Poster German Railroads, 1936 | Hermann Schneider (private collection)

German high-speed trains of the 1930s

Immer schneller!

April 2015

Nederlandse versie

After a quite literal attempt to put an airship on the tracks — the Schienenzeppelin — the German railways of the 1930s developed the so-called Fliegende Züge. The prototype, called Flying Hamburger, became the most well known. They achieved a top speed of 160 km/h and brought German cities closer together. Besides these diesel multiple units the Deutsche Reichsbahn also commissioned fast trains with electric and steam traction.

Hitler took the credit for the success of the Schnelltriebwagen, after which World War II put an end to their continued development. In the 1950s both the Bundesbahn and the Reichsbahn of the GDR built on the foundation laid in the 1930s.

by Arjan den Boer

The Schienenzeppelin at Erkrath, 1931 | Franz Jansen/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA


In 1930 Franz Kruckenberg invented a revolutionary rail vehicle: a kind of zeppelin on wheels, made from lightweight aluminum, driven by an aircraft engine and a propeller. This futuristic manifestation set a world record with a speed of 230 km/h, only surpassed in 1954.

Even after some modifications the Schienenzeppelin was not suitable for regular service. No carriages could be attached, the propeller was dangerous and most tracks were not suitable for such high speeds. Consequently the Reichsbahn developed its own Schnelltriebwagen in 1932.

Franz Kruckenberg (second from left), 1931 | unknown photographer (collection Gottwaldt)

Franz Friedrich Kruckenberg (1882-1965) designed ships, zeppelins and airplanes before he devoted himself to fast trains around 1930. Apart from the Schienen­zeppelin he developed a hovertrain and his streamlined 1938 diesel train set had great influence on the design of post-war German high-speed trains.

Schienenzeppelin, c. 1930 | unknown photographer

Fliegender Hamburger

In 1933 the first German streamlined diesel trainset ran between Berlin and Hamburg: the SVT 877, nicknamed the Flying Hamburger. It was the fastest train service in the world. The 286 kilometers were covered in 138 minutes. The average speed of 124 km/h was only equaled on this route in 1997 by the ICE.

The lightweight diesel-electric train set was built by WUMAG after elaborate wind tunnel testing. Both railcars had a Maybach diesel engine, a generator and an electric motor. Its top speed of 175 km/h was limited to 160 km/h in regular service.

Der Fliegende Hamburger, 1932 | Walter Gotschke
First run of the Flying Hamburger, 1933 | unknown photographer (Bundesarchiv)
Remainder of SVT 877 at Verkehrsmuseum Nürnberg | Cherubino/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

After disposal in 1957 the SVT 877 'Flying Hamburger' was transferred to the Nuremberg Transport Museum. Due to the lack of space the trainset was cut and partly demolished. Only the head with control-cabin, engine room and a salon is now on display in the museum.

SVT 137 151 Bauart Berlin, 1935 | H. Maey (collection Arjan den Boer)


With the Flying Hamburger as a prototype, about 35 fast trainsets were built between 1935 and 1938 as the SVT 137 series. The subclasses were named after cities. The Bauart Hamburg consisted of two carriages with 77 seats, the 3-parted Leipzig had seating for 139. Mitropa provided service at the seats.

The Köln had separate 6-person compartments and a dedicated dining car. In 1938 some trainsets of the 4-parted Berlin type were delivered. Most of the Fliegende Züge — as they were all called — were diesel-electric powered while some had a diesel-hydraulic drive system.

SVT 137 224 trainset at Leipzig | Rabensteiner/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

After the war SVT 137 225 'Hamburg' served as a parlor car for the East German government and as a museum train since 1975. After restoration in 1990 it is now exhibited at the Leipzig station. SVT 137 856 'Cologne' was the last one retiring from GDR Reichsbahn service in 1983 and was renovated by railway enthusiasts.

SVT 137 856 at the Delitzsch repair shop | Rainerhaufe/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA
Brochure Wann fährt der nächste FDT, 1936 | collection Michael Bermeitinger

In the late 1930s the Fliegende Züge constituted a network between Berlin and dozens of German cities. The Reichsbahn undertook significant advertising for the fast and convenient FDT trains (Fernschnellzug mit Triebwagen).

Brochure Wann und Wo verkehren FDT, 1937 | collection Michael Bermeitinger

In the FDT train you sit on a comfortable soft upholstered seat. Through the large windows you can enjoy the view of the passing landscape. Meals and refreshments can be consumed during the ride at small tables. In the FDT train you have the same freedom of movement as in D-trains.

Particularly pleasant you will experience the quiet, vibration-free operation of the vehicle which really does not suggest a 160 km/h speed. The carriages are well-heated and equipped with a fresh air supply. Hence every measure is taken to ensure that you feel comfortable and enjoy the journey by FDT train!

Reichsbahn brochure, 1936

Poster Immer schneller, c. 1935 |  H.J. Barschel  (unknown collection)
Poster German Railroads, 1936 | Hermann Schneider (private collection)

Safety, Speed, Comfort

In 1936 the Reichsbahn­zentrale für den Deutschen Reiseverkehr engaged the Jewish(!) designer Hermann Schneider (1908-?) to create promotional materials aimed at foreign tourists. He designed a poster and a brochure based on subtle watercolors. The motto — in multiple languages — was Safety, Speed, Comfort.

The advertising showed that the German railways did not only rely on diesel power to achieve high speeds but also on electric and steam traction. Apart from the Flying Hamburger the first electric trainset was depicted as well as the streamlined Henschel-Wegmann-Zug.

Brochure Le Ferrovie Germaniche, 1936 | Hermann Schneider (collection David Levine)

ET 11 Trainset

The first electric trainset of the Reichsbahn was delivered in 1935. Three specimens were built with different technical installations. From 1936 onwards the ET 11 was deployed between Munich and Stuttgart. Based on this experience technical adaptations were soon carried out.

ET 11 electric trainset , 1935 | from: Deutsche Reichsbahn 1935
Märklin toy catalogue with Henschel-Wegmann-Zug, 1936 | Josef Danilowatz


The advent of high-speed diesel multiple units was a setback for steam locomotive manufacturers. For this reason Kassel-based Henschel decided to develop a new steam locomotive with similar high speed and a streamlined body. Carriage manufacturer Wegmann built matching streamline coaches.

In 1935 the Henschel-Wegmann-Zug was shown during the German railway centenary festivities. During subsequent test drives the train achieved a top speed of 185 km/h. From June 1936 to August 1939 the Henschel-Wegmann-Zug ran a nonstop service between Berlin and Dresden with a speed up to 160 km/h.

Henschel-Wegmann-Zug at Nürnberg, 1935 | Fritz Eschen (Deutsche Fotothek)

Locomotive 61 001 had integrated tanks for 17 m³ of water and 5 tons of coal. The 2.3 meter driving wheels accounted for high speeds. The 'tin cloak' covered the entire steam engine and provided the driver a good view of the tracks. The controls in the cabin were duplicated so that the locomotive could easily ran in two directions.

Construction of Henschel 61 001 locomotive, 1935 | RVM (Eisenbahnstiftung)
Factory-new DR 137 155 trainset, 1938 | Westwaggon/Kruckenberg


After the impractical Schienenzeppelin, Franz Kruckenberg vindicated himself in 1938 with a more realistic but still revolutionary trainset. This one had diesel engines with an innovative hydrostatic drive. The elevated driver's cab was a remarkable element in the streamlined aluminum design.

In 1939 the SVT 137 155 prototype established a world speed record for diesel traction at 215 km/h. However, the driveshafts proved to break easily, a problem which remained unresolved by the outbreak of WW II. After the war Kruckenberg's design would form the basis for new trains.

Construction of the Kruckenberg-Schnelltriebwagen, 1938 | Westwaggon/Kruckenberg

After 1945 the Kruckenberg-Schnelltriebwagen ended up in a GDR Reichsbahn depot and was scrapped in 1967. A bogie with the original transmission was saved by the Dresden Transport Museum. It is now exhibited in conjunction with a Maybach GO 6 diesel engine in a cutaway mock-up of the train's head.

Remainder of SVT 137 155 at Verkehrsmuseum Dresden | Petr S./Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA
Bauart Köln at the Wittenberge maintenance workshop, 1938 | Walter Hollnagel (Eisenbahnstiftung)

Nazi period and war

In the Nazi era the Fliegende Züge, like all other trains, were fitted with an eagle and swastika at the front. In propaganda the popular Fernschnellzüge were credited to the Nazis. In reality the foundation was laid by the Reichsbahn and German industry before Hitler came to power.

When war broke out in 1939 fast train services were shut down to save fuel and to give priority to military transport. During the war some trainsets were used as offices, command vehicles or even power generators (because of the diesel-electric installation).

Deutsche Reichsbahn propaganda, 1938 | collection Michael Bermeitinger

Four Year Plan

A 1938 propaganda ad credited the Reichsbahn a key role in the execution of the Four Year Plan — a Nazi version of the Five Year Plan of the centrally planned Soviet economy. According to the ad the railways contributed to the rise of 'Greater Germany' by granting billions in contracts to the German industry and by employing 900,000 'national comrades'.

US officers near confiscated treinstel, c. 1948 | Reinhold Palm


Most Fliegende Züge were confiscated by the Allied occupation forces until about 1950. Subsequently they were in use with both the West and the East German railways until the 1970s. From 1952 onwards the VT 08 series was built which resembled the prewar trainsets but had a lower top speed.

VT 08.519 trainset, c. 1964 | Reinhold Palm (Deutsche Bundesbahn)


In 1953 Franz Kruckenberg, building upon his prewar trainset, designed the VT 10.501 'Senator' and VT 10.551 'Komet'. They were taken out of service after a few years due to technical problems and high fuel costs, but provided much experience for the next series of fast diesel multiple units.

In 1957 the Deutsche Bundesbahn introduced the VT 11.5 series for the Trans Europ Express (TEE), which was very successful. Although designed by Klaus Flesche of MAN, the influence of the 1938 Kruckenberg-Schnelltriebwagen was visible in the streamlined head and the raised position of the driver's cab, amongst others. The East German VT 18.16 was also based on the work of Kruckenberg.

VT 10.501 trainset, 1953 | Reinhold Palm (Deutsche Bundesbahn)
VT 11.5001 as TEE Parsifal, 1968 | Carl Ulrich Huhn
VT 18.16 175 in 1990 | Daniel Simon/

Immer schneller! German high-speed trains of the 1930s



Mythos "Fliegende Züge", in: Bahn Epoche 06, 2013

Alfred B. Gottwaldt, Deutsche Reichsbahn 1935. Ein Text- und Bildreport, 1976

Online Sources

Eisenbahnstiftung: Bildergalerie

David Levine's Travel Brochure Graphics

Wikipedia (German):