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Berlin S-Bahn city suburban railway sights and sounds in an audio slide show

Since the early 20th century the crimson and ochre trains of the Berlin S-Bahn have been an integral part of life in the city. In this article I present an audio slide show with sights and sounds captured on the S-Bahn during August 2007.

The audio slide show is currently offline and will be reposted as a YouTube video. If you'd like to see it, please contact

The crimson and ochre electric trains of the Berlin S-Bahn have been a familiar sight in Berlin since the 1920s.

The S-Bahn serves the city and outer suburbs and, as in other German cities, it is part of the national railway system, run by Deutsche Bundesbahn, German Federal Railways. The U-Bahn, or underground railway, is operated by the municipal transport authority, in Berlin, the BVG.

Berlin has one of the most extensive suburban railway systems in the world. The S-Bahn came into being in 1924 when existing electric lines were merged. By the 30s, electrification was completed, and the north-south tunnel was built. The system was badly damaged in WW2 but gradually recovered.

An anomaly of the post war division of Germany was the fact that under the Four Power arrangements for occupied Berlin, the S-Bahn, even in the 3 westerns sectors, was operated by the east German Deutsche Reichsbahn.

In the fifties the S-Bahn was virtually the only transport link between West and East Berlin. In 1961 at the same time as the Berlin Wall was built, S-Bahn lines inside West Berlin were finally cut off from those in the east, but remained under the control of Deutsche Reichsbahn, East German railways.

Many West Berliners boycotted the GDR-controlled S-Bahn. For years the West Berlin S-Bahn was neglected and run down. Both trains and stations looked unchanged from the 1920s. But for me, this was a bonus. Riding pre-war trains with their wooden seats was like journeying back in time.

The S-Bahn had a special atmosphere, often depressing, but nevertheless inspiring. GDR writer Günther Kunert wrote an evocative short story named 'Fahrt mit der S-Bahn' or journey on the S-Bahn. My experiences of standing on empty platforms waiting for S-Bahn trains are incorporated into my 'Geisterbahnhof' short story and film project.

After the fall of the Wall, the S-Bahn systems were gradually reconnected. The older trains were phased out in favour of those we see today, but the crimson and ochre livery was retained.

Many stations have been completely modernised. The once delipidated and forgotten Papestrasse is now the ultra-modern Südkreuz, which is depicted in the slide show.

The nearby Schöneberg station is relatively unchanged from former years. I have captured the steps I drew a a pen and paper sketch of in 1980.

Unlike the London Underground, with its frequent delays and disruptions, the Berlin S-Bahn just keeps on running, day in, day out. It operates from around 4 am to 2am every day, 7 days a week. It's ultre-reliable, very convenient and relatively cheap to travel on.

The Berlin day ticket, giving access to the entire network of buses, trams, U-Bahn and S-Bahn costs 6.10 euros. (August 2007).

A fantastic way of seeing Berlin is to ride on the specially converted Panorama S-Bahn train with its outsize windows. More details on the Berlin S-Bahn website and on Wikipedia.

This audio slide show attempts to capture random impressions of travelling on the S-Bahn by day and night. Many of the photos are fuzzy and impressionistic, the sounds are chaotic and discontinuous. It's an experiment I threw together quickly. I've always loved the sounds of trains so it's great to be able to present them here, along with the images.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-09-03

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