A historic feat of engineering: The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s a floating train?

The German city of Wuppertal is home to the Wuppertal Schwebebahn – the world’s oldest operating monorail system. Opening on March 1, 1901 after only three years of construction under master builder Wilhelm Feldmann, this suspended monorail is still in operation, transporting about 75,000 passengers a day.

The monorail was introduced to efficiently traverse the region’s hilly geographical terrain, while effectively circumventing the flood-prone river and high groundwater levels that inhibited the construction of traditional land-based transportation.

Constructed at a time when steel engineering was still a fairly new concept, the monorail was the first system to feature vehicles made entirely of steel. Today, the monorail travels at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour over a 13.3-kilometre-long track, with 20 stops along the way. There are currently 25 trains in regular operation, along with 1 “Imperial Carriage” – an original train from the 1900 series of vehicles. The carriage earned its title after carrying Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage during the very first test run of the system.

So how does it work?

According to the official Schwebebahn site:

“The suspension railway framework consists of ‘standard supports’ and ‘standard bridges’. The supports are installed as pendulum and anchor supports on the line, and as heavy pendulum and anchor supports in the stops. They have a height of around 15 metres above the Wupper River, and a height of around 8 metres above the roads on the rural section.

Photo credit: Adlerbrücke Station (Opernhaus) via schwebebahn.de

They are spatial frameworks with a central vertical main girder, the top flange of which is attached to a horizontal framework girder. The lower horizontal girder bearing the exterior rail brackets is arranged on the same level as the lower flange of the vertical main girder. The rails of the suspension railway are supported on the rail brackets on both sides of the bridges. They are located at intervals of around 4 metres from one another.

In order to make the system that transmits the load of the vehicles from the rail to the main girder stable, the construction process utilized so-called ‘hanging rods’. This design innovation is the truly special feature of the patent registered by Anton Rieppel, the chief designer of the suspension railway.

The calculation of what was then a new supporting structure incorporated the static and physical parameters for the dead weight of the steel structure, the fittings, wind forces, temperature fluctuations, the vibrations and shock loads from the start-up and braking forces of the suspension railway trains, as well as the dead weights of the trains.

Photo credit: Hauptbahnhof Station (Döppersberg) via schwebebahn.de

Today calculations are based on complex mathematical models, which can be reliably and economically prepared using modern computers. All calculations are checked by independent engineers to ensure that they are complete and correct, in order to guarantee that the structure is safe and the corresponding regulations under construction legislation have been complied with.”

The monorail has impressively experienced very few accidents throughout its extensive lifespan. The only fatal accident to occur happened in 1999 when a piece of metal was left on the tracks after repair work, causing one train compartment to fall into the Wupper River, killing five passengers and injuring 47.

Advantages of monorails over conventional rail systems

  • Reduced spatial and time requirements for construction, thereby reducing labour and material costs
  • Lack of interference with existing transit systems
  • Electric operation means less noise pollution and lower levels of carbon emissions
  • Less frequent maintenance because operation does not involve friction between rails and wheels
  • Aesthetically impressive given their modern, futuristic look


  • Lack of compatibility with other rail infrastructure since the trains can only run on their own tracks
  • Repairs and service interruptions halt the entire system, as there is only one line for travel
  • Repairs can be time consuming and costly as parts are generally unique to the particular manufacturer
  • Initial build can be a costlier investment, depending on the terrain requirements




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