Fugleflugtslinjen, the train that travelled on water

The possibilities of the sea. An unlikely tale of amphibian ingenuity

Who would have been able to imagine Venice, if it didn’t already exist? This floating city feels like an inherent impossibility, and even more so given the challenges it faces in the shape of climate change and rising sea levels. So many pessimistic souls have predicted its disappearance, given its constantly shifting surroundings. And yet Venice lives on, despite all those many difficulties.

That’s something Venice has in common with the early railway lines. Both were built against all odds, and both endured against all odds. So before Midnight Weekly heads off for a short trip to La Serenissima, we thought you’d tell you a little story that chimes with both themes: the railways and the sea.

The nineteenth century had just come to a close and the train sector was really taking off. So much so that many entrepreneurial types were dreaming up ideas that no one would’ve thought were probable. Perhaps one of the most surprising examples is the train that connected Hamburg and Copenhagen by crossing (sort of) the Baltic Sea, and continued to do so until very recently.

This line had two names: Fugleflugtslinjen (in Danish) ou Vogelfluglinie (en German), which both mean the ‘bird flight line’. Something to do with the technical prowess of the train drivers, perhaps? Nope – the name was chosen because the line followed the routes that many migratory birds took between Central Europe and Scandinavia.

Until December 14 2019, you could experience a truly incredible journey aboard an amphibian vehicle. Leaving Hamburg in the late afternoon, you would be on a train roughly as long as an underground carriage (though quite a lot more comfortable). The kilometres would fly by, until suddenly you’d arrive at the edge of German territory, in Puttgarden, on the banks of the Baltic Sea. An announcement would ring out, informing you that the train was itself about to embark on a journey of its own.

And in less time than you’d need to really get your head around the idea, the carriages would be driven into the belly of a ferry, where rail lines would allow it to rest. Passengers were then invited to leave their belongings on board, leave the carriage and make the most of an hour aboard the ship. While the train was whisked across the seas, people were able to contemplate the sunset from the upper deck, before taking their place back in the carriage once they’d arrived in Rødby in Denmark. Already the train would be rolling out onto more conventional rail tracks heading towards Copenhagen.

Sounds like an April fool’s, doesn’t it? In fact the project had first emerged in 1863, thanks to German inventor Gustav Kröhnke. Just three years later, he had already received permission from the Danish government to establish a ferry terminal and a rail hub near Rødby. However, quite a few obstacles would get in the way before the initiative could see the light of day.

The works were halted for a first time during the 1920s, when the rail operators considered the project to no longer be of interest to many travellers. There followed a series of stops and starts, and it wasn’t until May 14 1963 that, finally, King Frederick IX of Denmark and German president Heinrich Lübke were to inaugurate this quite unlikely route.

For several decades, the train delighted hundreds of thousands of travellers, and it was for environmental reasons that it came to an end. It ran on diesel and its carbon emissions weren’t trifling. Nonetheless, there’s a new project on the way that could interest similarly minded travellers looking to cross the Baltic Sea: the Femern.

The 18km-long Femern tunnel will link Germany and Denmark from 2029. By train, it’ll only take seven minutes to get from Puttgarden to Rødby, and unlike the Tunnel under the English channel, it won’t have to be dug out, because it will actually be built on the sea bed.

So no, when it comes to the railways, very little is impossible: you can even find a way to get train tracks to run across the sea. And here at Midnight Trains, we may well be able to let you discover this tunnel aboard one of our trains, on a service running all the way to the Danish capital.

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