their 'royal' or 'grand duchy' titles as the nobility abdicated. Huge reparations of locomotives and rolling stock followed. Epoch I ended with the merger of the seven remaining state railways in the newly created Deutsche Reichsbahn in 1920.

In order to enable the free exchange of goods wagons between the different state railway administrations, the German State Railway Wagon Association (Deutscher Staatsbahnwagenverband or DSV) was formed in 1909. The standard wagons that resulted are often referred to as 'DSV wagons'.

The Palatinate Railway (Pfalzbahn), formed in 1870, was a private railway company that was nationalised in 1909 and became part of the K.Bay.Sts.B..

Several states operated their own railways, collectively called the Länderbahnen (state railways). Those created up to 1871 were the:

Important lines

As the main line network consolidated, railways were driven into the hinterland, serving local needs and commuter traffic. This was the age of the branch line or Nebenbahn (plural: -en), also variously called the Sekundärbahn ("secondary line"), Vizinalbahn ("neighbourhood line") or Lokalbahn ("local line") depending on local laws and usage.


Prussia nationalized its railways in an effort both to lower rates on freight service and to equalize those rates among shippers. Instead of lowering rates as far as possible, the government ran the railways as a profitmaking endeavor, and the railway profits became a major source of revenue for the state. The nationalization of the railways slowed the economic development of Prussia because the state favoured the relatively backward agricultural areas in its railway building. Moreover, the railway surpluses substituted for the development of an adequate tax system.[8]


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