One of the first words that British schoolchildren who take German learn is Bahnhof, and very soon after, they are told about the prefix Haupt-: and, badda-bing, badda-bahnhof, you’ve got one of the most important words in the German language, a kind of key to the German soul.
What? A word which, translated, means “main station” – and this is supposed to open the treasure chest of the German psyche? Yes, you got it! Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll show you how.
After all, the Hauptbahnhof is the place where almost every long-distance journey for people living in a German city really begins and ends. After that, it’s all trams, metros and taxis. Even if you’re flying somewhere, the chances are that you’ll change to the airport train at the Hauptbahnhof. Now, all of this may sound obvious, but if you think about it, most large cities in other countries get by without a central focus for transport. Visitors to New York can arrive at JFK, LaGuardia or Newark airports, and the city which never sleeps is served by several large stations (Grand Pen, Grand Central…) at which airport travelers do not arrive in any case. My city of birth, London, is a web of airports big and small; the central districts are cordoned off by no less than twelve, by some counts fourteen rail terminii. And as anyone who’s ever tried crossing France by train will tell you, Paris is not short on stations either.
All of Germany’s great cities, however, sport a great Hauptbahnhof, a station on which all itineraries somehow seem to be fixed: the largest of these is Hamburg’s, through which a daily average of 400,000 people pass. Shortly behind is Munich, whose terminus takes above 350,000 per day – 750,000 during the two long weeks of Oktoberfest. All long-distance trains arriving in either city call at the Hauptbahnhof, without exception. These monumental institutions are central and seen by much of the local population on at least a weekly basis; not least because, within the city too, local transport is almost entirely centred upon it. In Hamburg, for example, every underground line in the city passes under it and every local train that runs on city territory is scheduled to pass through. In the truest sense of the words: you can’t miss it.
The sense of unlimited possibility this gives you is hard to express. There is something excitingly cosmopolitan about the fact that Hamburg Hauptbahnhof offers services to destinations as far apart as Copenhagen, Prague and Zürich, even if you yourself are just changing onto the 15:03 to Poppenbüttel. Furthermore, 15 minutes stood at any medium-or-above sized Hauptbahnhof will show you just as broad a picture of the human condition as 15 hours spent reading Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, another supposed key to the German soul.
Yes, yes, very impressive I hear you say; but what is this telling me specifically about Germany? Well, quite a lot. The key fact to analyze is that every city has a Hauptbahnhof and that, with very few exceptions, each is essentially a replica of the other: almost all are through-stations, not terminii, with passages running under the platforms at right-angles to the axis of travel. These passages contain kiosks, bakers, florists and other small shops; in bigger stations, this selection can increase to encompass jewelers, chemists and even cheesemongers (spotted in Cologne).
No matter where you are, however – Dortmund, Karlsruhe, Hannover to name but a few – your Hauptbahnhof experience is similar: into the entrance hall, a quick look at the departures board, straight on until you get to your platform and then left or right up the stairs. In a very few Hauptbahnhöfen, you’ll go down instead (e.g. Hamburg); in a few, some of the lines will end in the station (Frankfurt, Munich), but generally, it’ll be as described. This shows you for one that the stereotype of the orderly, tidy, decidedly regular German contains more than just a grain of truth.
And it also shows you that, while other countries were letting private companies build silly little stations here and there (take a look at London’s Fenchurch Street), Germany around 1900 was, if necessary, bulldozing away parts of its cities to create logical, practical travel interchanges in prime urban locations. Bismarck, for example, famously ordered that Cologne’s Hauptbahnhof be built right next to its historic central cathedral in order to remind its recalcitrant population that they were now a part of Germany and that Germany was a country which took mobility very, very seriously.
And the fundamental idea that German cities should be easy to reach by train has stuck. Indeed, one of the biggest questions in Berlin after the re-unification was: where do we put the Hauptbahnhof? Despite the protests of Berliners, who had just got used to having two-and-a-half main stations, the rest of Germany could simply not tolerate the idea of a city without a proper Hauptbahnhof as its capital and so it was built: an astonishingly grand affair with trains going underground on a north-south axis and over-ground on an east-west. The building is a remarkable success and, just like every Hauptbahnhof built before it, proof that Germans need a well-planned and well-thought-out focus before they are ready to face the future; so do I, and that’s one reason why I love German Hauptbahnhöfe.