Why the Berlin U-Bahn’s newest trains will actually be the oldest subway trains in Europe

Some U-Bahn D-stock when it was last rolled out, as a museum piece for the subway's 75th anniversary. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jcornelius

Berlin’s newest trains are also going to be its oldest trains: the subway is currently so short of rolling stock it’s bringing back 3 of the “Doras”, the first of its trains built after World War 2, complete with vintage adverts.

Ironically they’re coming back into service on Berlin’s newest bit of subway, the U55, which was initially planned to provide a transport link for the then newly Berlin-based German government with the rest of the city after unification became a thing in the early 1990s. The U55 line was plagued with a number of delays - for many years no-one wanted to pay for it, then once they did it flooded - but was finally opened in 2009 as a mile-long stub of a line that’s not properly connected to anything else: London readers can basically think of it as Berlin’s Waterloo and City line.

There is a plan to make it a bit more useful by extending it and connecting it up to the U5 (which was always the plan, before they ran out of money the first time around), but until then Berlin isn’t wasting any fancy new trains on it, so they’re making a feature of running some of the network’s oldest stock - the D series, originally introduced in 1957. The trains, which will be refurbished up to modern standards, are among the last of their kind still kept in Germany - most of them were flogged off to North Korea in the 1990s. When the link with the U5 is completed, in 2020, the last Doras will finally be allowed to rest.

This will make the nearly 60-year-old trains among the oldest to run on any European subway service - beating the 1960s trains that ran on the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line until 2012 (the last tube trains to have luggage racks and umbrella hooks!). They’ll still be some distance short of the world record holder - Buenos Aires’s 100-year-old La Brugeoise rolling stock, which was finally retired in 2013.

The record in Europe is the original Glasgow Subway stock, which lasted from the opening of the system in 1896 until 1977, although the ex-London Underground stock living out its “gentle retirement” on the Isle of Wight’s railways is getting close, if you count subway trains that aren't really subway trains anymore.



What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.

Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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