Germans Have At Least 7 Words For Train Stations. Because Of Course They Do.
There’s always some Twitter thread or Facebook post I’m scratching my head about, in which someone has asked for whether there’s a German phrase for some situation that everyone relates to but is too oddly specific to have to describe in full detail every time. The casually agglutinative noun formation tendency in German leads to some really ridiculous terms. This is especially present in transportation with words like Gleiswechselbetriebsstelle (“the place at which the train tracks change directionality”), Hochgeschwindigkeitszug (“high-speed train,” or, “high fastness train”). Today, we’re going to be learning about the German names for no fewer than seven– count ’em- different types of train stations! Because that’s what we talk about in this household, comrade: Language and trains! Fahrkarte, bitte!
Language: Why? Why Not?
First off, I’ll be literally translating the terms, because it’s funnier that way. Of all of the world’s languages, English and German have some of the best agglutinative morphologies for nouns (at least I think that’s what they’re called? I don’t know, I’m not a linguist). The train station, or bahnhof, is literally a train court or train yard. Interestingly, the word “Station” (Stat-see-OHN) does exist in German! It’s just not what you call a Bahnhof, unless you’re on the subway and it’s referring to the “nächste Station,” a.k.a. next stop. As with most other words in the language, there are Germanic root words and Latin root words. If you use the Latin root, the average speaker is likely to understand most of what you’re trying to communicate, but there is sometimes a preferred Germanic root word.
I mention all of this detail because the intentionality of language is super important. It’s important when planners plead with journalists to refer to “crashes” rather than “accidents,” or when we beg reporters to stop using the passive voice in referring to traffic deaths. Former Streetsblogger Angie Schmitt did a great job with this critique before she was tragically swallowed up by the sarlacc pit of right-wing COVID conspiracy theories. RIP.
1. The Durchgangsbahnhof
The through goings train court is any train station where the tracks, well, go through it. In other words, this is a stop between points on a longer line. This might sound like all train stations, unless you’ve ever been outside of the United States, where a lot of cities have another type of train station that I’ll talk about next.
2. The Kopfbahnhof
The head train court is one where the trains come in and back out. Conveniently, the head station is often the main station. As a matter of urban history, main train stations often developed in proximity to important commercial centers (like a downtown) or other transportation hubs (intermodal). But because space was scarce in this popular destination, it wasn’t always possible to do what American planners would do a century later and demolish half of the existing city to build other routes.
From here, it gets spicier!
3. The Spitzkehrenbahnhof
The Kopfbahnhof should not be confused with the Spitzkehrenbahnhof, or sometimes Spitzbahnhof. The former refers only to stations in which the trains pull in one way and pull out the exact same way. The latter one, if you’re ready for your head to spin like an electric traction motor, is similar but not. The peak-return-train-court (“kehren” technically translates as “to sweep,” but “zurückkehren” means “to return”) refers to a station in which trains come in from one track, terminate the same way they would for a Kopfbahnhof. But when the trains back out, they back out in a different direction. A Spitzkehre also refers to a hairpin turn (a hairpin This is some serious niche train nerd content.
An island platform– bahnsteig being the train-climb, a.k.a. the surface whence you climb onto the train or onto which you climb from the train- is a setup in which the train platform has track on either side of it. Anyone who has ever been to Berlin will remember the automated recording from the BVG trains, gently reminding you to einsteigen, bitte, and zurückbleiben, bitte (please get on, please stand back). Most commuter train stations, whether subways (U-Bahn) or above-ground rail (S-Bahn, mostly), are either Inselbahnsteigs, or…
In this station, the platforms are on either side of the tracks. For passengers, this is in some ways ergonomically inferior to an Inselbahnsteig, where it’s easy to switch directions or trains simply by walking across the platform, because now you have to typically go up stairs. If you live in a city like New York, where the MTA is a nightmare for disabled commuters, this is a huge consideration for a traveler that we of the able-bodied ilk often don’t even think about!
Why isn’t everything an Inselbahnsteig, then? Well, space, obviously. There are always reasons for why a certain station will have one versus another configuration– as mentioned above in the case of the Kopfbahnhof. Subways, for example, often have different access points, usually as a historical question of where the city was able to dig a hole once upon a time (to simplify).
A wedge train court. This kind of train station is formed where one line splits off from others at a diagonal. This sometimes results in a train platform that is physically wedge-shaped, or it could just result in an angular fork that splits off from a line. There are notable historical examples around the world. In the United States, there are several train stations in New York City in which diagonal track intersections form this sort of wedge: the Broadway Junction Station in Brooklyn, the West Fourth Street / Washington Square Station in Manhattan, and the Jay Street / MetroTech Station in downtown Brooklyn.
Why does this matter in train station nomenclature?
It doesn’t, really, except that it might be valuable in understanding places where there is an Übergang (transfer) point to another line or another transit medium. Hey, funny, that, there’s also a term for a station where this happens. It’s called…
The crossing train court is a station where train lines intersect. The Kreuzungsbahnhof can include elements of other Bahnhöfe, too, like a Keilbahnhof, Anschlussbahnhof, or a Trennungsbahnhof.
8. Fernvehrkehrsbahnhof vs. Nahverkehrsbahnhof
These two terms differentiate stations dealing with long-distance trains (“far traffic train court”) versus ones that deal with short-distance trains (“near traffic train court”). It’s less of an express versus local question and more of a question of intercity versus intracity. Again, this is something that you wouldn’t think about if you had only spent your commuting and traveling life living in a Rust Belt city like Detroit, where there are, effectively, no train stations. Amtrak stations in the Midwest are mostly for Fernverkehr (distance traffic), while in the Northeast Corridor, you can get train stations that are stops for both Amtrak and regional rail or even local subway traffic. On the Pennsylvania Main Line, for example, between Philadelphia and not-quite-Lancaster, this is the case for commuter stops that host SEPTA as well as Amtrak trains.
There are other terms that become confusingly specific. An Anschlussbahnhof (Connecting Station) is contrasted with a Trennungsbahnhof (Dividing or Separating Station, a.k.a. a station where a line splits off from the main line). Trackologically (that’s the scientific term, people– I don’t make the rules), these are, as far as I can tell, basically the same thing, except that the Anschluss station refers specifically to a setup in which the line that splits off is not the same as the main rail line, and may not have regular service (as opposed to scheduled service– this is a thing that often occurs with short-haul freight routes, in cases such as one where a large industrial facility is the only user of a rail spur, and the only way for that industrial user to acquire source materials or deliver finished ones is through this spur rail line). There are also Geisterbahnhöfe, or Ghost Stations, which we have plenty of in the United States (side note: I would love to do a series on Cincinnati’s subway!).
Some terms are roughly parallel. Germans also refer to grade separation as “niveaufrei,” from the French “niveau” and “frei” (“free,” so, “level-free”). There’s also the concept of Hauptbahn (main line) vs. Nebenbahn (side line, or branch line).
Recap: Name It To Claim It!
Facing the complexity of our built environments, the precision of language becomes a potent tool. Consider Philadelphia’s 30th St. Station, an amalgam of distinct railway concepts. It incorporates Inselbahnsteigs (island platforms), exhibits elements of a Spitzkehrenbahnhof (a peak station for trains traversing the Keystone Corridor from Harrisburg to New York City’s Penn Station), and possesses the fluidity of a Durchgangsbahnhof (through station). Of course, no one’s going to use these terms because we mostly speak English and Español in the Estados Unidos.
But this vivid confluence of terminologies, kinda sorta part of the agglutinative nature of German noun formation, allows for even more nuanced descriptions that combine nouns into ever more unwieldy words: an Inselkreuzungsbahnhof (island crossing station), for instance. While these specific terms might not often punctuate everyday conversations in German (and certainly not in English!) they provide a lexicon for thinking more critically and creatively about transit planning, accessibility, historic preservation, and any domain where a richly detailed description can yield deeper insights and better solutions. In this way, precision in language translates into precision in understanding, planning, and we hope, action in developing more accessible and more functional transit systems.