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Berlin’s Subsoil Life: Trains and Rats at ‘Alexanderplatz’

Alexanderplatz may not be beautiful, but it used to be one of the most frequented spots in Berlin, until the Corona crisis hit. This applies both at the surface and underground.

According to estimates, Berlin has about as many rats as it accommodates human residents. Because the number of pest extermination operations against rats is increasing dramatically, Berliners are supposed to report every single rat sighted to the health authorities.

Signals prevent crashes in Berlin’s ‘U-Bahn’ tunnels. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Cable Clutter in Secret Tech Rooms

There are several areas rats seem to love a lot more than others. Among those animals, favoritism seems to be just as popular as it is among humans. Those rat strongholds include Berlin’s north-eastern ‘Marzahn-Hellersdorf’ district, ‘Mitte’ and ‘Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’. Alexanderplatz is located in ‘Mitte’. In the area around the square, rats seem to be finding a lot of free food in the trash.

Every 1 or 2 miles, a station appears. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

While consuming the gifts humans leave for them, they hide in countless pipes, behind walls and in ‘U-Bahn’ train tunnels. That is also were they multiply. One single female rat can have a litter up to six times a year. They multiply a lot faster than the worms they share the underground with at Alexanderplatz square.

This is what Alexanderplatz station looks like to passengers. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Rats do not give anyone insight into their secret life under the surface, but Berlin’s transport provider BVG does. Its unknown world, 30 to 60 feet under the square, is a huge network of gangways and tunnels. While tourists admire Berlin’s World Clock up there in daylight, technicians deal with cable clutter in hidden tech rooms located where the sun does not shine.

This secretive part of Alexanderplatz station is for technicians. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Dark Territory

Recently, they installed devices which are now giving tens of thousands of ‘U-Bahn’ passengers the connections they need on their smart phones during their subsurface trips. This is supposed to be the information age. So far, there is access on certain stretches of four metro lines. Technicians will have to lose their way in those labyrinths for another year until the entire underground system has Internet access for all.

Hardly anyone sees the cable clutter necessary to give passengers Internet access at Alexanderplatz station and beyond. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

‘U-Bahn’ train drivers spend eight to nine hours a day in their tunnels, racing back and forth on their lines. One of them told The Berlin Spectator, the darkness made him and his colleagues tired. Asked whether the atmosphere down there caused depression among ‘U-Bahn’ drivers, he sad no.

Some of the tunnels the driver raced his train through on Tuesday were completely dark. Green and red signals was all he could see on many stretches. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. For instance the tracks around the U8 line platform at Alexanderplatz are illuminated quite well.

The lit parts are a bit less scary than the dark ones. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Dangerous Pantographs

The driver explained how dangerous it is to walk through those ‘U-Bahn’ tunnels. BVG technicians who do at times, in order to make sure everything is fine down there, know the dangers. Not coming in contact with the pantographs on the right side of each track is the ground rule, since they can actually electrocute people on the spot, just like Old Sparky.

Kottbusser Tor station is known for its alcoholics and drug addicts. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The trains themselves are the second danger. When two of them race by at the same time, on both sides, anyone in the tunnel needs to be standing in between the tracks, holding on to metal poles installed for that purpose, just to make sure he or she does not fall on the tracks at the wrong moment.

The first Berlin ‘U-Bahn’ transported passengers in 1902. That is exactly what some of the tunnels look like from the perspective of the hundreds of train drivers on duty at any given moment between 4:30 a.m. and 1 a.m.. Those old tunnels would be the perfect place for shooting horror movies. But they are fascinating at the same time. The rats down there would definitely agree.

The ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ Approach

In the countless narrow corridors built for technicians and staff at big stations like Alexanderplatz, the risk of getting lost is high. Applying the ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ approach, by dropping lots of breadcrumbs on the way in, is helpful. Waiting for a tech guy to walk by coincidentally can take ages. The best way to avoid getting lost in those secret corridors is to keep the hell out.

By the way: The publication you are reading, The Berlin Spectator, was established in January of 2019. We have worked a whole lot, as you can see. But there has hardly been any income. This is something we urgently need to change. Would you consider contributing? We would be very thankful. Our donations page can be found here.