14 Years for Three Stops Chancellor's Subway Line Opens in Berlin

After almost 14 years of construction work and 320 million euros, Berlin is taking pride in its newest metro line -- even if the U55 is a bit short.

Almost 14 years, hundreds of millions of euros, dozens of political wrangles, a fair few traffic jams and a flood or two -- and what does the city of Berlin get? One of the world's shortest underground train lines, that's what.

On Friday, the German capital's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, got one of the first rides on the U55, the city's first new metro train line in decades. The rest of the populace gets to ride the train from Aug. 8 onwards.

The U55, which the local newspaper Berliner Zeitung reports "with some certainly, could well be the shortest (underground train) line in the world," has cost around €320 million ($460 million) and been almost 14 years in gestation. It's actually been in the works for a lot longer than that, if you count the fact that the Berlin city government first suggested a train line that ran along the route the U55 follows as far back as 1919, after World War I. In the 1950s, the train line was approved again -- but then the Berlin Wall got in the way in 1961.

This 21st century incarnation of the underground line first found its way back onto the drawing board when the German government decided to relocate from Bonn to Berlin in the early 1990s, after reunification. It was thought the train line would serve the ultra-modern government quarter being constructed in the center of the Berlin -- hence the U55's nickname of the "Chancellor's Line."

And should German Chancellor Angela Merkel wish to sample the delights of the new metro line this weekend, it won't take up too much of her time. The U55 was originally supposed to connect up with the U5 underground line at another central station, Alexanderplatz. But years of escalating costs, city budget crises and work stoppages due to problems with groundwater have resulted in a partially finished line.

At one stage the federal government gave the city funds to keep the building work going. The deal was that if trains were not on the track, then Berlin would have to give the money back. By 2004 the city had realised it would cost it less to open a partially finished line, leaving several "ghost stations" empty, than return all the money it had borrowed.

Which is why it's only going to take Chancellor Merkel around three minutes to travel the 1.8 kilometer (1.1 mile) underground line. It runs between only three stations: Berlin's central station, the Hauptbahnhof, through to a station under the parliament, the Bundestag, and finally to the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin's best known landmarks.

While the U55 will certainly be handy for politicians catching intercity trains out of Berlin -- their limousine drivers can always meet them at the other end -- it is currently regarded as relatively useless for a lot of other Berliners. In fact, those benefiting most from the U55 will probably be visitors to the city. The line runs between some of Berlin's major sights and the Brandenburg Gate station will even have facilities to dispense audio guides for those interested in the Berlin Wall.

But with any luck, Berlin's shortest underground line won't be the shortest for all that long. The city plans to spend another €433 million extending the U55 to Alexanderplatz, as originally planned. If everything goes according to plan, the work should be finished by 2017.



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