Our seven-year-old son Maus is obsessed with the U-Bahn. In the company of me or Mrs. Cat, he has now travelled all nine underground lines and opened carriage doors at most of the network’s 170 stations. As some of you know, he’s made dozens of detailed drawings of headlamps and drivers’ cabs. At school he advised his teachers on the easiest way to reach unfamiliar station.
In addition as we never referred to the different lines in English, Maus first learnt to count in German. His first German expression was the oft-repeated ‘Einsteigen bitte’ (Step in, please). He even taught himself to recognise the different models of U-Bahn by the sound of their motors, identifying an approaching train before it reaches the platform.
So no surprise then that we joined tens of thousands of other Berliners this weekend to ride the ‘Chancellor’s U-Bahn’. The new line, which has been thirteen years in the making, is the shortest in country…and Maus has been looking forward to its opening day for months.
The U55 runs from the Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) to the Brandenburg Gate with only a single stop in-between –Bundestag. And as it doesn’t yet link up with any other of the city’s underground lines, it’s all but useless for most Berliners (apart from the Chancellor – or members of the Reichstag – who want a speedy get away from their offices to the Hauptbahnhof).
The journey from one end to the other takes just three minutes and covers 1.8 kilometers, making every meter of rail worth around €178,000 (the total cost of the project was € 320,000,000). In fact the mini-line was almost never built. In 1999 the bankrupt Berlin Senat ordered work to stop. It only resumed when parliament gave the city an ultimatum; finish the line and honor existing contracts or pay back millions in development aid.
Its limited use aside, the greatest disappointment is the design of the three stations. They are more open and user-friendly than other stations on Berlin’s 146 kilometer underground network, but they have none of the grandeur of new stations on London’s Jubilee line or of stunning Line 14 – especially Châtelet -- on the Paris Metro. Even with civic accountants cutting back imagination and expenses, the project still overran the original budget by 25%.
Yet none of this bothered Maus. He happily rode the single shuttle train back and forth, overheated on the bouncy castle outside the Bundestag, cooled down with mango ice cream and took in a clown show at the BVG (Berlin Transport) stage. He even collected four Playmobil U55 U-Bahn figurines, dated 2004/2006 (probably the original completion dates and kept in store since then).
Or perhaps it did bother him. Since the weekend he hasn’t once mentioned the U-Bahn – which has come as a big surprise. In a city which usually embraces architectural experimentation, it is a shame that an opportunity to thrill young and old alike has been squandered.
But all is not lost. The official plan is for the line to be extended east under Unter den Linden, Museum Island and the Rote Rathaus and linked with U5 at Alexanderplatz. At least three new stations have to be built. Perhaps the BVG’s architects will find the courage – and their bosses find the funds – to create stations worthy of their historical surroundings. Only time will tell. In any case I’ve promised Maus we’ll be at the opening of the extension – which is scheduled for 2017.