Time Travel – Budapest’s Millennium Underground Railway (Part One)

In 1873 the cities of Buda, Obuda and Pest were united to create Budapest. At the time of unification the combined population of these three cities was 296,000, by 1900 the population had grown two and a half fold to 733,000. Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. The seeds of this explosive growth were laid in 1867 with the “Ausgleich” or compromise. A deal that tied together the Austrian led Habsburg Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Together they formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Dual Monarchy. This was done in the wake of Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Without this agreement, there was a distinct possibility that the Habsburg’s Empire would have been absorbed by the Prussians and eventually become part of greater Germany. Due to the compromise, the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef, was crowned the King of Hungary in a resplendent ceremony at the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda. These events inaugurated an era in Hungarian history never seen before or since as the industrial revolution took hold. From 1867 to 1914 the country was transformed by growth, the epicenter of which could be found in Budapest.

Train at Vörösmarty Station

Train at Vörösmarty Station on the Millennium Underground Railway (Metro Line One) in Budapest

The M1 – A First For Hungary & Continental Europe
Hungary was given virtual freedom in its domestic affairs, the result was an incredible blossoming of economic, cultural and intellectual life. Budapest attracted immigrants from all over the Hungarian ruled part of the empire. This massive influx of a rural population into the city along with the creation of wealth bolstered by the Industrial Revolution led to grandiose building and transport projects. One of these projects is still thriving today. Unbeknownst to many, Budapest has the second oldest underground metro line in the world and the oldest in continental Europe. Line One of the Budapest Metro (M1), now known as the Millennium Underground Railway, constructed between the years 1894 and 1896. It was one of the many public works projects built in anticipation of the thousand year anniversary of the Magyars (Hungarians) arrival in the Carpathian Basin during the year 896.

In Budapest, the late 19th century was a time when the city was on developmental steroids. Public works projects in the city were a direct reflection of the growth of Hungarian confidence. While the future was being constructed, it was also used to pay homage to Hungary’s past. All that was great and glorious in Hungary manifested itself in architectural and engineering works that both popped up and delved under the capital city. It was no mistake that Metro Line One was conceived during this era of rapid growth. Built by the Siemens & Halske Company (Siemens still exists today as the world’s largest engineering firm), the line was constructed by 2,000 workers using the cut and cover method. This was done by excavating a trench in the shape of a box, rather than a tunnel. It was also built very close to the surface. This was crucial because at Oktagon square the line had to pass over the main city sewage canal.

The original cars which were used on the Millennium Underground Railway

The original cars which were used on the Millennium Underground Railway

Curiosity of the Metropolis
The M1 began in the Pest city center than ran the entire length of Andrassy Avenue – Budapest’s grandest boulevard and what has come to be known as the city’s ChampsÉlysées – then to the Varosliget (City Park) where the Millennium Exhibition would take place. The impetus for placing an electric railway line underground, rather than running a tram on the surface, was done in order to avoid altering Andrassy’s grand urban setting. At its completion, the line had a total of ten stops.

In The Millennium of Hungary And The National Exhibition: A Collection of Photographic Views published in 1896 an entry titled The Underground Electric Railway gives a glowing description of the line as “One of the curiosities of the metropolis…This underground railway will be a real boon to the visitors of the Exhibition forming an inestimable means of communication between the centre of town and the exhibition…The work which is now perfectly finished, is one of the great feats of modern engineering skill.” Originally known as the Joszef Ferenc Electric Underground Railway Corporation, the M1 was dedicated by the Emperor/King on the 2nd of May in that triumphal year of 1896. The M1 was certainly a great feat of engineering. Consider that it was built in just twenty months to be ready for the Millennium celebration. Compare this to the second Budapest metro line to be constructed, the M2 Red Line. The M2 was built during the Communist era and took two entire decades for the first iteration to be completed. The communists often said they were building a whole new world. When it came to metro lines like so many other projects they did it as slowly and inefficiently as possible. The M1 proved that energy, efficiency and a focused effort can create a groundbreaking work in transportation history.

Coming Soon: Tripping Through the Golden Age – Budapest Millennial Railway (Part Two)

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