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A trip to Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof

If you’re looking to visit one of Europe’s historical railroad stations, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof probably isn’t it. Opened in 2006, the city’s “main” or “central” station is a modern mix of rail and commercial space, encased in glass. There is, however, something to be said about the station’s upper floor, with a dome that evokes the train sheds of yesteryear (the glass is, however, thoroughly modern and contains 2700 square meters of solar paneling). While several tracks are located below ground, and there is a U-Bahn station further underground that will transport you to the Reichstag or Brandenburg Gate, the station’s most photogenic spot likely can be found under that dome.

The Lehrter Bahnhof in 1879
The Lehrter Bahnhof in 1879

Historically, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof was constructed on the former site of the Lehrter Bahnhof, which dated back to 1871. Unfortunately, that station was heavily damaged in World War II, and after the partition of Germany – which wreaked havoc on the city’s transportation systems – it was ultimately decided to demolish it. The last train departed the station in August of 1951, and by 1959 the station was completely gone, though the Stadtbahnhof viaducts which ran overhead were preserved.

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Sunsets and Long Exposure Photography on the Rails

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent my evenings exploring the rails, photographing at one of my favorite times of the day – sunset. While one generally loses the illumination of the sun’s rays, you gain a multitude of colors in the sky… and to me, there is just something magical about that.

In terms of night photography – or at least, what railfans tend to think about night photography – one usually uses artificial lights to illuminate a posed, unmoving train. Though it seems to be the en vogue thing to do these days, I see little reason to do so other than “because we can.” Most seem to do it for the novelty, or because all the “cool kids” are doing it. Many that take part look to evoke the work of O. Winston Link, arguably the best night railroad photographer ever (though Jack Delano, whose photographs I featured last week, was also an accomplished night photographer – it was never really his “claim to fame,” however). Unfortunately, most fall flat in their endeavor to “be like Link.” While I can see the merits of photographing steam trains at night (the lower light allows one to capture sweeping plumes of smoke from the engine), I see little reason to do it with modern trains. After dark I find it far more fun to capture not the train itself, but the train’s movement, and its environment.

Because of the low ambient light, long exposure photography allows one to record the movement of the train, rendered as blurs of light. In order to get a proper exposure, your camera shutter is open for longer – in some cases for 15 seconds or more (thus a stable resting place, preferably a tripod, is required). Done right, any moving object in the frame shows up as a blur, or a streak. Modern electric trains, like Metro-North’s M7s and M8s, with their shiny and smooth exteriors and LED lights lend themselves to this, becoming graceful blurs. Instead of artificial light, one uses the “natural” (or as natural as the light off a cityscape could be), and the intense colors of a sunset to evoke a completely different mood. Since I don’t really have a post lined up for this week, I figured I’d share some of my recent photographs taken at sunset, or at night… and maybe convince some of you that there is fun to be had after dark, far away from the now all too common “night photo sessions.”

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The Railroad Photos of Jack Delano

These days almost everyone has a camera – whether it be a point and shoot, an SLR, or just the stock camera that came with your cell phone. Despite all the criticism of people these days and what they’re photographing, part of me thinks that the people of the future who consume all their nutrients in pill form might find today’s photos of food taken by hipsters rather quaint. The fact remains that what is commonplace today may be noteworthy and historic tomorrow. Time has only proven this true – Boris Klapwald’s snapshots of Grand Central Terminal were boxed up and forgotten for nearly fifty years, until discovered by his daughter. She brought them to the MTA, and they were exhibited in the Terminal through Arts for Transit. Street photographer Vivian Maier was practically unknown until her largely undeveloped film was put up for auction after her death. Her discovered photos have since been exhibited around the world, and is the subject of a documentary. Although the good majority of the photos captured these days aren’t much to write home about, it is undeniable that we are well-documenting our world, and the things future generations will most likely interpret as just plain weird.

Though cameras were far less common in the past, there were many photographers that froze glimpses of what was then normal life. I’ve posted about the Depression-era photographers of the Farm Security Administration before – despite the name, the project yielded thousands of photos that had nothing to do with farms, but instead featured normal Americans living life – including two of the most iconic photographs of Grand Central Terminal. A similarly iconic photo of Chicago’s Union Station also came out of the project, captured by photographer Jack Delano. Delano’s railroad-specific work in the Chicago area is currently on display at the Chicago History Museum, which I recently got the chance to check out.

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Beautiful Underground – Gems of the Berlin U-Bahn

For over 200 years railways have been constructed across the globe to carry freight and people. Besides the trains, the integral part of every railway is, of course, the stations themselves. Some stations are rudimentary and simple, but others are undeniable gems. We’ve spent the past few weeks touring Berlin’s U-Bahn, which has many interesting stations, mixed in with plenty more bare and utilitarian stops that are hardly noteworthy. We are, however, back again to check out more attractive locales of the Berlin U-Bahn.

From the attractive Oberbaumbrücke to the unexpected above ground stations, Berlin’s U-Bahn is a captivating transit system. I’m not a big fan of subway stations, likely because I love light, of which there is never quite enough underground. However, some of the U3 Line’s underground stations are hard to ignore. A handful of some of the U-Bahn’s earliest stations are attractive gems. Many were located in the city of Wilmersdorf – then a suburb of Berlin. Conceptually, the stations’ aesthetic was to represent the affluence of the city – represented through elaborate stonework. The resulting stations featured Doric columns, granite floors, wrought iron gates, mosaic tiling, and sandstone-carved sculptures. By 1920 Wilmersdorf was folded into Greater Berlin, but these stations retain both the character and history of its predecessor.

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A Farewell to White Plains station staple – Waxman’s News

Any regular commuter through White Plains is likely familiar with Gary Waxman, proprietor of the station’s newsstand. And if you were a real regular, chances are Waxman even knew you by name. Last night, however, marked the end of an era – it was Waxman’s final day of work in the station.

Years before Metro-North was even established, Gary Waxman’s father purchased the retail space for the newsstand in the long-gone Warren & Wetmore-designed White Plains station. The younger Waxman spent weekends working the newsstand, and ultimately opted to work there full time instead of heading off to college. The elder Waxman bowed out of newsstand operations in 1986 due to illness, and Gary has run the business ever since. Much has changed since then, most notably the old station being torn down and a new one constructed in 1987. Waxman’s News was, of course, reestablished in the new White Plains station.

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Above-Ground on the “Underground” – Berlin’s U3

Last week’s post featured photos from the Oberbaum Bridge as an introduction to Berlin’s above-ground “Underground” stations. This time we’re taking a look at some more of these above-ground stations, with a focus on the U3 Line. If I had to pick my favorite U-Bahn line, the U3 would probably be it. Not only does it include some of the system’s oldest stations, it has a great mix of beautifully designed underground stations and tree-lined above-ground stations.

Trains are plentiful in the German city of Berlin, with the both the S-Bahn, and the U-Bahn, along with all the other longer distance trains that pass through. There is a general misconception that the S-Bahn is all above-ground, and the U-Bahn all underground (after all, the U does stand for untergrund), but despite that moniker, the U-Bahn has plenty of stations that catch the rays of the sun.

Map of the U3 Line
Map of the U3 Line, showing the above and below ground stations.

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Riding Berlin’s U1 Line: The Oberbaumbrücke

I’ve always said that my primary interest in railroads is not necessarily the machine that is a train, but instead the way railroad systems change over time, and how they influence the people and locations around them – or even how places influence the rails. For those with similar interests, the city of Berlin is a great case study. As I’m sure everyone is familiar, Germany and the city of Berlin were partitioned after World War II into areas occupied by the French, British, Americans, and Soviets. The Soviet portion became the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany, and the three other sectors the Federal Republic of Germany, better known as West Germany. In Berlin, a transit system that once spanned the entire city became truncated by this political divide. With the construction of the Berlin wall, starting in 1961, the city became truly divided.

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Ghost station: The U-Bahn station Bernauer Straße was closed after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Here you can see the entrance to the station, blocked by the wall. The station was reopened after the reunification of Germany. Photo taken August 27, 1962 by Allhails.

The citywide network of trains in Berlin struggled to conform to the divisions forced upon it by politics. In some instances, stations were completely closed, and lines were truncated as to not operate in the opposite sector. In other situations, lines were able to operate across the border, albeit with restrictions. The U8 line, for example, started in West Germany, but traversed a portion of East German territory before returning to the west. Although the train was permitted to pass through East Germany, they were not permitted to stop at the stations there. Shrouded in darkness and heavily guarded, these shuttered stations became colloquially known as “ghost stations.” In a unique situation, Friedrichstraße railway station, located in East German territory, was open to citizens from both sides of the border, though the station was divided into isolated sections for each.

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Taking a ride on Chernobyl’s “Radioactive Railroad”

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a big project in secret… and today is finally the day that I get to present it to all of you. Most of you are aware that I was recently in Ukraine, but the real intent of my visit was to see the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For many years I’ve wanted to write an article about the railroad that ran through the Exclusion Zone, half of which is now abandoned. I have finally fulfilled that goal.

Built by the Soviet military in 1927, the line connected the city of Ovruch in the west, to Chernihiv in the east, crossing the Pripyat, Dneiper, and Desna Rivers, and traversing a small portion of Belarus. The territory between the two cities was not especially valuable, nor heavily populated – yet railroad access could be useful from a military perspective, as railroads were considered the cheapest way to transport both soldiers and equipment.

Were it not for a chance event, the Ovruch to Chernihiv line could be operating in obscurity to this day. The chance event I’m mentioning, of course, is the Chernobyl disaster. This little rail line played a part in where the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s very first nuclear power pant would be built. Around sixteen sites were investigated as potential candidates, and one about 100 kilometers north of Kyiv fit the bill perfectly – it had a rail line with reliable train service, it had the nearby Pripyat River as a natural water source, and it had a lot of infertile land that could be taken over and turned into a cooling pond for the reactor.

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A Visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, and a ride on the Funicular

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, most likely you’ve heard at least a little bit of the recent news about Ukraine. Over the past year there have been protests, government-hired snipers to kill said protesters, a corrupt president that fled after the fallout of that decision, and land grabs by Russia. Although some volatile areas remain in the east of the country, some alarmists would have you believe that tanks are rolling down the streets of Kyiv[1] today, or that neo-Nazis have taken over the government, both of which are pure fiction. Admittedly, Kyiv is extremely dangerous, but only because it is so darn beautiful you may just fall in love and never want to come home. The architecture that one finds in the city is undeniably gorgeous. And one need not be a religious person to be in awe of the many magnificent churches and cathedrals in all parts of the city.

  
 
 
Scenes from Kyiv – Saint Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Saint Andrew’s Church, and views from the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

I figured it might be enjoyable to take a little tour of Kyiv, and some of the beautiful sights within. For railfans there are plenty of interesting places to check out, including the city’s Metro system, and an interesting main train station.

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  1. The more familiar Kiev is transliterated from the Russian Киев. Київ, written as Kyiv in English, is properly derived from the Ukrainian language. []

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A Railroad Journey to Ukraine: Chernihiv

Roughly a hundred miles north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is the city of Chernihiv. Chernihiv has quite a long history, dating back to the medieval times, and it is also home to Ukraine’s oldest church. In terms of railroads, the first station in Chernihiv was established in 1893, part of a narrow-gauge branch line of the Moscow-Kiev-Voronezh Railway. Passengers were carried into the city proper by horses until the 1920s when a bridge over the Desna River was constructed, allowing trains into the main part of the city, where a new station was constructed. By 1928 there were connections from Chernihiv to Gomel, in present-day Belarus, to the city of Ovruch in Ukraine, and to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

The Chernihiv – Ovruch line was a relatively unimportant one, primarily constructed for military purposes, but in the most coincidental sense had drastic effects on the Soviet Union and the world. The rail line played a part in the decision of where to locate Ukraine’s very first nuclear power plant, a place the world knows as Chernobyl (Chornobyl would be the proper Ukrainian transliteration). Since the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, a portion of that rail line was abandoned – a story I’m hoping to flesh out over several posts in the coming weeks.

Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv
Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv. Slavutych is the “replacement” city for those that worked at the Chernobyl plant, constructed after the disaster. The rail line again played a part in the location of this place.

The station that one finds in Chernihiv now was built in 1950. The previous station at that location was destroyed during World War II, or as it is known in former Soviet locales, the Great Patriotic War. Chernihiv was occupied by Nazi forces from 1941 to 1943, and the retreating Soviet army practiced a scorched Earth policy, which included the destruction of railroad infrastructure. The station was destroyed at some point in 1941, either by Nazi bombardment, or by the retreating Soviets themselves to prevent the Nazis from getting any use out of it. The station was rebuilt in 1950, using the labor of German POWs. The attractive design comes from Ukrainian Soviet architect Gennady Ivanovich Granatkin, who is responsible for the designs of several stations throughout the Soviet Union, in today’s Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine.

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