Cameron Cook enters the wide-eyed world of German trainspotters, steam train drivers and model train collectors.
Like most people I know, I don’t think about trains that often. They’re a utilitarian public transport option, a way to get from here to there. I don’t get excited when boarding an ICE or stepping onto the S-Bahn during a morning commute. But there are thousands and thousands of people in this country who do. To Germany’s train enthusiasts, the Deutsche Bahn is not a source of maddening commuter delays – it’s a symbol of national pride, ingenuity and technical prowess. For them, merely glimpsing a certain type of train as it speeds by their station can be the highlight of their week. Some of them collect hundreds of model trains, some learn about European train history, some go on international trainspotting holidays, and some even enter the railway profession, if they can realise their passion early enough. And as it turns out, many of them are right here in Berlin.
My clued-in friends told me that if I was looking for a train nerd, I had to meet Holger. A man in his early forties dressed casually in a blue hoodie and glasses, Holger Köhlert has worked for some iteration of the Deutsche Bahn for most of his career, and looks the part, with the quiet and studious air of someone who has spent a lifetime in the public sector. Born and raised in the East German region of Mecklenburg, he currently works as both a driver and teacher for the train company’s long-distance branch. I took the tram to our meeting from my station in Wedding, and when I mention this to Holger, he tells me that trams are how his obsession with public transport began.
“I love old tram cars,” he says, trying to keep his bushy mustache out of the foam in his Milchkaffee. “When I was a kid I would take the tram to visit my dad at work. This particular line worked with very, very old tram cars, from the 1920s.” This, I later realise, is a common thread with train enthusiasts – it’s not just about the trains themselves, but the eras they’re from, the nostalgia they provoke. “I loved the open doors, how the driver stood and worked. Today, you have one tram driver who sits with a small joystick, but the old drivers had brakes, controls, everything, and they really gave it their all.” From trams, young Holger soon graduated to trains, as his mother regularly took him on trips to Leipzig when his father was working there. “For a long time, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof was the biggest train station in Germany. For a little boy, this huge building with its giant locomotives were completely impressive.” Noticing that their son had been bitten by the train bug, the whole family got on board. “My father bought a lot of railway and train books for me, and my grandfather bought me model railways – three different sets.”
But it’s not until he visited a steam locomotive exhibition in his tweens that Holger fell for trainspotting: the practice of waiting near tracks or at stations for certain types of trains to pass by, photographing them, and thus “collecting” all the different models. Berlin has an especially prominent trainspotting scene – these days, there are even Instagram accounts like @trainsberlin that scour the outskirts of the city for the best spots. Holger’s first time was decidedly more lo-fi.
“My first pictures were horrible!”, he says, chuckling. “They were blurry shots of the train going by!” But he kept at it, and it was through this hobby that he eventually entered the professional railway industry. “Through trainspotting, I got involved with a tram enthusiast club where I could actually work on trams and train engines. By that time, I had decided I wanted to be a train driver, but my mom thought it was dangerous – that year, there had been a big accident near Berlin where a Soviet tank and a train collided. So the compromise was that I could go to the club’s workshop to learn to be a locomotive mechanic.”
By the time he had passed the exams, the Wall had fallen. “So I’d started in the GDR, but became a driver in the new Germany.” Eventually he worked for the Bundesbahn, the federal German railway.
If you’ve ever had an in-depth discussion with someone who has a favourite train model (Holger’s is the East German-manufactured Class 228 engine locomotive, by the way), the amount of historical, technical and colloquial knowledge they possess is truly astounding. Even though he doesn’t trainspot anymore, his love of trains has never faded – and he’s about to impart his passion to a new generation of railway professionals. Next year, Holger is moving back to Mecklenburg to teach train driving full-time for the infrastructure branch of the DB.
A MODEL CITIZEN
Compared to actually driving a train, model trains may seem like child’s play. But when I enter Michas Bahnhof in Charlottenburg, that idea disappears. Around for over 30 years, Berlin’s number one model train shop is full of serious-looking middle-aged men perusing the store’s narrow aisles, reading statistics printed on the back of boxes. The store isn’t small, but it still seems cozy, given that most available space is taken over by stacks and stacks of miniature locomotives and wagons.
The store’s owner, Michael Dümchen, is himself middle-aged, with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a blue and white striped buttondown shirt that may or may not intentionally recall a conductor’s uniform. He’s tinkering behind the counter, but when I walk in and we find a tight corner to chat, his eyes are attentive and bright. I assume the shop’s bustle has to do with the holiday season, but Michael assures me they’re pretty much this busy all year round. “When I started this business, Christmas was big, but now the market has changed because children don’t play with trains as much anymore,” he explains. “These days, if someone starts collecting, they start when they’re 40 or 50. ”
Surprisingly, Michael isn’t a hardcore model train fanatic himself. “Business-wise, it’s better if I have a little distance from the hobby. If you’re a collector, the best items go in your own collection, and the customers know that. And then they say, ‘Oh, I don’t go to Michael’s shop because I won’t get the best models, he collects them all.’” He gets his stock from a variety of places: “Sometimes a collector ends their hobby, or they die, or they know someone who wants to sell something, and I acquire trains that way. Otherwise I buy a lot of stock from bankrupt companies.”
If I ask them how many lo- comotives they own, even if they have thousands, they’ll say, ‘Oh, about 80.’ They don’t want to tell others how many they actually have.
He began with a passion for antique toys, helping out in his older brother’s toy store in West Berlin while he was in school. Soon, he was scouring the city’s flea markets for pieces from the early 20th century, and while looking to start a business to put himself through university, he realised that model trains were a lucrative gap in the market. Along with antique models, Michas Bahnhof specialises in new models from German brands like Märklin and Wiking. A cult locomotive, like a 1950-era “Krokodil” from Austrian brand Roco, can top €300. But who buys a piece like that? When I ask about his customers, Michael answers slyly: “It’s not a very extroverted hobby. It’s not a Rolex on your wrist… If I ask them how many locomotives they own, even if they have thousands, they’ll say, ‘Oh, about 80.’ They don’t want to tell others how many they actually have.”
From what I can gather, the profile of your average enthusiast is pretty constant: Male, between 40-60, likely born in the GDR in the 1960s or 1970s. A West German himself, Michael’s met enough Ossi customers to develop a theory: “Train culture was the only ‘modern’ hobby in the GDR. In West Germany there were slot cars in the 1970s, and the first personal computers and video games were already on the market. Another reason is that in Saxony around that time, they had a lot of old steam engines still running. And the only real way to get into trains as a hobby is through steam engines. They’re noisy, smelly, they affect your whole body if you stand next to them. It’s that power that fascinates people.”
Meeting Jens Berger, a week later, proved Michael completely right.
NEVER RUNNING OUT OF STEAM
“Yes, those old steam trains were still around when I was growing up in Saxony,” confirms Jens. The stout man in his late forties is a member and former chairman of the antique locomotive enhusiast club Dampflokfreunde (“Steam Train Friends”) Berlin. “There were train tracks right behind my kindergarten, and every day when I walked home with my parents we’d stop to watch them go by. I was just mystified by these huge machines.” Some of Dampflokfreunde’s 130 volunteers are railway professionals, but not him. Jens is a lawyer by trade, a family man with two daughters.
Like Holger, he is a veteran trainspotter. “I used to go to Poland with other fans, for about 30 days out of the year, just to take pictures of trains. So much so that I started learning Polish! In 10 years, those trains will be historical, but you’ll never see me photograph an ICE,” he says, speaking of the modern high-speed trains that have taken over many of DB’s regional lines. What about model trains? “I’m not a huge collector, only about 45 locomotives and 300 wagons. I only collect models from 1970 – the year I was born – until 1985. I’m thinking of boxing them soon.” Does he let his two daughters play with his trains? “Absolutely not!” he exclaims, laughing. Interestingly, since I began researching train fans, I have not encountered one single woman – it seems to be an exclusively male hobby. Jens says that their club does have female volunteers who work in the dining car during their steam train excursions, which he admits is “not that progressive”.
As we speak, we’re trudging across a muddy field on the outskirts of Treptow- Köpenick towards Dampflokfreunde’s headquarters, a well-preserved roundhouse off the Betriebsbahnhof Schöneweide S-Bahn station. “This whole field is going to be new buildings for companies, with a new road coming through,” Jens explains as we jump over puddles and hike up our jackets. “We’re very lucky though, because we’ve been designated a historical landmark by the city, so we’re here to stay,” he says with a smile. “Newcomers won’t be able to say, ‘Hey, stop making all that steam with your trains!’” As we’re speaking a modern train is flying by, honking its horn. “That must be one of our guys,” Jens says nonchalantly. You currently have drivers out on the tracks, in real life? I ask. “Oh yeah, all the time.”
When he opens the door to the roundhouse, I understand why the city of Berlin has decided to leave the Dampflokfreunde alone. It’s a giant, cavernous building, with tracks intersecting in the middle where the engines and wagons can enter and leave the roundhouse and connect with the normal railways we all use around Berlin. DampflokfreundeBerlin began in 1993, four years before Jens joined the club, with the purchase of their first steam locomotive from the German Rail Museum. Today, the club offers two main attractions: an open house they hold a few times a year at the roundhouse, and “Berlin macht Dampf” (Berlin Makes Steam), a travel programme that sees the club take paying passengers on antique train trips all around Germany (see sidebar). Those trips, while being a focal point of the club’s activities, also serve as fundraisers for the maintenance of their vintage engines.
“Last Christmas, we had around 1000 people on our steam locomotive journey, which was difficult to manage but extremely fun.” The train in question, the Dampflok Class 52 model, is the club’s crown jewel, and they currently have three in circulation. Jens walks me over to one in the main shed of the roundhouse, and it’s absolutely gobsmacking: a shiny black and red monster that looks as dangerous as it is fascinating. I can only imagine what it must feel like to ride in one of these things, let alone drive them – which not everyone can do, since the train is from 1944 and takes real skill to maneuver. “There are very strict protocols to operating a steam train,” says Jens. “I have the certifications to tend to the boiler and maintain the engine’s heat, but not to stoke the engine or take her out on the tracks.”
Every train Jens takes me to on our afternoon tour is like stepping out of a time machine: there’s a caboose from 1899, a pre-WWII Deutsche Reichsbahn diesel engine and the impressive mid-century dining car they use on club journeys. Jens is so full of information I can barely keep up. By the time we leave, I’m so well-versed in train trivia, I find myself gazing at the passing carriages, wondering if I can differentiate the models and classes I’ve been hearing about all week. At the station, as Jens’ train pulls in, a bright red ICE blares past on the other track and Jens glares at it in bemused disdain. “So ugly!” he laughs as he boards his good ol’ trusty S-Bahn, leaving me on the platform with a sort of borrowed nostalgia, almost wishing that something as crazy and unusual as his steam engines would arrive to take me all the way home.