218 power to the island of Fehmarn

I recently wrote about the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry, linking southern Denmark to the island of Fehmarn, in northern Germany.  This route opened in May 1963 and slashed journey times for both rail and road transport between København and Hamburg.

At weekends through the Summer, it is possible to combine a trip on this train ferry – which is the preserve of through København to Hamburg “Eurocity” trains formed of Danish “rubber ring” DMUs – with a trip with a German class 218 “rabbit” diesel-hydraulic.  These machines – synonymous with this region for over 40 years – retain a small number of dated turns that take them onto Fehmarn.


218 330 is seen at Puttgarden on the “Strandexpress”.  I’ve picked a photo of this machine as it’s a noteworthy one – it’s been allocated to Lübeck – and the depot that superseded it, Kiel – since September 1977.  There can’t be many locos that have been working away at the same duties for over 40 years.  14/05/16 (JW)

The Strandexpress

The main 218 turn in this part of the world is an RE (Regional Express) service known as the “Strandexpress”.  This runs on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from Easter until mid-October, and is formed of a Kiel-based DB Regio 218 working in push-pull configuration with a rake of four air-conditioned double-deck carriages.

The diagram is as follows:-

RE21448 08:27 Hamburg Hbf – Puttgarden
RE21449 11:10 Puttgarden – Hamburg Hbf
RE21450 14:27 Hamburg Hbf – Puttgarden
RE21451 17:10 Puttgarden – Hamburg Hbf

These all run via the recently-reopened station of Fehmarn Burg, which is the principal station on the island, at which they reverse.  With each journey being 96 miles in length, it is a good way of building up 218 mileage in its own right, as well as being a good way of getting between the two countries.  The northbound morning train arrives at Puttgarden just ahead of a København-bound unit (which you can board at Puttgarden just before it inches forward onto the ferry) and indeed the 218 is preceded out of Puttgarden on its return leg at 11:10 by a DMU that has come from København.  The afternoon round trip, unfortunately, does not share such good connectional possibilities.

On a Saturday morning, the loco and stock also work RE21403 05:08 Lübeck Hbf – Hamburg Hbf.  This is effectively a positioning move between its weekday use on the Kiel to Lübeck route and the “Strandexpress”.

The IC “Fehmarn” / “Lübecker Bucht”

The other turn that brings a 218 to the island of Fehmarn is an Intercity service, which operates between roughly Easter and the start of November at weekends – although please check as the full diagram does not always operate each day.

ECS Hamburg to Fehmarn Burg
IC2413 09:08 Fehmarn Burg – Köln Hbf (218 works to Lübeck) (Sat+Sun)
IC2410 07:55 Köln Hbf – Fehmarn Burg (218 works from Lübeck) (Sat+Sun)
IC2415 15:10 Fehmarn Burg – Hamburg Hbf (Fri+Sat+Sun)

As they are operated by DB Fernverkehr, these services are booked to be worked by a Niebüll-based machine, from the small pool of 218 307321322, which can work push-pull with the Intercity stock.  Very occasionally, a different Niebüll machine will work (but requires to propel back out of single-platform Fehmarn Burg to run round the stock), but more usual practice when the three nominated machines are unavailable is to hire in a Kiel-based Regio machine.  Indeed, at the time of writing (August 2018), 218 470 has just had a couple of stints on the ICs.

The future

Both turns would appear to have four years left.  In 2022, the stretch of line between Neustadt and Puttgarden will close for construction work to be carried out on the new fixed link to Denmark.  Puttgarden station will not reopen.  Given the planning is in terms of rail replacement buses north of Lübeck (see here), it would seem reasonable to assume that these trains will then be curtailed there and therefore would not need diesels.

The Vogelfluglinie and the Cold War

– I originally wrote this as a standalone article for another website several years ago, but thought it would be relevant here as the most conspicuous feature of the entire line and something to look out for.  I hope it’s of interest.

The two ferry terminals of Rødby and Puttgarden were built at the points of each country nearest each other, which both happened to be on islands in the Baltic.  One of the consequences of this is that any journey from Denmark to Germany via this route not only necessitates a ride on a ferry – well, for the foreseeable future at least (construction of a fixed link will begin in 2019) – but leapfrogging a number of islands along the way.

Accordingly, the infrastructure that required constructing in 1963 was not confined to the ferry terminals and their associated roads and railways, but also two substantial bridges.  On the Danish side, there was the Frederik IX Bridge linking the islands of Falster and Lolland; on the German side, there was the Fehmarnsundbrücke linking the island of Fehmarn, on which Puttgarden port stands, and the German mainland.

Above is a link to an excellent photo of the Fehmarnsundbrücke from Facebook.

The Fehmarnsundbrücke carries a two-lane road, a single-track railway, and a pedestrian walkway.  It is 963.4m long and is high enough for ships to pass under, and was built as a replacement for the little ferry that used to shuttle from the mainland to Fehmarn.  It was formally opened on 30th April 1963, although when severe weather had caused the suspension of the Fehmarn ferry three months previously, people had been permitted to use it at their own risk.  Its engineers were G. Fischer, T. Jahnke and P. Stein from the firm Gutehoffnungshutte Sterkrade AG based in Oberhausen, with architectural design overseen by Gerd Lohmer.

Lohmer (1909-1981) was a renowned West German architect who specialised in bridges.  In the wake of World War 2, he found gainful employment in bridge design – either on the reconstruction and redesign of bridges damaged in the conflict (e.g. the Nibelungenbrücke in Worms), or on brand new ones (e.g. the Konrad-Adenuer-Brücke in then-capital city Bonn).  In recent years, it has been granted the status of a protected national monument, and is well-loved by locals, who have nicknamed it the “Kleiderbügel” (clothes hanger) due to its distinctive shape, and adopted it as a local symbol.

The story would probably end here, were it not for the complicated and heated political environment which existed at the time of the bridge’s construction.

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis had only just passed and the Cold War was still at very real risk of turning “hot”.  The threat of a Soviet invasion of West Germany was one which was taken very seriously.  The area to the east of Fulda – termed the “Fulda Gap” – was generally considered to be the route the Soviets would most likely take if they invaded – as there was little by way of natural barriers to a massive tank attack.  However it was not the only possibility.

Denmark’s stance in the Cold War is a complex but interesting topic.  Breaking a tradition of neutrality, it was a founding member of NATO in 1949, which meant it courted hostility from the Soviet Union who now treated it as an enemy.  Denmark could well have held strategic importance for the Soviets – not least could it have constituted something of a stepping stone to Greenland, from where its nuclear warheads could have reached the USA – but also a way into neutral Sweden – from where Norway, and thence the North Atlantic, would have been feasible targets.  Sweden boasted strong coastal fortifications, intended to defend it from a Soviet attack, therefore an “entrance” via Denmark would have been a clever way for Warsaw Pact forces to circumnavigate them.

Occupation of Denmark would have put West Germany – and from it the rest of Western Europe – within easy reach.  The existence of the newly-constructed train ferry would have made the movement of rail based forces, armaments, supplies, and so on much easier.  Equally, it could have formed a route for Soviet forces that had already conquered West Germany, into Denmark.  In either event, the Fehmarnsundbrücke may have taken on an immense strategic importance.

As a result, the design of the bridge featured six “Sprengschächte” – or “explosive vaults” – beneath the tarmac of the road’s surface.  In the event of an invasion, explosives could be placed into the vaults by soldiers and then detonated remotely (from a military location approximately a mile away), thereby causing significant disruption and delay to the advance.  Fortunately, this was never required.  However, the remnants of the Sprengschächte can still be seen today – in the form of six patches of darker tarmac on the surface of the road, at the mainland end of the bridge.  You can actually see them in very brief passing on my video below – although here is a far more useful photo!

Crossing the Fehmarnsundbrücke – in the capable hands of 218 330 (JW)

These were by no means the only Sprengschächte that were placed on German roads for this purpose.  Indeed, whole hosts of them existed in the Fulda Gap and were officially maintained up until the early 1990s and the reunification of the two Germanies.  However the fact that these existed within the design of such a famous structure makes them noteworthy indeed.

Today, trains from Hamburg and Lübeck to Puttgarden (most of which continue across to Denmark via the train ferry) as well as high volumes of road traffic, continue to thunder across the bridge, their passengers most likely unaware of what used to lie beneath.

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