Visitors to the Berlin Industrial Exposition could scarcely believe their eyes when a locomotive passed by as if moved along its track by an unseen hand, without smoke or steam. What they didn’t know was that they were witnessing the birth of one of the most important technical innovations of the 19th century, the electric railway, which in its various forms as tram, subway or high-speed train was to dominate the future of public transport. 

Bigger cities, more traffic – a horse-drawn era nears its end

In the second half of the 19th century, local public transport was primarily reliant on horses: hackney carriages and trams were the main vehicles on the road, along with a few steam-powered buses. Yet in view of the population explosion, particularly in cities with their countless commuters, horse-drawn transport soon reached the limits of its capacity.

The steam locomotive as well, which had become established for long-distance travel, was no solution, because it proved too inflexible for use in cities, and the pollution caused by the soot and noise in an urban environment would have been massive. 

Carrying passengers with electricity – “The electric railway is quite a spectacle”

Ever since the discovery of the dynamo-electric principle by Werner von Siemens in 1866, one had therefore tried to utilize electric motors for transportation purposes. And with success: in 1879, Siemens & Halske presented the world’s first electric train in which power was supplied through the rails. The 150-volt direct current flowed through the two rails to the small locomotive via an insulated flat iron bar mounted between the rails.

The little electric locomotive, on which the driver sat, pulled a train of three small carriages – each holding six passengers – around a 300-meter-long circular track through the exhibition grounds. The electric railway was the highlight of the exposition, and soon became the talk of the town throughout Berlin. Exhibition visitors were thrilled: the little train carried more than 86,000 passengers in four months.

Werner von Siemens described the train’s unexpected success in a letter to his brother Carl: 

Our electric railway […] is quite a spectacle here. It is running even better than expected. In just a few hours’ time, around a thousand people a day are being transported for a donation of 20 pfennigs to charity. The train carries 20 to 25 people and runs at roughly the pace of a horse-drawn tram. This is something we certainly can develop!”

Werner von Siemens to his brother Carl, June 12, 1879

Overcoming resistance – the triumphal march of the “Electric” begins

And so it came to be: Just one year later, Werner von Siemens, for whom the electric railway at the exhibition had been no more than a trial model, proposed building an elevated railway in Berlin. But he was forced to abandon his plans following objections from property and house owners who feared it would lower the value of their real estate.

But the company founder couldn’t be stopped. In 1881, he built a 2.5-kilometer-long electric tramway in Berlin at his own expense – the world’s first. It was followed by the first electric trolleybus, mine locomotives and the first underground railway in continental Europe, in Budapest. The triumph of the electric railway could no longer be held back! 

Electric train’s potential fully explored ­– modern high-speed trains break records

Werner von Siemens had immediately recognized the railway’s potential as a mode of mass transport. And he was right: starting from that first electric railway, Siemens can now look back on a history of more than 140 years in electrifying rail transportation, from trams and subways to today’s high-speed trains. A recent example is the latest generation of the Velaro high-speed platform. The multiple-unit train delivered to Eurostar International Ltd. and named the Eurostar e320 can hit maximum speeds of 320 kph.

The first train began running through the Eurotunnel between London and Paris in November 2015. In May 2017, it began operation on the London to Brussels route. Since April 2018, the longest multiple unit train in the Velaro family, 400 meters long, has been running between London and Amsterdam via Brussels.

Franz Hebestreit / Alexandra Kinter

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