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A cautionary ride across Siemensbahn abandoned railway

Updated: 7 days ago

At what point does the feeling of the sublime become that of horror? This is what I ask myself as I rushedly clamber through Siemensbahn railway, lost in the dark woods yet only a few metres away from residential Berlin. For a second, I regret not having gone home instead.


I


I arrived at Wernerwerk station around 5pm. I had heard lots about the abandoned Siemensbahn S-Bahn line, as it's one of the more well known abandoned locations in Berlin. Originally stretching 4.5 kilometres across the northwestern part of the city, the railway was active from 1929 to 1980, when industrial action lead to almost half of West Berlin's S-Bahn network shutting down. From 1984 onward, operations slowly resumed but due to low ridership prior to the strikes, Siemensbahn never reopened.


I circled the station to find a way in and found a gap in the fence. Unfortunately, once through I could not find a way into the actual station, which I needed to access to the elevated S-Bahn line.


Discouraged, I told myself I would come back another day after doing some more research. I hadn't initially planned this excursion, only deciding to visit on a whim after a fascinating tour of a destroyed nazi Flak Tower (anti-aircraft tower) earlier that afternoon. So I wasn't too upset about calling it a day. I didn't come with the necessary clothes, after all, and my phone was close to dying. But since I was here, I thought, I might as follow the line for a little bit to see if there's another way in... just to save it for later.


As if. The way in was almost too easy: as the railway entered a park, it got closer to the ground, allowing you to access it if you didn't mind getting your shoes a bit muddy. At the top, you're presented with two paths: either you could retrace your steps, wander above the streets and into Wernerwerk station or you could journey into a wondrous grove, wild and overgrown. As magical as that path looked, I chose to head the other direction, as the path was shorter and the station would make for better photos.


I hadn't considered how visible you are on this part of the railway. Though it is quite wide, I could clearly be seen by passersby below even when walking in the centre of the bridge. I'm sure people come up here just about everyday, but I still felt a bit exposed - and I did not want to deal with German police.


Once you get to the S-Bahn stop, the surrounding pedestrians are replaced by drivers racing home which was enough to reassure me, though I did keep an eye out for police cars.


Stepping onto Wernerwerk train station, my relation to space also became far more familiar. I imagined myself running up the stairs just to miss my train, checking the sign only to realise I could've saved by breath by waiting another five minutes and sitting down where once would've been a bench to read my book, in turn hoping the following train would be delayed so I could finish my chapter.


I'm reminded of the scene in Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away, where the main character Chihiro awaits a train in a stop that is surrounded by the ocean. This space is both familiar and liminal, allowing for a moment of calm to reflect on Chihiro's tumultuous journey thus far. If the streets below were to flood, would Siemensstadt station still be accessible? Would it offer solace, a familiar space, for those trying to flee?


I'm aware this is a bit of a trope, but I think of the German word for uncanny, "unheimlich", which literally translates to un-homely. Freud defines the uncanny as that which was at the border of familiarity and strangeness. For Freud, the uncanny blurs the lines of our own identity, disrupting that which usually feels stable.


Being in Germany for the first time, without knowing anyone and hardly speaking the language, train stations have been a particularly "homely" space, somewhere familiar where I can settle in while commuting between new and exciting places.


As an aside, I didn't realise how much I'd missed long rides in the metro, something I rarely experience since moving to Dundee. When I was a teenager, I used to take the metro to see my therapist who lived on the other side of town. (Funnily enough, though the Paris metro runs mostly underground, this was one of the few lines which was elevated, just like the S-Bahn.) This journey helped me relax and gather my thoughts, which in a way became part of my therapeutic process.


Whether going above or under, passengers temporarily leave the chaos and frenzy of everyday life to enter a space of familiarity. Though commuting can be chaotic in its own right, especially at rush hour, it also offers a moment of pause to collect yourself, to mentally prepare for new experiences or forget about the outside world entirely.


In terms of possible experiences of the uncanny, however, this definitely leaned more towards the familiar than the unknown. The lines were starting to blur, but it felt more like a distant memory rather than a breakdown of reality. The illicitness of visiting abandoned locations certainly gives them an element of eeriness but beyond that, this was quiet, peaceful. If anything, the fact that it was uninhabited and taken over by nature made the place more relaxing.


This relationship changes once you leave the station. Going onto the tracks felt like peeking behind the curtain, as you literally descend upon that which is usually forbidden. At the end of the path, I found a railway bridge. Originally, this took passengers across the river Spree to Jungfernheide station, connecting to the still active Ringbahn line. Today, this section of the railway no longer exists. This was my end of the line, but I still had my return ticket. (At what point does metaphorical writing become dad humour?) Either I could go home at this point, to return another day with better walking attire (and maybe a friend!) or I could enter the woods, despite the risks. As we already know, I unfortunately have poor impulse control and all things considered, it felt relatively safe. And so, with camera in hand, I ventured into the overgrown section of the railway...


II


At 17:xx, I journey down the sequestered path. In contrast, the path feels far more cloistered. Usually, an added bonus of urban exploration is the nature walk required to access these remote locations. And if you're asked to leave, at least you get to have a day out in the woods. In this instance, however, this journey and destination are both one and the same.


Paradoxically, the path is also surrounded by civilisation, with kids walking home from school, mothers scolding their children and commuters occasionally giving you the side eye if they happen to notice you behind the flimsy barrier that separates you. This is what I mean when I say that Siemensbahn almost feels too easy to enter, as the railway is essentially an extension of the public park it runs through. A forbidden path, one that raises suspicion from passersby, but just another path nonetheless.


As you head down the line, however, the vegetation grows wilder and the two train tracks guiding you slowly disappear behind foliage. All the while, the path grows wider, further isolating you from the world around you. Whereas earlier, it would be essentially impossible to miss other explorers (like the group of teenagers I attempt to communicate with in my very (very) broken German), it dawns on me that someone could now feasibly hide from me. And if that were the case, where would I possibly esxape?


At 17:58, I arrive at Siemenstadt station, my first checkpoint on this journey. In terms of the layout, this station is much the same, from the stairs (which now lead down to the entrance, through a narrow gap) and the two huts where commuters would've once bought pastries (the sign and bench are now entirely missing).


Yet an eeriness looms over the station, as the feeling of isolation creeps back in (even though, once again, you're only a dozen metres away from people's backyards). I'm struck by how alien Siemendstadt appears, an uncanny doppelganger of the previous station. Whereas the desolateness of Wernerwerk was complemented with few shrubs growing out the side of its huts, Siemenstadt is overgrown almost to the point of unrecognition, with only a narrow path for you to walk along the station. Wernerwerk was an towering plateau, overlooking the bustling city; Siemenstadt is a lost alcove, where one can forget about the world around.

The sight is overwhelmingly beautiful - eerie, but undeniably serene. Compared to the previous stop, however, the uncanny is far more powerful. Acting as a beacon of familarity, this clearing in the forest also accentuates how alien it all feels. And the feeling of being watched continues to loom over me.


Yet I'm still curious to go on. As I creep back into the thicket, chills run through my veins. It occurs to me why the colour green is typically associated with safety, as any other flash of colour, from packaging left behind to the early browning of leaves, intuitively signals distress in my brain, as a potential danger. In that moment, I ask myself: am I seeking the feeling of the sublime or rather this sense of thrills? And are they ultimately one and the same?


I arrive at the final station, Gartenfelt. To my dismay, the sun is setting at an alarming rate, due to Berlin's lower latitude when compared to Scotland. The energy goes from eerie to downright scary. Since this is the end of the line, the station is more built up than the others. At the back, an empty buildings looms over. I make my way into the dark and peak through the window. I see shapes reflected in the glass and briskly decide to head home. Only now, I don't know the way out.


I make my way across the hut, but it simply loops back on itself. I return to the other side and find a gap in the fence, hop across a ditch, only to realise I'm surrounded by a massive building site. Though I'm relieved to once again glimpse at humanity, there is something deeply unsettling about these rows of private newbuilds, extending hundreds of metres, without a trace of life. I'm unsure if they're inhabited or still under construction, but either way I'm already feeling stressed enough about the German authorities and would rather not trespass any more than I already am.


I return to the big scary station and consider my fate. My phone is dead and the only exit I am aware of is back at the previous station. I'm such an idiot. A typical cityboy, unaware of his own fragility. Unable to take even the most basic of precautions.


I gather myself and try to take it all in, just for a few seconds.


In this dark underworld, nature no longer represents serenity, but rather a test of my own vulnerability; and peaks into the outside world indicates both my potential return to civilisation and the possibility of being caught.


In spite of being surrounded by the city, I am eerily alone. And the comfort of a train station changes to symbolise the terrifying potential of not being alone. Meaning collapses into an overwhelming feeling of weightlessness, of not quite being here.


My mind oscillates between this pensive dissociation, and the profound awareness of my body, of its vulnerability and limits. In these moments of hyperawarness, all I need is to escape back to safety. Yet there's something oddly calming about the way it grounds me, reminding me to take life in and care for my own safety. Lost within an unknown Berlin suburb, I wander around, trying to find my way back to familiarity. Eventually, I find a U-Bahn - my escape hatch from this strange and overwhelming dream on the edge of the sublime, the uncanny and the abject.

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