Wuppertal’s 117-year-old Schwebebahn monorail is a great transit system that has endured for generations.


The Schwebebahn in Wuppertal, Germany is a 13-kilometer long, suspended double-flanged monorail, and it had a perfect safety record until 1999, when a contractor’s unfortunate repair error led to a derailment and the death of five riders.

Compare this statistic to the automotive carnage on our nation’s roads and streets.

Having never visited Wuppertal, this is the first I’ve heard of it, confirming yet again that it’s possible to learn something each day if you’re not otherwise preoccupied with meaninglessness.

With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit, by Benjamin Schneider (CityLab)

Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

My first view of the Schwebebahn was from my living room as a 10-year-old watching the Travel Channel on TV. I remember being amazed by the dinky rail cars, precariously suspended above a river by wrought iron trusses. The centenarian transit system in Wuppertal, Germany, looked like a cross between Disneyland’s monorail and the Eiffel Tower.

Years later, the Schwebebahn segment still sticks with me. After all, a great transit system that endures for generations is not only an efficient means of moving about the city, it is also a portal to an imagined future—a past vision of a better, more modern city. While visiting Germany last November, I made a point to stop in Wuppertal, half an hour from Düsseldorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to see how that vision was working out, nearly 120 years into its lifespan. There may be no better place to study not only the economic and political power of high-quality mass transit, but also its social and emotional power.

I caught my first unmediated glimpse of the Schwebebahn from a hill overlooking the Ohligsmühle station, near the center of this industrial city of about 350,000 residents, just days before the system was shuttered until next summer for a fallen power rail*. Like the majority of stations on the one-line, suspended monorail system, this one stands about 30 feet above the Wupper River. I watched trains come and go with surprising frequency: The Schwebebahn runs 18 trains per direction, per hour during the day—making it more frequent than just about any transit line in the U.S., and many German lines, too. It’s also an exceedingly rare train design. The wheels sit atop the singular rail, and the trains hang below it, connected by supports that look like the Iron Giant’s knuckles …