This weekend, Berliners got their first taste of a new U-Bahn line. The mile-long U55 subway links the Hauptbahnhof central station and the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz, with a station in the middle underneath the German national government complex. The project’s opening is unlikely to change the commuting habits for many in the German capital, but in the long term a future connection with the U5 line and a new series of stations underneath the core of the city will make the U55 a valuable addition to the transit offerings in Berlin.
The original plan for the U55, conceived in the euphoria following reunification of Germany and the decision to build the new capital in Berlin, was to extend the current terminus of the U5 line at Alexanderplatz west to a new central station and then to a connection with the U9. This extended corridor is especially important because it follows the Unter den Linden, the city’s most prestigious street. Stations would be located on the Museum Island and on the prominent Fredrichstrasse.
Hoping to improve Berlin, the national government sponsored a part the project’s finances, prioritizing it over other municipal investments. The direct link between the parliament and the station is no accident. The city’s administration, however, was not always completely in favor of the project, and the mayor fought its construction.
To make matters worse, Berlin’s finances weren’t stable enough to ensure the construction of the whole line, and the project’s first phase was shortened to a shuttle between the Hauptbahnhof and Bradenburg Gate, making it effectively cut off from the U-Bahn network. Its two termini do, however, allow connections between the east-west and north-south S-Bahn regional rail lines (which also intersect at Friedrichstrasse).
To save costs, the line will operate on a single track with no signals and only one train, which will simply turn around every 10 minutes. The project cost €320 million and took thirteen years to finish. Most of the construction work was completed in tandem with the construction of the (quite impressive) new government center along the Spree River.
Expansion to double-track operation and the addition of signals will come as early as 2010.
The first phase of the project will be helpful for just a few people; the local transit authority only expects about 6,500 riders a day. This isn’t so much because a very short line necessarily will attract few passengers; anyone who’s ever ridden the 42nd Street Shuttle in New York City (0.8 miles long) can attest that there’s no correlation between length of line and ridership. Rather, S-Bahn commuters will find it easier to transfer at Friedrichstrasse and U-Bahn commuters won’t be able to get directly to the disconnected U-55. It will be a nice ride for a few tourists wanting to get from their intercity trains to the Bradenburg Gate and politicians hopping between the Bundestag and the train terminal.
Nevertheless, when Berlin burrows the U55 two miles further east to Alexanderplatz, the line will become an extension of the popular U5, which continues on to Lichtenberg and Hönow. This €433 million project will automatically expand ridership exponentially; indeed, the transit agency expects the entire segment to attract almost 200,000 rides per workday, no small feat. Many of these customers will save a significant amount of time as they currently must switch to S-Bahn lines to get to the city’s monumental core. A new subway under Unter den Linden — planned for 2017 — will be highly advantageous to both commuters and tourists.
The U55 is not going to do much as a one-track, one-mile route. The story changes once it’s eventually connected to the whole U-Bahn network.
Image above: U55 Map, from BVG