Marina Manoukian on the chequered but fascinating history of Berlin’s tram network…
The oldest tram stop in Berlin lies at Am Kupfergraben, in the center of the city close to the Museum Island and the German History Museum. It was created in 1865, the same year Berlin’s horse-drawn tram network came to life—the oldest such system in the world and the one that formed the basis for the city’s current tram network, which in turn is the longest in the world, with up to 190 kilometres of track, over 800 stops, and more planned for the 21st century.
As effective as the horse-drawn trams were, they consumed huge amounts of water and oats and left an even larger amount of waste behind them. The first electric tram went into operation on May 16th 1881: invented by Werner von Siemens, it was initially used to ferry passengers between Berlin and Lichterfelde, which at the time was an independent town, and ultimately signed the death warrant for its horse-drawn predecessors, the last of which operated on August 28th, 1908.
Not only were electric trams considered more reliable, they were also faster, running at around 20 kilometers per hour. But the life of a 19th century tram worker was not an easy one. For many years, drivers worked without any cover in all kinds of weather, the rationale being that they could warn pedestrians that may be in the way; it wasn’t until the 1920s that the driver’s seat was closed off and protected from the elements, and it also took almost 20 years from the system’s inauguration before tram workers got benefits such as social insurance, medical coverage, and pensions.
The latter only occurred after a great strike in 1900 when, despite tram customers supporting tram workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to send in troops, demanding at least 500 casualties: “a demand so outrageous that it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone to act on it,” according to the London Review of Books.
In 1925, Vladmir Nabakov declared in his ‘Guide to Berlin’ that “the streetcar will vanish in twenty years or so, just as the horse-drawn tram has vanished. Already I feel it has an air of antiquity, a kind of old-fashioned charm”. He was wrong; by the turn of the 20th century, almost 400 kilometers of tram tracks were already laid and at least 20 different tramway companies competed for passengers. Then again, by the end of World War II the major infrastructural progress the city had made was in ruins, with roughly 75% of trams damaged and 95% of the overhead cables destroyed.
It was the Soviets who got the tram up and running again, and for a short amount of time the lines bore names with Latin and Cyrillic letters. This, somewhat unwittingly, harkened back to the early days of the tramway—the first numbering schemes for trams came into play in 1902 and was rather messy, with single digits designated for ring lines, double digits for lines in eastern Berlin, and a mix of letters and numerals in the west; this slightly confusing system was dispensed with when the Große Berliner Straßenbahn (GBS) merged all the tram companies in 1920.
When Berlin was divided, the tramway was also split in twain. The West side was managed by BVG-West and the East side by BVG-Ost, later renamed the VEB Kombinat Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVB). The ideological differences between the two regimes were soon manifested on the tramway: before the city was split, women had been allowed to drive trams, albeit mostly during World War I and World War II during labor shortages. But in Fighting the Cold War in Post-Blockade, Pre-Wall Berlin, Mark Fenemore notes that women in West Berlin were banned from driving trams, as well as trains and buses, due to “medical rules.” As a result, authorities on the western side refused to allow a tram driven by a woman to cross into their sectors, and would “[make] the tram wait until a man replacement driver arrived.”
In January 1953, large-scale prohibition of women tram drivers coming into West Berlin went into effect. As a result, one woman who was driving a tram was stopped at gun point and told to go back to the east. In response, GDR authorities began stopping trams crossing into their sector, ultimately leading to a cessation of tram services at the border; although trams could still travel to and from the border, people had to get off the tram and cross the border on foot to get to their next station. This continued for a number of years, but once the wall went up on August 13, 1961, tram services between the two sides of the city became non-existent.
Starting in 1954, West Berlin decided to start replacing the tramway with bus and U-Bahn routes. This was partially due to the idea that the tramway was obsolete, but there was also a desire to remake the city in the image of Western cities like London or Paris, and the tramway was too reminiscent of the East. Another justification to move away from trams was to make the city “car-friendly” and move away from electricity to diesel fuel—an idea largely affected by the German car lobby, which has since become known as the “toughest lobby in Europe.”
Although tram services continued on both sides of the wall for several years, West Berlin’s decision to invest in trains and buses led to the tram being completely phased out there: the last tram in West Berlin was the No. 55, which travelled on October 2nd, 1967. It would take another 60 years before the tram finally found its way back to the west.
The infamous yellow color of Berlin’s trams was implemented in the 1990s, as part of the city’s “new, post-unification identity”, and harkened back to the one used by the BVG after it was created to take over the tram companies in 1928. During the Nazi regime, the color had been replaced by ‘ivory beige’, which ended up staying in use on the city’s trams (and buses) until 1990.
These days, the tram system is a somewhat unevenly distributed experience. It’s easy to hop onto one if you’re in the east of the city, where a number of busy junctions happily host multiple stops for a variety of different lines, their guiding cables spreading out like a vast net, just waiting for you to pick a direction; even if you find yourself at a lone stop there’s likely another line running close by a block or two away. But although some of the eastern lines were re-extended after the wall came down, there is still a glaring gap in the west, as any tram map will quickly reveal. Luckily for locals and visitors, a number of trams conveniently travel through the city center, making their way to Hauptbahnhof.
Berliners today actually have two types of tram service; the MetroTram routes, which include an M with their line number, and the Straßenbahn. The Straßenbahn runs 20 hours per day, while the MetroTram, introduced in 2005, operates at all hours of the day and was intended to cover areas in the east that are heavily traveled but have no U-Bahn or S-Bahn traffic available, like Lichtenberg and Marzahn.
Nabokov described his ‘streetcar’ experience as a shaky and creaky, with the overhead lines often coming undone and having to be shaken back into place. The latter still happens now, in fact—I’ve seen it from my apartment window—albeit more rarely. The gentle rocking of the older trams is of course long gone, though the smooth, certain glide of the electric version still has the ability to lull one to sleep. And while perhaps not as charming—or noisy—as the clip-clopping of horse-drawn trams, the electric hum of today’s trams, especially as they speed up or slow down, is nonetheless equally unmistakable and an integral part of the city’s soundscape.
Indeed, if you live near a tram line, as I do, it’s also possible to feel them; my whole apartment trembles whenever the M13— one of my favourite lines, which I can ride all the way to Weissensee, one of the city’s few inner-city lakes, or farther on to Wedding—passes by. Rather than being a nuisance, there’s something consistent and reassuring about it, not unlike the tram’s very existence.
Even today, trams provide a different experience from the trains and buses. From the side streets they often emerge onto the city’s broader boulevards, offering passengers an interesting mix of quiet neighbourhoods and central or commercial areas. Although bound to tracks that sometimes serve as a divider between traffic lanes, the trams mingle with the city’s street traffic in a way the more aloof U- and S-Bahn can’t and don’t, sighing to a stop at traffic lights alongside cars and bicycles, and sometimes ejecting and collecting passengers in the middle of a street or right on a cycle lane.
Some lines continue to use the older cars, and although even the Tatra tram cars have been discontinued as of 2021, the further you get from the city center, the further in time one travels. For this, the M68 line through Grünau offer snapshots of a line unchanged, taking you through the pine forest and along the edge of a sparkling Langer See on a fairy-tale journey close to the Berlin-Brandenburg border. The tracks flow through the forest as the tram weaves along the lakeside, disappearing into the wilderness as it turns the corner. Farther toward Brandenburg, on the other side of Großer Müggelsee, the tram cars of the Woltersdorfer Straßenbahn take on an air of antiquity compared to the newer and shinier models.
And far from being in decline, the tram system is still growing. In 2021, the Berlin Senate approved an extension of the M10 into Kreuzberg and Neukölln, as well as a further extension from Hauptbahnhof to the Turmstraße U-Bahn station in the West. There are up to 15 other tram extension projects planned as well, but the extensions won’t be up and running until at least 2028. While it’s likely nothing compared to the ruckus made by the horse-drawn trams, the whinny of the electric trams is equally unmistakable as it weaves through the city, at once both flexible and rigid, a periodic reminder that the life of a city is also its history.