Berliners used to call them "Coke Cans": The Model Series 485 trains spent decades faithfully clacking along the tracks on Berlin's S-Bahn rapid transit system. Now the last 22 of the old trains — originally commissioned and built in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) back when a wall divided Berlin, and Germany, into East and West — are on their way out.
On November 12, the old 485s will take their last runs through the city before being retired.
The moves can't come soon enough for long-suffering Deutsche Bahn customers, who complain that Germany's reputation for good trains that run on time has been suffering for some time now, with frequent delays and cancellations and an antiquated rolling stock of slow cars that too often break down.
Pioneering technology from the 1970s
But back in the 1970s, when East Germany's Deutsche Reichsbahn first commissioned them from a factory in Hennigsdorf, north-west of Berlin, the "Coke Can" trains were cutting-edge technology.
Registered in East Berlin as the 270 series (they were rebranded 485s after moving west), the cars boasted a light aluminum shell and a state-of-the-art braking system was set up to recover energy and generate electricity to help power the train.
The new models did a few test runs in the late 1980s but, by the time a full fleet was ready to roll, it was early 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the process of German reunification was well underway. The freshly-lacquered cars had the run, not just of Berlin's eastern sector, but of the entire city.
The fleet has gone through a few changes since then including a change in style, as, starting from 2002, the cars' bright crimson hue gave way to the Berlin S-Bahn's iconic burgundy red and ocher combo. But beyond the aesthetic changes, the Model 485 has proven remarkably robust. Berlin originally planned to phase them out in the mid-2000s but only truly began replacing them with the new 483 and 484 models last year.
The old 485s have much weaker motors than the new models, as well a few design flaws, like an air-cooled ventilation system vulnerable to snowflakes, which could slip through slots and melt, damaging electronic components.
Newer trains use separate channels to cool the electronics in the undercarriage, protecting them from outside weather. New models are also more wheelchair accessible. The 485 models left a small gap between platform and train while the newer versions sit flush with station platforms.
The final death knell for the 485 came with the introduction of a remote control train safety system that made it easier to monitor speed and brake in emergencies. The old trains were incompatible with the new system, so the old models had to go.
Aesthetically, the 485 is showing its age. Blocky with flat slated windshields in the driver's car, the trains have a throwback look compared to the curved high-tech elegance of the new 484 series, which the Berlin S-Bahn has compared to a "speeding iPad."
"The trains, equipped with air conditioning, modern displays and camera technology, offer greater comfort, capacity and reliability for our passengers," said Peter Buchner, managing director of S-Bahn Berlin, announcing the decommissioning of the 485 series. "After 36 years of service, we can say goodbye to the 485 series into a well-deserved retirement."
An official farewell
S-Bahn Berlin will be sending the 485s off in style.
On November 12, once every hour from 9:57 am to 1:57 pm, four 485 trains travelling from all directions will meet at Schöneweide station and stand, side-by-side, for a silent tribute. After the five "rendezvous," two trains will leave the S-Bahn network. The other two will take a final trip, travelling in opposite directions along Berlin's circular "Ringbahn," stopping once at Beusselstrasse station before continuing to their final destination at Schöneweide. Planned arrival time: 3:17 pm.
German history on the rails
The history of the model 485 tracks with the transformation of Germany after reunification.
The original factory where the trains were built was named after Hans Beimler, a communist politician and Nazi resistance fighter who escaped imprisonment from Dachau concentration camp and was a lauded hero of the GDR.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the factory, which produced everything from electric trains to household appliances and garden furniture, was split up and sold off. The train division was absorbed by German group AEG before being bought by Canadian group Bombardier. Along the way, most of the factory's employees were let go.
To commemorate the decommissioning of the last 485s, the Berlin S-Bahn is selling off several hundred seats from the trains, giving the thick upholstered seats a second life as furniture or souvenirs for rail enthusiasts.
And not all the cars will be scrapped. Berlin plans to keep one Model 485 intact. It's donating it to the German Technology Museum to be part of its permanent exhibit.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier