Germany Holidays: Wuppertal’s Schwebebahn

For an industrial city, Wuppertal is rightfully proud of its green space – and its pioneering suspended people-mover.

Monorail, floating above the townscape, is an iconic image from many a science fiction film. A futuristic concept, it is usually dismissed by most world cities as too expensive and intrusive to be contemplated in the eternal struggle between public transport and the motorcar. But for one town in western Germany, Wuppertal, the future came early; in fact it arrived over a century ago in the shape of the Eugen Langen Monorail Suspension Railway, aka the Schwebebahn or Floating Railway, the oldest monorail in the world.

Wuppertal city is a major industrial centre in North-Rhine Westphalia, and its manufacturing profile includes textiles, chemicals, medicine, rubber, vehicles and printing equipment. One of the most famous pain-killers, Aspirin, was invented here by Bayer, which is one of the town’s big employers. So it was a natural venue to try out an innovative new form of public transport.

In fact entrepreneur Eugen Langen first trialled his idea in Cologne, where he had a business making wagons and carriages for the nation’s railways, and he had hoped to sell it to Berlin. But Wuppertal showed interest where Berlin did not, and eventually after three years of construction a 13km stretch of track was opened in 1901, travelling for much of its length suspended like a giant spider above the Wupper river. It remains in full operation today, carrying as many as 25 million passengers a year.

Eugen Langen will be disappointed to see how slow his concept has been in catching the public imagination

Views are good from the train, although the steel structure which hosts it can be intimidating to people using those streets which host the monorail. In fact its long history has a near-perfect safety record, and the only fatalities in 110 years of operation were five deaths which occurred in 1999, when trackworkers left part of their equipment hanging from the rail.

Otherwise, its most inglorious moment came back in 1950, when in an attempt to promote an upcoming show, Althoff Circus loaded Tuffi, a young elephant, onto the monorail. This was a mistake. During the ride, Tuffi panicked and burst through the side of the train, falling some nine meters. Lucky for her, the train was above the Wupper River at the time, and she went splashing into the water. The elephant (along with two journalists and one passenger who were hit by Tuffi on the way out) received only minor injuries, and Tuffi went on to live another 39 years (presumably warning her children and grand-children never to travel by monorail).

Elsewhere in the world there are monorails in China, Japan and the US, but generally they don’t make more than a token contribution to people-moving, and Eugen Langen will be disappointed to see how slow his concept has been in catching the public imagination.

*Update, May 2011: the Schwebebahn plays a significant part in the latest Wim Wenders film, Pina, just released. See how many times you can spot it in this trailer.

The official site for the Schwebebahn is here.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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