'Glass cathedral' rail station puts Berlin at Europe's crossroads

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The Independent Online

It cost €200m (£140m) more than planned and provoked a furious legal dispute with its chief architect, but after eight years of construction work, a brand new main railway station, known as the glass cathedral, is to open in Berlin today, and just in time for Germany's World Cup event.

The Hauptbahnhof, the capital's blandly named main station, is a vast, 340-meter-long, arching steel-and-glass hall encompassing twin towers. The building dominates the former no-man's land that once made up part of the Berlin Wall fortifications.

It is Europe's biggest railway junction and it has succeeded where both the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and Adolf Hitler's Nazis failed, by creating a major east-west and north-south rail intersection in the heart of Berlin.

Hartmut Mehdorn, the chairman and chief executive of Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, praised the €700m project. "It is probably the most beautiful yet most functional railway station in the world," he insisted yesterday. "It is a demonstration of what has been done since German unification to overcome the divisions between east and west."

The rail crossroads has been realised through the construction of a giant north-south tunnel beneath the city centre through which 12 railway lines connect Berlin with Hamburg and Munich and beyond.

On the upper level of the five-storey station, six tracks link the capital on an east-west axis with Paris and Moscow.

More than 300,000 passengers are expected to use the new station each day, with trains departing every 90 seconds. Even in its bowels, the Hauptbahnhof lives up to its glass cathedral reputation, as the underground concourse is flooded with shafts of daylight that penetrate its 9,000-pane roof.

Yet the mammoth project has been surrounded by dispute and protest.

Meinhard von Gerkan, the station's chief architect, took Deutsche Bahn to court after the builders decided to install a cheaper steel ceiling in the underground station sections instead of the elaborate, and more expensive, series of glass domes he had planned. Mr von Gerkan lost his case.

Critics have also argued that the station is far too big for Berlin as it was planned in the early 1990s, when the city's population was expected to increase by at least a million instead of shrink to its current 3.4 million inhabitants. Residents also complain that inter-city trains will now no longer stop at the city's famous Zoo Bahnhof that functioned as West Berlin's main station throughout the Cold War.

Not everything is perfect in the Hauptbahnhof either, despite the party that will celebrate its opening today. Scores of cleaners shackled in mountaineering harnesses were yesterday busy removing the last vestiges of dirt from the glass cathedral's 9,000 window panes - by hand.

"We are still working on a device that will do the job mechanically," a German rail spokesman admitted.