Expanding Hamburg’s U-Bahn network – thinking of the future

Posted: 25 February 2016 | Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG | No comments yet

Hamburg is a growing city; its population is expected to increase by 100,000 by 2025, and with it, people will demand a lot from the city’s public transport offering. For Intelligent Transport, Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG – the organisation responsible for operating the metro system and most buses in Hamburg – explains that many steps have already been taken to make the public transport fit for the future, but expanding the U-Bahn network really will make a positive long-term difference…

Expanding Hamburg’s U-Bahn network – thinking of the future

Hamburg is the logistics centre and main transport hub of the north German metropolitan region. A thriving economy depends on people taking full advantage of mobility. The backbone of mobility for the, just under, 1.8 million people who live here, plus something like 400,000 commuters, is the public transport network with its buses and rail services (regional trains, metro system and commuter railway system). Passenger numbers travelling on public transport have been continually on the rise ever since 2006. On average, the increase has been 2% a year over the past 10 years.

The forecasts for Hamburg all point in the same direction: Hamburg is a growing city. The outlook for Hamburg’s businesses is promising, and the number of jobs will continue to rise. The city is an attractive location to do business and to live. Experts predict a growing population: by 2025 it is set to go up by some 100,000 people. But an increase in commuter streams is also on the cards. All of this points to a continuing rising curve in passenger numbers.

A whole range of steps have already been taken over recent years to make public transport fit for the future. These include, among others, the optimisation and modernisation of the existing bus system on heavily used MetroBus lines (the bus rapid transit system) as well as the projects to extend the S-Bahn network (the S4 as far as Bad Oldesloe and the electrification of the S21 on the AKN route to Kaltenkirchen). And last but certainly not least, the conversion of the rapid transit stations for barrier-free access is being speeded up and the public transport system is being integrated into a network with various complementary mobility services such as bike hire and car sharing.

Plans to expand the metro system to make it ready to face the challenges of the future have been driven forward by the Senate elected in 2011. In the preceding years, the Black-Green senate prepared plans for the construction of an urban tram system – but after the change of government, these plans were scrapped. Instead, the new Senate commissioned Hamburger Hochbahn AG to commence planning activities for the expansion of the metro system. The metro system is planned to be extended by something like a third by the mid-2030s. The political decision to do this was based on the conviction that a metro system running underground has significant advantages over above-ground solutions due to higher performance capacity, and thus also is better able to meet the environmental, economic and social demands on future-orientated expansion of the public transport system.

The Hamburg metro system currently has a track length of some 104km and 91 stations. The first line, today’s U3, started services in 1912. The network was considerably expanded up to the early-1930s and again starting in the 1960s. The economic recession at the beginning of the 1970s put a stop to further planning to extend the Hamburg metro system. In the 1980s and 1990s, development was restricted to individual extensions to metro lines. It was not until 2007 that a new era dawned, with the start of work on the U4, the new metro line. Since 2012 this has now linked Hamburg’s City Centre with the HafenCity – currently the largest urban development project in Europe. Work is going on to extend this line as far as the Elbe Bridges as I write.

The first ideas at Hamburger Hochbahn AG about how to expand the metro system were guided by the following main principles:

  • Achieving better connections for major suburban housing estates and densely populated districts of the city
  • Better connections between concentrated workplace locations and shopping and leisure facilities
  • Raising the social standards of city districts
  • Adding to existing transport systems where that makes sense, in particular to relieve pressure on heavily used bus lines
  • Keeping within the limits of political acceptability by choosing construction methods which avoid disruption through surface building work wherever possible.

With the help of a potential analysis, a total of 14 potential areas which are neither located in the direct or extended intake area of an existing rapid transit (metro or commuter train) station were selected (see Figure 1 on page 00).

In an initial concept study and based on the potential analysis, the principal possibilities examined were a branching off and extension of the U4 eastwards, the continuation of the U4 across the Elbe southwards, plus the construction of a new line, the U5, from Bramfeld in the East beneath the City Centre to Osdorfer Born in the West. Following the decision of Hamburg not to compete to hold the 2024 Olympic Games, the southward extension of the U4 has been shelved for the time being (see Figure 2 on page 00).

U4 East – the new U-Bahn Line U4 – which has been in operation since 2012, besides linking the HafenCity to Hamburg City Centre, also promises to provide significant relief to the heavily-used U2 in Hamburg’s eastern districts. Adding a branch line to the U4 at Horner Rennbahn and running it eastwards with two new stations and a length of just under 2km will give approximately 13,000 inhabitants access to the rail network for the first time and relieve pressure on some very heavily-used bus routes. The section is due to open for services – all going well – in late-2024. The feasibility study is currently nearing completion and the planning stage is due to begin in spring 2016. Ideally, construction can start in mid-2019.

Far and away the biggest project, a stretch of some 30km on the new U5 line, is intended to give more than 100,000 Hamburg citizens access to the rail network for the first time. It is divided into three sections:

U5 East

This section, just under 7km-long, will link the district of Bramfeld and the suburban centre of Steilshoop/Bramfeld in Hamburg’s north-east with the City Nord – an important location for the head offices of large companies. Six stations are planned, which will connect some 30,000 citizens of Hamburg and thousands of workplaces to the Hamburg rail network for the first time. There were plans for a metro line to the suburban centre Steilshoop/Bramfeld at the beginning of the 1970s, but they did not come to fruition due to the economic recession which then set in. In the view of urban development experts, access to the metro system should result in a significant upgrading of prospects for the district. If all goes well, the section could start services in 2026/2027. The U5 will then, with a direct transfer point to the U1, provide a direct rail link to Hamburg City Centre. The feasibility study for this section of line is almost completed, and the planning stage is due to in early-2016. Construction could start in 2021.

U5 Middle

This stretch of track is intended to link the U5 East and thus the City Nord with Hamburg City Centre. It will then relieve the heavily-used MetroBus Line 6, which is already today pushing the limits of its capacity and runs through densely populated areas of the city. Whereas the detailed routing through the City Centre has not been finalised yet, the rough outlines of routing on other sections are determined by the current routing of the MetroBus Line 5. MetroBus Line 5, with something like 60,000 passengers a day, is one of the most heavily-used bus routes anywhere in Europe. Despite the 25-m-long double-articulated buses which run on the route and the bus acceleration programme (bus rapid transit system) implemented since 2014, this bus line will also reach its limits in a few years. The U5 Middle is intended to go as far as the station Siemersplatz in the North. All other things being equal, the section could open for services at the beginning of the 2030s. The feasibility study for the section gets underway this spring, the planning stage is scheduled for 2018 and commencement of building work for 2025.

U5 West

The aim of new rail construction in western Hamburg is on the one hand to link possible new sites for residential building programmes, the sports (including football) stadiums and event arenas, the new long-distance rail terminus of Deutsche Bahn AG (Diebsteich) as well as the suburban centre of Osdorfer Born. Two variants have been proposed for the routing; one of these envisages the extension of the U5 in its middle section from the current terminus stations, and the other, a branching off from the stretch ‘half-way along’. Both variants are being examined currently in a concept study. This investigation is being complemented by a check on whether a solution using the commuter train or a combination of commuter train and metro might not be a better way to reach the goals. The results of these studies are due to be available earl-2016. If one of the metro variants makes the running, the feasibility study for it can be started at short notice. The planning stage could then begin in 2019, with construction in 2026. The section could then start services at the beginning of the 2030s.

Public relations

The once-in-a-century project U5 in Hamburg (and – with some reservations – the U4 East) will, apart from the challenge they present for transport planners and construction engineers, also set a quite new benchmark for public relations activities. While public relations communication still followed the construction schedule very closely in the case of the U4 in the years after 2007, information policy about the network extension now about to be taken in hand will need to start much earlier, focussing on the planning phase and factoring in first and foremost the dialogue with and involvement of the public at large.

These insights are not only the result of the demonstrations in protest at the DB project to rebuild Stuttgart central station, Stuttgart 21. During the implementation of the bus acceleration programme in Hamburg, too, strong public protest was in evidence and succeeded in watering down, delaying and still at the present in obstructing the measures. The realisations which flow from these discussions have caused the Hamburg Senate to prescribe comprehensive involvement of the public for major projects such as the U5. Hamburger Hochbahn AG has already gained initial experience in a comprehensive dialogue with the public during the new building of a station on the U1 line and is currently putting in place in its internal structures the preconditions for implementing such measures as part of a major project.

Apart from involving the public on-site in various forms (information meetings, citizen forums, roundtables, open space meetings, future workshops, focus groups, scenario workshops, etc.) the crux of the matter will be to convince the citizens of Hamburg in general that the huge project is necessary. One factor essential for the success of this is whether we succeed not only in involving critical voices but in mobilising those who will, in future, use the extended metro system and benefit from it to let their voice be heard in the discussion. Alongside classical elements in such a campaign, Hamburger Hochbahn AG will deploy its social media expertise and launch a broad-based discourse on suitable platforms to support the U5 project in the planning phase, and to make the contribution to the discussion through their information policy which can help to make the new Hamburg metro line reality.


Following mechanical engineering studies and law examinations, Henrik Falk began his career in 1999 with vocational activies as an attorney-at-law in Berlin, and between 2001 and 2004 he was Partner in a Berlin law firm. In 2004 Henrik became Head of the Lead Department at the Municipal Public Transport Company of Berlin (BVG) and in 2007 became Managing Director of BVG Beteiligungsholding. Between 2008 and 2015, Henrik was CFO of BVG, before starting as CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG on 1 February 2016.

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