Why Berlin has such a great rail and air museum

We visited Berlin’s Technology Museum for our son’s 6th birthday. We only had time for the aeronautics section and the trains – but I had my aha moment, and the boys loved the museum.

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Model of the current site of the Technikmuseum with U1

Travelling around Berlin today (on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Ostkreuz, and then on to Schönefeld airport for example), you see a lot of railway archeology – old shunting yards, signal boxes, engineering works – relics from a past where railways were even more important to the city’s life than they are today. In the museum, it suddenly dawned on me why Berlin, home to the revolutionary Borsig locomotive works, was such an early adopter of rail transport – not only was it a sprawling city in itself, it was (and is) so bloody far away from anywhere!

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Berlin-built Borsig steam engine “Beuth” from 1842

Look at places like the UK and the Netherlands – both used railways to their economic advantage (although the Netherlands was notoriously late) – but both had proven alternatives in the way of well-developed canal and stage coach transport links, and distances were small, anyway.

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Engine turning circle, originally part of Anhalter Bahnhof, reconstructed in situ in the 1970s for Technikmuseum

But in the case of Berlin, located in the midst of the East-Elbian steppe, there was no such alternative. Besides economic activity (freight) driving railway building, it must have been political and passenger demand that led to such a huge railway infrastructure radiating from the Prussian capital.

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Möckernbrücke U-Bahn station, seen from the Technikmuseum

The legacy is here today: such was the rapid expansion of the railway system, and such was the continuous improvement technology and things like stations, that today there are lots of abandoned former railway stations turned into other interesting uses: parks (Nordbahnhof, Anhalter Bahnhof) or modern arts museum (Hamburger Bahnhof – built in the 1840s but already released from railway duty in 1884).

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Prussian State Railways, ca. 1912. Image: wikipedia

And after the railways, history repeated itself in the early days of air travel: lots of aviation pioneers performed their flying experiments at Tegel and Tempelhof – again, not coincidentally, because the authorities were keen on entrepreneurs finding ways of breaking down the distances that separated Berlin from the outlying corners of the empire.

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Junkers Ju 52/3m or “Tante Ju” (Auntie Ju) – developed for parallel military and civilian use in the 1930s. Mainstay of German passenger aviation.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in my ‘discovery’ of this – but for me at least it put Berlin’s five (at least) airports and heaps of current and abandoned railway stations into perspective. And it explains why Berlin has the material for such a great rail and air museum!

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