In 1941, Adolf Hitler issued orders to Nazi Germany’s railway officials. He wanted them to develop a new type of railway. It was to be bigger, far bigger, than anything that had ever been seen.
Trains the height and width of a suburban house and the length of the Empire State Building would hurtle across the Greater German Reich, from Brest in the west to Bucharest in the east. They would be luxurious, providing unimaginable amenities for travellers.
And, unsurprisingly, they were never built.
Putting the mega into megalomania
Hitler and his coterie of leading Nazis were not short on ideas for rebuilding Germany and their conquered lands. Their plans had some common threads. They were fans of the gigantic, the superlative and the technologically advanced.
Germany’s capital Berlin would be rebuilt with towering monuments to Nazi victories. Other German cities would be comprehensively redesigned, with Innsbruck becoming a world-class cultural centre and Nuremberg adorned as the sacred party city.
Nothing was too grandiose or impractical for their fervid imaginations.
If Germany needed more land for food, they would resettle the Steppes and drain the Mediterranean.
Raw materials would be stripped from a new belt of colonies seized from defeated powers.
And the Greater German Reich and its satellite dependencies would be drawn together by a comprehensive network of transcontinental autobahn roads and gigantic high-speed trains. From the Atlantic coast to the Urals, the Black Sea to the Baltic, all Europe would be connected.
Germany’s standard gauge of 4 foot 8 1⁄2 inches would be replaced by a monstrous track more than double that width. The three-metre wide Breitspurbahn, or broad gauge railway, would have featured towering, double decker trains topping seven metres – more than double today’s high speed trains.
These vast carriages, comparable in width and height to a typical suburban semi-detached house, would have stretched for half a kilometre and sped across the Reich at more than 200 km/h.
Where the foxes say goodnight
Otto hadn’t been on one of these ancient, tiny trains for years. The Kleinspurbahn was somewhat oversold as a ‘standard service’, but it felt like stepping back in time.
He had changed trains at Paris’s Gare de l’Est. The Breitspurbahn had rolled into its specially built annex, longer and taller than the old station which Otto had entered to take his connecting service.
Once the Breitspurbahn had been rolled out across the Greater Reich, Otto hadn’t had much need to travel on the historic routes of the former Reichsbahn.
Things move on.
Just like no one took horse-drawn carriages to travel to town once a railway had been laid. No one wanted to travel on an antiquated standard train when they could choose the flying palaces of broad gauge network.
But the Breitspurbahn didn’t reach everywhere, and that is why Otto found himself crawling through north eastern France in an oppressively small carriage.
When he stood, his head almost reached the ceiling. The seats were narrow and covered in mean and worn synthetic fabric.
When he asked about the restaurant car, the ticket inspector laughed and told him that there was a buffet in the middle of the train, but that it was hardly worth the journey.
The final indignity was needing to go to the toilet and finding that the pan flushed straight on to the track.
Otto thought back to the first time he had taken one of Hitler’s new trains.
There had been a huge amount of publicity. He remembered watching the news and seeing Hitler and Goebbels ride the inaugural service. Goebbels had brought the whole family, and the younger children screamed in delight as the train pulled in.
There was something unreal about the size of the engine.
It dwarfed the other trains in the station.
The Breitspurbahn gleamed with its immaculate black and red livery. Everything else looked like a shabby toy in comparison.
A metal eagle had been fixed to the front of the engine, wings outstretched and clasping a golden swastika that shone in the sunlight.
It was a few months before Otto had a chance to ride one of the trains for himself. He’d read all about the luxurious carriages, sumptuous seats and incredible amenities. But reading about them, even seeing photographs, wasn’t the same as experiencing one for yourself.
The first time he travelled, he treated himself to a second class ticket. He had walked past the washbasin, mirror and coat hanger and almost turned around. Surely he was mistaken and this was a first class carriage?
An elderly lady was fussing over her bags. He offered to help and asked whether he had the right compartment. She gladly handed over a suitcase to be placed overhead and confirmed that he was in the right place.
His deeply padded, richly covered seat was enormous. He could stretch out his arms fully and still not touch the next passenger.
But he’d been far too excited to stay in his allocated place for too long. He spent the journey exploring the train’s bar, the lounge, the reading room and the observation car before enjoying a sumptuous meal in the opulent dining car.
It felt as though he was at a fine Berlin hotel. He had to keep looking out of the window to remind himself that he was, in fact, hurtling across the country.
He let his three courses settle whilst sprawled in a comfy seat in the cinema car, letting the latest UFA flick wash over him as he drifted into a contented sleep.
He woke with just a few minutes left before the journey came to an end. He hadn’t even had a chance to try the barbershop or take a dip in the swimming pool.
He was rudely snapped from his memories back into the present when the sleeping man next to him rolled his head and smacked his shoulder. He barely roused and carried on snoring.
The problem with experiencing luxury, Otto thought to himself, is that it makes anything less seem quite intolerable.
Superlatives on wheels
In the early 1980s, Anton Joachimsthaler unearthed plans for the broad gauge railway that had been stored away and forgotten in the German railway archives.
And these were neither amateur scribblings or aspirational drawings. Instead, Deutsche Reichsbahn officials had produced pages and pages of detailed technical specifications. These covered everything from the tracks and locomotives to passenger amenities and train stations.
The nearest comparison to the proposed comforts of the Breitspurbahnen were the luxury passenger liners that had, in more peaceful times, plied the transatlantic corridor.
In one proposed configuration, 48 first class passengers would enjoy four person compartments that were well over two metres by two metres. In comparison, roughly twelve passengers cram into the same space in the first class carriages of modern European trains.
Second class passengers were to have slightly less space – six people would fit into similar sized compartments.
But what really set the Breitspurbahnen apart were the opportunities to get out of your seat.
Passengers could choose to sink into an armchair in a cosy, lamp-lit and curtained lounge.
Or they could enjoy a drink or three in the sophisticated bar.
More retiring types could find refuge in quiet and comfortable map-lined reading rooms.
Even third class passengers would enjoy considerably greater comforts than most travelling today. They had less space than second class passengers, but would still enjoy use of two living rooms.
Something to eat?
Passengers were not limited to their carriages in they wanted to stretch their legs or try out some of the Breitspurbahnen’s other amenities.
The designers planned dining carriages for first and second class passengers on a luxurious scale. Their sketches make it appear as though they planned to take the restaurant at Berlin’s fashionable Adlon Hotel and whisk it across the network.
Expensive wood panelling, expansive windows and tables covered in crisp white linens would greet up to 130 diners at any one sitting.
The restaurant car would have been full height with an ornate ceiling almost five metres above. At almost six metres in width and 27 metres long, this room would have truly demonstrated the monstrous scale of the proposed railway.
This being Hitler’s railway, there was to be provision for at least three of the Führer’s obsessions. Kennels were to take care of man’s best friend, up to six motorcars would be conveyed and a 196-seat cinema would help while away the longest of journeys.
Another clear signal that Hitler was personally involved was the provision of a larger non-smoking section than that provided for smokers in the restaurant.
The train would finish up with an observation deck, a hot buffet and refreshment room.
Keeping the Reich moving
The Breitspurbahnen was not just designed for people. The wide gauge railway would be the backbone of the Reich, vital arteries to transport the raw materials and manufactured goods to support the Nazi empire.
Sketches produced by the Reichsbahn show freight transporters that almost anticipate modern container shipping. Standardised freight trucks would allow quicker loading and unloading. And, with freight trains promising to be up to a mile long, this was crucial.
Intricate designs show how coal and oil would be transported and, just as importantly, how the railway could move tanks, artillery and even aircraft. The Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and Waffen-SS would undoubtably have been the railways biggest customers.
Überbahnhöfe for the Übermenschen
Gigantic trains would need gigantic stations.
The Nazi mania for gargantuan, if largely unrealised, buildings ensured that they would be integral in plans for all of the main cities of the New Reich.
Berlin’s five kilometre long Avenue of Splendours would be anchored at both ends by new railway termini.
Visitors arriving at the Südbahnhof would be greeted with a panorama of the capital in its full bombastic, imperial glory. They would be cowed before they even set foot in the city.
Speer recalled that “the architecture and with it the power of the Reich was to overwhelm travellers, literally to slay them”.
The station itself was to have been a confection of superlatives. It would have been three times as wide, long and high as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
Grandiosity was not reserved for the new Berlin. Munich’s 16 platforms would be covered by a dome rising higher than St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but a diameter eight times greater.
Planes, trains and automobiles
For those more familiar with the image of Hitler flying over his empire or speeding in a convoy of gleaming black Mercedes cars, it might seem strange that he was so interested in trains.
They were, however, a vital component of Hitler’s vision for an impregnable land-based empire.
Comprehensive railway and motorway networks would be to the Greater German Reich what the Royal Navy, merchant navy and passenger liners had been to Britain’s empire of the seas.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and fellow dreamer, recalls the Führer describing the importance of his planned wide gauge track:
“Hitler had become obsessed with the idea; he decided that it was even more important as a binding force in his empire than the autobahn system.”
The first instructions were issued to the Deutsche Reichsbahn in October 1941. Those ideas would continue to obsess the Führer over three years later as his empire crumbled and his capital city lay in ruins.
Like many of Hitler’s dreams, the Breitspurbahn was grandiose, impractical and probably impossible to realise. Just as Berlin’s marshy ground would have confounded plans for a new capital, practical issues would have derailed plans for the great railway.
Windows were too large to be safe. Carriages were too big to be structurally sound. Bogies, axles and wheels would be placed under unimaginable strain with breakdowns, derailments and accidents the likely outcomes.
The monstrous railway would require monstrous tunnels and bridges which would be a huge challenge to today’s civil engineers and, even if possible, would have been ruinously expensive.
Almost 200 officials and engineers of the Deutsche Reichsbahn were engaged in the project. They undoubtably knew that it would never come to fruition, but their work had one positive consequence. By saving them from service on the eastern front, it probably saved their lives.