Impressions of Europe – Germany

I have come to the conclusion that Germans have not changed that much since 1945. They still want to kill you but have just changed their methods. Gas chambers have been replaced by second hand cigarette smoke (the Quit campaign obviously failed here) and panzer divisions have been superseded by mad and aggressive cy- clists. You have been warned.

We had spent some time in Germany on the 1979 trip visiting the trolleybus systems at Esslingen, outside Stuttgart, Kaiserslauten (now closed) and Solingen in the Ruhr Valley. We also visited Munich, did the scenic train trips along the Rhine and up the Moselle Valley and covered the other Ruhr towns including the unique Schwebebahn upside down monorail at Wuppertal. Although we had crossed into Germany once in 2013 just within the railway station at Basle and also twice on the Austrian tour in 2015 our first real entry was by over- night City Night Line train from Zurich to Berlin. What a disaster! It was partly my fault I guess as I had just assumed that this type of train would be similar to our Indian Pacific or at least the old Southern Aurora. Several classes of accommodation were offered and I guess I picked the wrong one.

We arrived at Zurich station in pouring rain and both coughing our guts out from the illnesses we had been experiencing for the previous week in Switzerland. We approached our carriage (you have to be in the right half of the train as well otherwise you may wake up in Prague instead of Berlin) and I asked the attendant where the baggage car was for stowing our two large suitcases.

I got a severe Germanic look and the response “Zer ist no baggage car, you must put zem in your compartment”. OK, so we move, with some difficulty along the corridor to the compartment. To find that not only is there no private shower or toilet but that the cases would also not fit under the bottom bunk. We ended up having to hoist one case up above head height to the shelf near the ceiling (which nearly killed me) and wedged the other in the corner below the wash basin. This left us with approximately enough room to swing not a cat but instead a rather underfed mouse.

Needing a drink we set off for the lounge car. Ha! This turned out to be a hole in the wall bar with some bum warmers to lean against. It seemed to be populated by staff rather than passengers but they all buggered off when we arrived. The toilet and shower were at the end of the carriage, the toilet having no spare dunny rolls (someone actually broke into the storage cabinet later on to rectify this). We lay down in our bunks and spent a restless night keeping the neighbours awake with our coughing – we got several severe looks the next morning.

Berlin’s Hauptbanhof has been fully rebuilt in recent years and is now a showpiece of their rail system. After risking death retrieving the suitcase from the compartment ceiling and making our way off the train we collapsed on a nearby bench seat, exhausted but needing to find the S. Bahn line to get to our hotel near the Zoo station. Why doesn’t the bloody lift work? Oh that platform the line is closed as the line is being rebuilt so over to the other one. The payoff was, on arriving at the hotel just after 8.00am we were told the miraculous news that our room was already available, allowing us to both shower and take a couple of hours nap before venturing forth into Berlin itself. Bliss.

Zoo Station itself is a useful transport hub for the enthusiast. The terminus and surrounding streets produced most of the varieties of buses which are listed below and was also one of the termini for Germany’s new breed of intercity coach services. Until quite recently such services were rare so as not to compete with the rail system but deregulation has now occurred and Germany is in the midst of the sort of intercity coach boom that Austral- ia experienced in the 1980s.

One of my main impressions of Berlin is that the council gardening staff must all have been on strike for several years. In the Swiss and French cities the parks and gardens, and even the grassed strips down the middle of some tram lines, always appear to have been manicured with nail scissors. By contrast, Berlin’s parks and median strips, especially in the former East Berlin, had weeds and long grass sometimes over a foot high.

German Railways (DB) also seemed to have changed since 1979. There was still a lot of older rolling stock compared to Switzerland and France. DB was once considered second only to Switzerland for punctuality and cleanliness. Now it seemed routine for trains to be delayed by 5-10 minutes or cancelled altogether and for local trains to be as dirty as those at home. Quite a disappointment. Platform signage and timetable boards are nearly as good as the Swiss but why oh why must the section of platform where the first class carriage pulls up ALWAYS be next to the designated smoking area?

Berlin’s transport system is massive. In addition to its extensive U. Bahn (metro style) and S. Bahn (suburban trains) rail systems, there are over 300 bus routes including 17 designated as Metro Bus. These are high frequency 24 hour a day services, similar to but rather better than Melbourne’s Smart Buses. They include routes 100 and 200 both vital to tourists as they run through the city connecting up most of the more popular sights.

Berlin is a double decker city boasting huge numbers of MAN deckers, the most recent being the ND202 model. With an eye to the future, in recent years they have also trialled prototypes from Dutch builder VDL, Scania and Alexander Dennis. What happens to the older deckers I hear you ask? Not a problem, you will have no trouble spotting MAN, Neoplan and other decker models in service with the half dozen or so completing open top tour mobs. Those that don’t stay in Berlin are running similar services in other tourist towns such as Dresden and Munich. Not all routes are decker operated and single deckers seen included Mercedes Citaro, MAN, Scanias and Solaris. Some of the latter were hybrid low emission buses (one was cutely signwritten Emission Impossible).

During the time of the Berlin Wall when the city was partitioned, the tram routes in West Berlin were replaced with buses whilst trams continued to operate extensively in East Berlin. The current network still largely reflects this with the first tram extension into the former West Berlin opening in 1995. There are 22 tram lines, nine of which have the same high frequency Metro designation as the bus routes. The tram fleet has shrunk over the years from around 1,000 to around 600, however this mainly reflects the replacement of older coupled sets with newer longer trams built by Adtrans and Bombardier. These are single enders with doors on only one side requiring loops at termini.

We had a couple of days prior to our tour starting so did the rounds of some of the tour locations. For the bus enthusiast try the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. The former has a whole street available for kerbside coach parking on both sides. One of those in attendance was a Volvo 700 from Denmark with signwriting proclaiming it as Coach of the Year, presumably from a motor show in the year it was built. Plenty of visiting coaches but you have to brave the traffic to get decent shots. Checkpoint Charlie is the opposite being forty coaches in search of six parking spots most of the day amid a chaotic scene of tourists, cars bicycles etc. Strange sights in the streets included a yellow bonneted International American school bus. An off beat visit was to the DDR museum which has displays of life as it was in East Germany. The 1980s there were rather like the 50s back home.

I also took the opportunity to visit Eberswald some forty kilometres north of Berlin (and not far from the Polish border) having discovered in my research that it also had a small trolleybus system, the only one surviving from the former East Germany. My Berlin Pass transport ticket took me to the far end of the S.Bahn system. From here it was a separate ticket and a 25 minute regional train ride to Eberswald. A Victorian equivalent would be taking the spark to Sunbury then a railcar on to Woodend or Kyneton. This also provided a look at the soviet era architecture along the way, rows and rows of now decaying concrete monstrosities, a monument to the success (not) of socialism!

For a smallish town there was plenty of transport. My red regional train connected with two blue coloured single unit railcars going out on branch lines. The bus zone outside was empty but across the way was a layover area and drivers lunch block. The lay over area produced the usual Citaro and MAN models plus, surprisingly, an Optare Solo. The trolleybuses run along the main road which crosses the railway line over a long embankment type bridge. The trolleys replaced trams in 1940 and about 12 vehicles operate three routes. The current fleet are all by Solaris.

Another trip on the S.Bahn was out to Wannsee, where there is a large lake of the same name. This is a favourite picnic spot for Berliners on the weekend. One of the bus routes here is operated by historic vehicles, a Bussing double decker in the day of my visit. I also sighted my one and only VDL low floor route bus. VDL is the successor to Bova and DAF from the Netherlands and still produces a variety of both buses and coaches. The driver didn’t like me also taking a phone pic for Facebook. Tough.

Once the tour sighted it was round Berlin and then out to Potsdam to visit the house where the Allies carved up Europe at the end of WW2. A walk across the bridge over the lake produced the curious sight of a steam ferry with retractable funnel to get under the relatively low height bridge. Potsdam also has its own tram and bus system but I was only able to glimpse them.

Off then to Dresden where we arrived just after lunch on a Sunday. The Insight TD had informed us “In Ger- many everything you see that is old is actually new”. This reflects the rebuilding of the old cities, cathedrals and other buildings following the bombing during WW2. Dresden was completely flattened by English bombers as a reprisal for what had happened to Coventry several years earlier. The old town has been rebuilt and is the mecca for tour coaches. I found it rather uninspiring though the mosaic mural depicting “The Procession of the Dukes” was a highlight.

A couple of hours free at the end of the day gave me the chance to explore modern Dresden in search of the local transport. With shops all closed the streets were all but deserted but trams and some buses still ran at reasonably frequent intervals. The tram system is extensive and the hub is outside the hauptbanhof with quite complex track and wiring junctions in the vicinity. On the other side of the station was the layover area and terminal for the intercity coach services. There were many police around the area but they took no interest in my activities. I think they were waiting for the after match footy hooligans.

From Dresden it was on through the countryside with its many sun farms. These are former crop fields now covered with solar panels as Germany, like France, has decided to close its older generation nuclear power stations, replacing them with a variety of “green” options as well as being more reliant on gas supplies from Russia and surrounding countries. All very well meaning I suppose but one can also see the day when Putin or his successor will threaten to close down the gas lines should Europe try to resist a resurgent Russia retaking some of its former USSR satellite states.

From Dresden was passed through Bayreuth and proceeded to medieval Rothenburg, one of the few places to have escaped the bombing and still have a genuine old city. Our hotel dated from the 14th century and most of the buildings were in the half timbered Tudor” style. Opposite our hotel was a souvenir shop which had its own replica 1920s era bus outside.

This was built using Iveco parts by the Asquith Motor Vehicle Company, which builds speciality vehicles mainly for advertising purposes. In the shop one could purchase a model of it. Jeanette bought me one.

After strolling around the traffic free centre (our coach could come in to drop off but then had to retreat outside the city wall), I wandered outside the wall myself towards the railway station. As the end of a small branch line the one and only train was a two car diesel railcar set with several connecting buses from a local private operator and a MAN Lions City operated by the railways. Being late afternoon coaches were arriving. Google maps had shown me a coach park a kilometre down the road so I walked there and found some 20 coaches (including hours) either parked up or being cleaned. It was a rich variety of the more standard Mercedes, Volvo and Setra models together with several rather exotics including an Hispano bodied Tata (Indian Mercedes).

Next day it was off to Nuremburg where the crumbing remains of the rally grounds were viewed plus a lunch stop in the old city. Having spotted a tram and bus hub back near the station I set out on what was rather a long trek (more than 1k each way) and gained some coverage, returning only just in time after taking a wrong turn on the way back. Jeanette browsed the old city from a carriage on one of the fake steam trains ths. The afternoon took us into Munich with a stop on the way at the headquarters of BMW to view their showroom/ museum. After the orientation tour we viewed the antics of the glockenspiel (an automated clock) at the Marienplatz followed by a beer cellar dinner.

The tour was to spend the following day at Oberammagau and Neuschwanstein, repeating material from our Austrian tour. I decided to forego this in favour of a visit to the Munch transport museum and some system riding. The morning was spent at the museum which has rail, tram, road and other exhibits in an excellent setting. Buses included an early Setra coach and a MAN trolleybus. The rest of the day I spent riding to all corners of the system which features U.Bahn lines, trams and buses (the usual Citaro and MANs) in a blue livery which contrasted greatly to the yellow and/or red liveries which seem to predominate elsewhere around the country. Frankfurt has a similar livery.

The last three days of the tour comprised visiting Lindau on Lake Constance, the Black Forest (with cake and cuckoo clocks) and a visit to the stunningly beautifu; university city of Heidelberg (another kilometre plus trek each way from coach park to tram/ bus hub) before finishing with a cruise along the Rhine Gorge (opportunities for cruise boat and barge photos plus a railway line on each bank). After the tour, instead of being dropped at Frankfurt airport we stayed on and activated a five day German Rail Pass.

Day one was spent with some time at Mannheim where two vintage trams were in Sunday operation. This was another place where a hundred or more cops were congregated around the station waiting for the visiting soccer fans to arrive. This was followed by brief stops at Kaiserslauten, a former trolleybus town now converted to buses and Saarbrucken, which features a cross border tram line into France. The return trip was by train up the scenic Moselle Valley to Koblenz then back to the hotel at Mainz. A flea market at Koblenz produced an an- tique model of a 1920s MAN char a banc type bus – a bargain at ten euros.

Next day Jeanette sat it out whilst I ventured by bus to Weisbaden (on a roundabout run which included skirting the U.S. Air Force base), then onto Frankfurt for more photography. From there I travelled to Esslingen for a brief stop at the second of three German trolleybus systems then on to Stuttgart for more coverage. When wi fi coverage was available I was also following the events occurring at home that day where Abbott was being ousted by Turnbull.

The next day we travelled up through the Rhineland to the Ruhr Valley for the last three nights at Dusseldorf before flying home. After dropping the bags I took Jeanette over to Wuppertal for a ride on the century old Schwebebahn Elevated railway (Skyrail anyone?).

The next three days were a virtual blur as there are so many towns, rail, tram and bus systems in the area plus the final of the trolleybus systems at Solingen. The distances between towns are so short and frequencies so good that much can be done in a day. Three days enabled a substantial coverage of Koln, Bonn, Koblenz and all the major towns in the Ruhr. The notable feature of a few of these is the undergrounding of the tram systems in the central city area. The underground platforms at Essen are quite surreal as there is blue lighting of the sort you normally associate with public toilets used by junkies.

The final day was spent sightseeing in Dusseldorf itself including a tram ride over the majestic Rhine bridge. At the station more cops could be seen congregating. Our limo driver said we were lucky to have booked an early car to the airport as a demo was expected to block much of the city centre. Exit stage left and back to the land of Oz.