Take a ride on the Scwebebahn

Jess Zimbabwe's picture
I'd been obsessed with it ever since I saw The Princess and the Warrior. (Between that and the funicular in Flashdance, there is just something about bad-ass chicks that commute via unique transit.) So, when I found myself with an unexpected free morning in Essen, Germany, after especially cooperative weather for photographing the day before, I hopped on the S-Bahn towards Wuppertal to see the famed train. 

It was even better than I'd expected. I wanted to run up to people on the train and say, "do you realize that you get to commute every day on the coolest train ever?" Obviously, Wuppertalians are more blasé about the situation. (If you watch my video, linked below, you'll see that no one chooses to sit in the only remaining empty seat because it's next to me-and I've already established myself as the crazy lady with the camera.)

A Swiss friend later told me that "schwebe" roughly translates into "gliding," and that's just what it feels like-a gliding train. When the train picks up some speed in between stations and then hits a curve, the cars sway significantly. In fact, riders are warned about the sway when they step on and off of trains at stations.

The city of Wuppertal lies in a relatively steep valley around the Wupper River, which means that it would be technically difficult to excavate for a subway (due to the high water levels) and that a singular, linear primary transit line makes sense. If you bear with my crude sketch below, you can see that the riverbed is infrequently intruded upon by the train's frame footings, and the train frame is at a height that allows it to easily cross over even truck traffic on the roads.

(I want to begin my next set of questions with the stipulation that I am not some monorail nut. Though I really do marvel at Kim Pederson's backyard monorail in Fremont, CA. Favorite quotation: "imagine how much of the garden and fence we would have needed to rip out to put in a garden light rail instead of this!")

  • Why is the Schwebebahn so unique?
  • Wouldn't it make sense for lots of other situations?
  • Isn't building a frame far cheaper than tunneling for a subway?
  • Doesn't this have a huge advantage over surface rail, which suffers from needing to negotiate every complicated intersection with car traffic? 
  • Don't lots of cities have rivers that are narrow enough to build a frame across and hang a train over?
  • Are there riparian environmental concerns that I'm overlooking?
  • Am I succumbing to monorail nuttiness? (Or just channeling some inner Franka Potente?)

I await your feedback, dear readers.


My research in Essen was a part of a German Marshall Fund Comparative Domestic Policy Fellowship.

See all of my Schwebebahn photos on flickr.

See a video I shot of the ride on youtube.

Jess Zimbabwe is the Director of Urban Development and Founding Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in



Mike Lydon's picture

Ask Mr. Wood

I defer to Jeff Wood for the answers to those questions!...but I can say...I want to ride that thing too!

ps Do they allow bicycles onboard?!

Jess Zimbabwe's picture

I didn't notice the bikes

Mike: I'm not as bicyclist, or even, apparently, a very good friend to the bicyclists, because I didn't notice whether you were allowed to board with them, but I don't think I saw any. Sorry!

the bahn in Germany

I'll give your questions my best shot since I found the many forms of the German bahn to be similarly exciting.

The Schwebebahn is unique because the tracks are above the train - I have yet to ride on a similar system. While many other German cities such as Berlin (my home for a year) have trains above ground, they tend to be larger, heavy rail infrastructure as opposed to a smaller, lighter Schwebebahn.

The good side: I would think an overhead system would be cheaper than an underground system and doesn't have to be stuck in traffic. It looks like it was a challenge to retrofit any type of system into the city without removing a lot of buildings, so putting one system on top of another probably sounded like the best option.

The bad side: It looks like its still rather large infrastructure overhead with the green beams and may have some of the negative aspects of being underneath anything large like a freeway bridge. I wonder if the citizens of Wuppertal got into debates about preserving viewshed corridors and historic buildings in the process. Not sure how the environmental impact statement went for a project over the river either, but if interstates can cross rivers, why not a train along a river?

In comparison, the U-Bahn trains in Berlin went overhead for part of their runs such as the U-1 and U-2 although they ran in the center of large arterial streets (around or over 100 feet wide) and didn't have to deal with the retrofit issue. Major streets went under the U-Bahn but not every street did. They didn't seem as intrusive as the Chicago L trains since you didn't have to walk underneath them parallel to the train, only perpendicular. Still, the Schwebebahn looks like a fun ride!

Jess Zimbabwe's picture

good point about the ped experience underneath

Faith: your notes about the Chicago El and the dankness of walking under it are well-taken. The Schewebebahn runs in the middle of the river for 75% of its run, when it then turns down a street (and ends up much like an El track, but only for a mile or so).


This monorail opened in

This monorail opened in 1901. Did they do environmental impact statements back then? Also, as a chicagoan, I'd like to say that overhead trains aren't nearly as bad as overhead freeways.
Den De Waard

Jess Zimbabwe's picture

I'm guessing your question is rhetorical

...but are you saying that a modern-day equivalent project wouldn't stand up to environmental review? Is that a good thing?

And yes, Den, overhead freeways _are_ the pits! I grew up near Detroit, which was instead ruined with their evil cousins, the sunken freeways. But getting back to Faith's comment, do you choose to walk along a street with an overhead train or more often chose a parallel route?

I'm no expert on

I'm no expert on environmental review, I was just wondering how the impact statements of 1901 compare to those of 2009. For the second question, I prefer walking in commercial streets with shops and people, and those do occasionally exist underneath train lines. Den De Waard

Jess Zimbabwe's picture

good distinction

Den: It's really interesting that shops and people are just as likely to be located under rail tracks! It seems to go against my own instincts.

Suspended monorails

There are several modern versions of the monorail you rode. Aerobus is under construction in China. Others include MonoMetro in the U.K. and SkyTrolly in British Columbia. See: http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/monolink.htm
for links to the details if interested.

Jess Zimbabwe's picture

nice website

Dear Jerry: That's a very nice site; thanks for the link. Are any of those systems actually built?

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