Tracks through time: rail biking on a disused railway

Across Europe, thousands of miles of railway have been abandoned over the years and left to rust. But in one German town, an old line that once transported Prussian troops and military equipment and later shuttled children to and from school has been brought back to life. Today, you can enjoy a ride along the disused railway on a draisine— or rail bike. 

The town of Zossen lies just south of Berlin and it’s here that the disused military railroad starts, operated by the adventure railway company Erlebnisbahn. Flanked by marshlands and pine forests, the line follows the narrow Notte Canal, an old waterway that was built some 400 years ago to transport bricks and plaster from the nearby brickworks and gypsum quarries. 

During the Gründerzeit, a period of rapid industrialisation and economic growth in Germany in the 19th century, the new imperial capital was growing fast. As there was no longer room for the Prussian army’s military exercises in the city, the Ministry of War decided to relocate its artillery practice range to an uninhabited area near Sperenberg. New infrastructure then had to be built, culminating in the opening of the Royal Prussian Military Railroad in 1875. The “cannon railroad” as it was known ran from Schöneberg in southwest Berlin via Zossen to the Kummersdorf shooting range.

After a few miles of easy pedalling along the railway tracks, we reach the first station on the old cannon railroad: Mellensee. With a historical station building, small beer garden and some bizarre attributes, including an old S-Bahn train from 1937, it’s the perfect place to stop on our draisine journey for a quick refreshment.

Until the 1940s, a wide range of new military technologies were developed along this route, including nuclear and rocket technologies. The famous German engineer Wernher von Braun, who developed the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, the V-2, worked in Sperenberg until he moved to Peenemünde where he went on to develop the world’s first projectile to reach outer space in 1942.

Two miles down the line we reach the hamlet of Rehagen. The old station is stylishly furnished with an awning under which we take another break from pedalling and enjoy some excellent French cuisine prepared by the German-French restaurateurs. With fresh ingredients either from the local region or imported from France, you can enjoy galettes, crêpes and French cheese in the middle of the German countryside.

Opposite the station there are three nostalgic railway cars that have been transformed into a hotel and restaurant. Two of the coaches were built in East Germany for the Trans-Siberian Railway, with the green sleeping car still retaining many of its original elements and the red dining car converted into three guest rooms. The third car, which dates back to the 1930s, was later converted into a large bedroom and is also used as a wedding venue. With our stomachs full, we clamber back onto our rail bikes and hit the tracks again.

The railway’s illustrious history sadly came to an abrupt halt in the 1990s when the line started being shut down bit by bit. By 1998 there were no trains running anymore. The decision to breathe new life into the railway and transform it into an adventure rail biking experience has breathed new much needed life into the area.

A few miles later and we reach our terminus, the small town of Sperenberg. The route actually continues through the forests of Brandenburg, but we fancy a walk around a nearby lake, where we find a lido and roll out a blanket and relax before starting our journey back.

If you’re interested in history, not far from Sperenberg lie the Wünsdorf barracks – the largest garrison of the Red Army outside the Soviet Union. This abandoned Soviet camp was once the seat of the supreme command of half a million Soviet soldiers in East Germany, and now lies empty.

There are also two sister lines of the ‘adventure railroad’ Fürstenberg/Havel and Templin in the Uckermark, both of which are also rail biking lines. You can find these and other draisine tours in Germany on Railtripping.

Photos: Michael Bartnik, Bart Giepmans, Elke Stamm

Michael Bartnik
Written by Michael Bartnik
Michael is a Berliner born and bred. Bucking the stereotype that all Germans love to drive, he never got his driving licence and relies instead on his first-class BahnCard to travel around Germany and Europe. A keen advocate for train travel and the railway industry, Michael has worked for both the Swiss and German Railways. He is based in Berlin.

Translated by: William Simpson. Photos by: Michael Bartnik.