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Suspension of Belief

Car 2 of the latest-generation Vossloh Kiepe Schwebebahn stock approaches the western terminus over Vohwinkeler Strasse; overhead wires visible to bottom-right are for the terminus loop for trolleybuses of neighbouring Solingen. (Neil Pulling)

The German city of Wuppertal is rightly proud of its Schwebebahn hanging railway, a rare installation of such technology that is being transformed as it enters its 12th decade.  Neil Pulling pays a visit.


The Wuppertal civic website’s non-German pages are led by words and images of the landmark Schwebebahn. For English readers it begins, “The city of the world famous suspension monorail provides a lot…” It is commonplace to capitalise on an already established identity, although in this case the subject is far from common. Making similar capital, the city’s logo combines a Schwebebahn image leading into a letter W. Translations of Schwebe relate to hanging and can include a sense of hanging in the balance, but not so here.
After 115 years of service and with the last two decades seeing large-scale replacement and modernisation, the Schwebebahn remains an everyday transit system. The rolling stock aspect of the upgrading has however fallen short of the original intentions. It was hoped that a new fleet would be in revenue service by the end of 2015, but longer than envisaged approval processes mean that a revised target of late October 2016 was also postponed although the mobile ‘shop window’ of the system seems to be on the verge of welcoming the public.
In common usage, the term ‘monorail’ applies to vehicles running above and astride a central beam yet is correct in using the description as its vehicles are suspended beneath motorised double-flanged wheels running on a single overhead rail with a limited pendulum movement.
The Schwebebahn is an entirely overhead railway, a key feature of the original rationale being to avoid heavily-developed ground space and impediment by other traffic.
Around 27km (17 miles) east of Düsseldorf, Wuppertal is one of a tight cluster of large communities in Nordrhein-Westfalen; the 2010 census of just under 350 000 made it the 17th largest German city. The main railway station, Wuppertal Hbf, is on the national long distance, regional and Rhein-Ruhr S-Bahn network. Currently part of a major reconstruction project, the station was once called Elberfeld and the name change represents a key aspect of Wuppertal, for the city was and to some degree remains a collection of local identities. The several railway stations within Wuppertal variously host trains of the S-Bahn, regional and DB InterCity/ICE networks.
By exploiting the flow of water down this Rhine tributary, the Wupper valley became heavily industrialised long before Germany’s formal existence. The main activities of the area were processes of textile production and as demand increased more surface space was taken for factories and to house an expanding workforce. Based on separate towns, several street tramways were installed, with the first operating by 1874, initially horse-drawn. Unlike the Schwebebahn, the tramways were not confined to the valley bottom. City transport was organisationally combined in 1940, but the metre-gauge tram lines closed by 1970 and their 1435mm counterparts by May 1987 – upon closure some stock went to systems like Krefeld and Graz. The working Bergische Strassenbahn Museum ( between Wuppertal and Solingen focuses upon the wider area’s once-intensive light rail coverage.

Enormous overheads
In the late 19th Century there emerged support for accelerating local travel along the valley. Devised by Eugen Langen (1833-95), an engineer from nearby Köln (Cologne), a suspended system provided an answer. This addressed the problem of limits on where a new route might go, for Langen’s system could use the air space over and along the river.
Like the UK’s Forth Railway Bridge, it was an early yet enormous example of riveted steel engineering, in both cases with the vehicles dwarfed by the infrastructure. Construction began in 1898 with opening in three sections between March 1901 and June 1903. The system pre-dates the host city’s formal existence, for it was not until 1929 that Barmen and Elberfeld were municipally combined. Wuppertal became the official name for these and neighbouring communities in 1930. The local authority estimates that 1.5bn journeys have been made on the Schwebebahn since it opened.
The 13.3km (8.3-mile) route follows the deeply set valley, overall rising from south-west to north east. Within this length, the Wupper and the 10km (6.2 miles) of the line above it takes many turns. This contrasts with the straighter sections above roads, such as that above Kaiserstrasse at the western end of the route near the Vohwinkel works and depot which is partially integrated with the terminus. There is more vehicle storage just beyond the eastern terminus near Wuppertal-Oberbarmen main line station. Between the termini are 464 supporting arches which carry a deck with a single running rail above each edge. Beneath the deck are rigid conductor rails (busbars) for each direction. These align with current pickups on the vehicles located on the opposite side to the arms which connect them to the four two-wheel motor bogies.
Free of most afflictions of ground-based transit, when the Schwebebahn is disrupted it is more likely to require at least a temporary closure of the service. With uni-directional vehicles in end-to-end operation, there is little scope for implementing a shortened route, nor for bypassing a problematic location.
The long-term rebuilding programme therefore inevitably necessitated several long-term closures. In cases like the breakdown in August 2016, recovery and replacement arrangements are necessarily more ad hoc.
Although it was not the only incident with safety implications over the years, nothing was comparable to the April 1999 derailment. The fall of vehicle 4 onto a pipe bridge and into the river near Robert Daum Platz station led to five deaths and many injuries. The catastrophic separation of vehicle from track stemmed from the failure to remove a scaffolding clamp used during engineering works, with this obstacle going unseen in the darkness from the first service of the day.
Urban transport is run by the municipal utilities body, WSW Wuppertaler Stadtwerke. In its annual reports, WSW Mobil ( identifies the Schwebebahn (network line 60) as the heart of the city’s public transport, despite also running 291 buses. Acknowledging the Schwebebahn’s antiquity and symbolism, WSW also stressed the need to keep it efficient, comfortable and competitive. Given the system’s peculiarities and evident visitor appeal, it is easy to overlook that it is primarily a normal way of getting around for an average of 85 000 passengers each day. Generations have grown up with the line as a crucial service as well a landscape feature.
Wuppertal grew from industry and although not devoid of other attractions, it largely presents an unostentatious, hard-working identity; accordingly for tourists using the Schwebebahn, it is not the experience of skimming over a theme park in the company of others at leisure. Publicity stresses the service’s rich history, yet much of today’s infrastructure, including the supporting frames, dates from major renewals since the mid-1990s. All 20 stations are elevated, 16 of which are directly above the Wupper. Irrespective of styling, nearly all the stations have to varying extents been rebuilt in recent times. Despite the stations’ aerial locations, modernisation with lift and escalator access, coupled with the fairly small step-up to the vehicles at platform level has made the Schwebebahn a very accessible system.
Sited around the system’s mid-point, the nominal Schwebebahn Hauptbahnhof station – an old structure by the system’s standards – is apart from its main line namesake. Into 2016 the transfer between them has been more awkward due to the Döppersberg redevelopment project that closed the connecting pedestrian underpass. This major rebuilding of the Hbf area will reduce the separation caused by earlier road schemes and will create a better city gateway; such improvements cannot bring the two rail systems physically closer, but completion will make transfers between the main line, bus and Schwebebahn more pleasant and much easier.

Turning the air blue
Continuing in service for longer than once expected, in late 2016 services remained operated by an originally 28-strong fleet (numbered 1-28) built by MAN between 1972 and 1974 – a MAN Gustavsburg factory supplied much of the original system.
These articulated three-section GTW72 (or B72) vehicles have two long and one short inner section with vestibule connections. WSW’s blue and orange livery is on a few B72 vehicles, but literally high visibility has made them very saleable for advertising. Although various predecessor classes to B72 have gone from service, modified first-generation single cars remain active. Running as a coupled pair to operate ‘Kaiserwagen’ hire and special services, single car numbers 5 (used by Wilhelm II in 1900) and 22 are liveried to represent the early days, with onboard staff uniformed in the same spirit.
The B72 replacement contract was signed in November 2011 with Vossloh Kiepe, the stock initially designated as GTW 2014. The striking styling is the work of renowned Berlin-based agency büro + staubuch. Vossloh Kiepe entrusted the München (Munich) office of Swiss-based engineering specialist PROSE with the comprehensive mechanical design and the system integration of the new vehicles under a turnkey contract. PROSE developed a body structure that is assembled from aluminium extrusion profiles, so the finished body weighs just 5.4 tonnes. To meet modern passenger requirements, the firm incorporated a continuous row of windows which offers a bright and comfortable ambience.
With the November 2015 delivery of 01, the first of 31, the designation was changed to Generation 15. Vossloh Rail Vehicles (a division sold to Stadler in November 2015) is assembling the stock in Valencia, Spain.
The basic configuration and dimensions of the Generation 15 follows that of the B72, although the interior has wider vestibules that will be generally better for internal circulation than previous vehicles, and features brighter, padded wooden frame seating, better ventilation and wheelchair ramps. There is a greater glass area and although the deep rear window may not appeal to the nervous, it will become a prime position for many.
The first testing on the system was overnight in early February 2016 and driver training and tests interspersed with normal services followed. If WSW’s intentions are realised, the Schwebebahn will enter 2017 with the first examples of the next generation of passenger vehicles in normal service and the full fleet by the year’s end. Able to reach the line maximum of 60km/h (37mph) more rapidly than the MAN vehicles, there is a potential five-minute reduction in end-to-end journey times. The new stock and ERTMS-based signalling upgrades, courtesy of Alstom’s facility in Salzgitter, will enable two-minute headways to be operated.
The current weekday service pattern on the Schwebebahn is approximately 05.15-22.50, with a peak interval of 3-5 minutes and end-to-end travel taking about 30 minutes.
Although a rare mode, there are two other suspended railways near Wuppertal. All are included in Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr ( transport association fares and all are covered by the NRW SchönerTagTicket for state-wide all day travel. Respectively opened in 1984 and 2002, the Dortmund University H-Bahn and Düsseldorf Airport ‘SkyTrain’ use a comparatively lightweight Siemens automatic system that uses pairs of parallel wheels at the top of the support arm which run within channels inside a beam.
What they have in common with the Wuppertal veteran is crossing ground-space that would pose particular challenges to alternative modes – and attracting travellers who are not just ‘going from A to B’.
Also opening in 1901, but more funicular-like in operation, another German system with the Schwebebahn name is in Dresden, a two-station hillside installation.