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Word of the Week: Geisterbahnhof

Have you ever been on a metro train that passed through an empty station?
The word Geisterbahnhof means “ghost train station” – and as its translation implies, it signifies an empty or out-of-service station that gives off a ghostly vibe. This word originated during the Cold War, when so-called “ghost stations” arose in Berlin’s public transportation system. Today, however, the word may also be used to refer to any desolate train station, regardless of its location.

When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the transportation system in Berlin was drastically affected. Parts of Berlin’s metro system (called the U-Bahn) were in the East and others were in the West, leading to a divided railway system. Many lines ran through both parts, and in most cases, they were split to create individual lines. In these instances, trains would stop at the border and turn around. But some Western lines – specifically the U6 and the U8 – ran through small portions of East Berlin. These lines took Western commuters from one part of West Berlin to another, but not without going through the desolate Eastern stations that became known as Geisterbahnhöfe.

These ghostly out-of-service stations were heavily guarded by East German police. Barbed wire fences and an electrically charged third rail ensured that no East Germans would escape into the railway system. Trains slowed down as they traveled through these stations, but they did not stop. Looking out the U-Bahn windows at the dimly-lit platforms, commuters often had an eerie vibe. Over time, each of these desolate stations were referred to as a Geisterbahnhof. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, these stations reopened and have since been modernized – but the word is still used.

The entrance to an U-Bahn station in East Germany. ©dpa / picture alliance

Today, the term Geisterbahnhof describes any and all disused train stations. From New York to Hamburg to Moscow, many of the world’s metro systems have stations that are out of service – either temporarily or permanently. Looking out at the empty platforms as your train passes through one, the hairs on the back of your neck might stand on end as you imagine the ghosts of a station that has been shut down.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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