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Recalling the German Democratic Republic (DDR)

Posted by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries | | History
Leipzig’s main station - as much a rail hub for the region today as it was in DDR times (photo © hidden europe).

Leipzig’s main station - as much a rail hub for the region today as it was in DDR times (photo © hidden europe).

The spotlight this weekend in European media is very much on a country that slipped quietly into political history: the German Democratic Republic (DDR). A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a lot of thoughtful media comment this month on the DDR. The Communist state often gets a bad press, but in Germany this has been a time for reflection and many who lived in the East freely admit that not everything was bad. Indeed, one can advance a credible argument that — in the unification of the two German states in 1990 — the West missed the chance to learn a few useful lessons from the East.

Whatever your view of the DRR, you have to admit they knew how to run a railway. True, the infrastructure was dated and trains were often painfully slow. There were some fabulously complicated routings. We have written about some circuitous train journeys in the DDR in hidden europe magazine.

Overnight trains in East Germany

The one thing that the DDR had aplenty were night trains. During the 30 years in the run-up to the political changes of 1989 and 1990, the basic pattern of night trains across the country barely altered. There were of course many seasonal additions. So there were nine overnight services augmented by extra holiday trains which ran in the months of June, July, August and September.

The year-round provision of domestic overnight trains included daily services (normally in both directions) on the following routes. The first group normally carried MITROPA sleeping cars and usually also couchettes. The second group generally offered only couchettes for overnight travellers.

Year-round overnight sleeping cars (usually with couchettes too)
Berlin to Weimar, Erfurt and Eisenach
Berlin to Suhl and Meiningen
Berlin to Warnemünde
Leipzig to Rostock
Leipzig and Berlin to Stralsund

 

Year-round overnight couchettes
Dresden to Eisenach
Karl-Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz) to Rostock
Leipzig to Schwerin
Berlin to Saalfeld

 

Extra summer-season services

The summer months saw extra services to Baltic coast resorts as follows. All services ran daily.

Summer-season overnight sleeping cars (usually with couchettes too)
Dresden to Bergen (Rügen)
Erfurt to Stralsund
Saalfeld to Wolgast
Saalfeld to Stralsund
Leipzig to Putbus (Rügen)

 

Summer-season overnight couchettes
Bautzen and Görlitz to Barth
Dresden and Cottbus to Barth
Erfurt to Wismar

 

Journey times

Nowadays travellers speed between major cities in eastern Germany in comfort. Back in DDR times the trains were certainly comfortable, but they were slow. The very fact that daytime trains were slow helped sustain demand for overnight services. These were often even slower than their daytime counterparts, but the night trains were great value.

Journeys which today might take just three hours by day would have taken twice that time on a DDR night train. If the scheduled departure time of a train was not until late evening, it was nonetheless possible to board night trains much earlier. Where trains were scheduled to arrive at their destination at an uncomfortably early hour, passengers could remain in their sleeping cars until 08.00.

That night train from Leipzig to Stralsund is a good example of how this worked in practice. Passengers could board from 19.30 and need not alight till 08.00 next morning. So there was really the chance of getting a good night’s sleep. The actual travel time was only eight hours. (Nowadays it is less than four hours by the fastest direct day train).

There were one or two oddities. The overnight service from Dresden to Eisenach was operated by attaching the domestic service couchette carriages onto the Köln-bound overnight train. Departure from Dresden was at 18.10 with an arrival in Eisenach just after midnight. But passengers could sleep through until morning and were not required to vacate their couchettes until 08.00.

For those who felt insufficiently groomed at their station of arrival, the sleeping car company MITROPA even ran a chain of hairdressing salons at major stations around East Germany — just to ensure that comrades who had journeyed overnight were presentable for morning meetings.

Food and drink

There were MITROPA restaurant cars on many of these trains. But passengers generally valued the quiet comfort of their sleeping berth. So attendants were on hand to bring refreshments to each compartment. These included a few treats that were not always so easily available in regular shops, such as marzipan and nougat from Viebahn.

In the 1950s there was Sekt from the Rhineland, but by the mid-60s that had been replaced by ideologically purer sparkling wine from East Germany. Hungarian white wine was a popular choice as an evening drink — always served in half bottles. Oddly, we don’t think that red wine was ever on offer, but we’d like to hear from readers who know otherwise. There was always a classic DDR staple on the drinks menu, namely blackberry brandy. Tell us if you remember blackberry brandy in DDR times. It cropped up here and there, but seemed to be a regular in MITROPA restaurants and sleeping cars. It simply did not have a German name and was always promoted and sold by the English name.

Breakfast in a MITROPA sleeping car was quite unlike the typical German breakfast of today. No cheese or salami. There was a can of pickled herring (or were they perhaps sardines?). Not any can but a special MITROPA Clubcan. A real touch of style. There was white bread, butter, jam, honey and then also a pot of either tea of coffee.

Further afield

Of course, there were travellers whose horizons extended beyond the boundaries of the Workers’ and Peasants’ State. Some comrades made journeys, whether on business or for holidays, to other countries in the fraternity of socialist nations. Berlin had year-round direct sleeping cars to destinations in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

There were also regular daily trains to West Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden — but access to these services for DDR citizens was strictly controlled. There were rumours that these trains offered even greater pleasures than blackberry brandy and Clubcan herring. But who knows.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
hidden europe
About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the Europe by Rail guidebook - the latest edition of which was published in June 2016. A fully updated 15th edition will be published in autumn 2017.

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