In the bowels of Berlin Hauptbahnhof the platforms are lined with trains that will take you are long way from the German capital. Czech railways. Polish railways. The slim lines of the ICE. But on platform eight – which is thronged with young people as three separate school groups have all just arrived for a few days in Berlin – there is a small train waiting, in orange and green, whose final destination is about an hour out of the city and the town of Rathenow, close to the Sachsen-Anhalt border but nevertheless still firmly in the state of Brandenburg.
But a train is a train, and there is something special about Germany’s regional expresses. Often they are – as this one is – double-deckers, which mean they offer a fine view down over the embankments and fences that line the railway into back gardens or the forest, across the fields and the lakes. They move slow enough that you get a sense of really moving through the landscape, and they stop at every small settlement along the way. Berlin-Staaken. Dallgow-Döberitz. Elstal. These are all places we will pass through on the RE4 from Berlin to Rathenow, and although they may be small, some of them have their own stories to tell.
But on the platform it is clear that a mid-afternoon RE4 is a local train, for local people. Once the school trips have dispersed, heading for their hostels and budget hotels across the city, there is very little luggage waiting for the Rathenow train. There are lots of shopping bags and quite a few shirts and suits. Daytrippers and commuters, off work early on this Monday afternoon and ready to head home. And the train is busy. As we climb aboard and make our way through Berlin towards the Brandenburg suburbs it is standing room only, and will remain so until we reach the first towns beyond the city limits and it begins to empty. In the carriage it is pretty quiet. Most people are concerned with their laptops, their tablets or their phones. The only conversation is being carried out by a small group of East African guys, whose Berlin purchases surround them in plastic and paper shopping bags. And no one is looking out of the window.
Perhaps it is not surprising, because it takes a certain sort to find fascination in Lidl car parks and garden centres, the warehouses of the Westhafen or the storage units and their signs advertising space by the metre squared. We pass scrapyards and bus depots, car showrooms and sandy wastelands, IKEA and, of course, the garden colonies and allotments that compete for edgeland space on the outskirts of Berlin.
At Staaken, right on the border with Brandenburg, the train stops and I can look down on where the Berlin Wall once ran. Staaken was, like Berlin, divided by the East-West border, a village split between East Staaken (part of West Berlin) and West Staaken (part of East Germany). Part of the old no-man’s land between the two has been filled in by new housing estates of detached houses and speed bumps, but on the other side of the tracks a grassy space still awaits development, criss-crossed by desire paths taking the dog walkers in circles or the commuters on the quickest route from their car-ported slice of suburbia to the train station.
And then, the city is behind us. Almost as soon as we leave Berlin behind it starts to rain. Torrential rain, that even those staring at their screens of various sizes look up to acknowledge. Through the blurred windows where water droplets race each other towards the back of the train I can see the familiar flat landscape of Brandenburg. Fields and forests. Small villages of houses huddled around a stone church. Wind farms and electricity pylons. At Elstal we stop a few hundred metres from the 1936 Olympic Village, where Jesse Owens slept and trained between winning his gold medals, and where the Red Army built a huge barracks during their years of occupation and operation in the German Democratic Republic. Now Elstal has the ruins and remnants of both to visit, as well as a designer outlet centre at the Autobahn junction. Cheap jeans and deep topography, all a short train ride away.
We push on through the countryside, Rathenow getting ever closer. There is more conversation in the train now. Work colleagues who had sat in silence and now have the weather at least to stimulate their talk. Who has a jacket. Who knew that this was going to happen but still left their umbrella at home. Whose car is in for an MOT and, well, you could have guessed, couldn’t you? As we approach Rathenow the conductor comes on the loudspeaker to tell us of our connections. Stendal. Brandenburg. Amsterdam. Amsterdam? As always, travelling on local trains in Germany, I am amazed and some of the connections you can find. Perhaps it is because I grew up in the UK, and the idea of international trains are still exotic to me (after all these years) but I wonder if it must give the young people of Rathenow a different sense of possibility; that not only can they catch a train to the bright lights of Berlin, but also to the canalbanks of Amsterdam…
Fifty one minutes after we left Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof we have arrived. The Regional Express number 4 has reached its destination. The flags of the massive German Flower Show, this year being hosted by the Havel region, hang limp and soggy from the rain. Across the car park I can see a collection of GDR apartment blocks and then the start of the forest and the fields. Like so many towns that are older than the railway, in Rathenow the station is right on the edge of town. Most of my fellow passengers have headed down the steps and out into the town, but for me the journey is not quite over. On the opposite platform stands another Regional Express. The number 34. Direction Stendal. I climb aboard.
My new project, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, is a print quarterly and the first edition is out now. Find out more and get your copy here.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton