Germans ride former Communist leaders' train for taste of luxury

July 14, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Vera Sudrow peeked into the immaculate sleeping compartment and stifled a giggle.

"To think that the party bigwigs slept in this train. I wonder if they had breakfast in bed?" she said mischievously.

As the gleaming green train pulled out of Berlin's Zoo station in the early morning and headed north for the Baltic Sea, Mrs. Sudrow and her five friends continued their inspection of the cars that once made up East Germany's official government train. Once the Communist country's rail version of Air Force One, Train 004 carried top leaders, such as then-party leader Erich Honecker, his generals, chief henchmen and assorted emissaries, around the East bloc.

With the collapse of East Germany, however, the train is now earning money for the state by providing executives and tourists with a comfortable way to see the east. It gives people such as Mrs. Sudrow a chance to get out of town for a day on the beach.

"Do you think we can open this door?" she asked. "It's a medical room. Always worried about their health," she explained, after finding a first-aid station in a sleeping car.

Mrs. Sudrow is not alone in her curiosity about the legendary train. Since the former East German railway, the Deutsche Reichsbahn, began offering tours last summer, more than 10,000 people have traveled through eastern Germany and Central Europe in the plush train cars once only available to the East German Communist elite.

The tours also generate badly needed revenue for the Reichsbahn, which is $5 billion in debt and considering cost-cutting measures, such as reducing service to small towns in eastern Germany.

"We're hoping that it can help us. It's one of the few good things that we inherited from back then," tour organizer Marianne Becker said.

Most of what the Reichsbahn has from the Communist era is rundown and unattractive. Many lines are still not electrified, and shoddy ties and rails must be replaced. The government is investing $12 billion in the system.

The official government train cars, however, were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s to high standards. While not as luxurious as such trains as the Orient Express, they are roomy, attractive and well-made.

All the cars were built with the leadership in mind, but some features reflect special wishes. The 78-year-old Mr. Honecker, for example, always traveled with a special medical car with imported Western equipment -- a standard that no normal hospital could afford.

One odd feature in a sleeping car stemmed from former leader Walter Ulbricht's wife, Lotte. She insisted that her bed face the direction that the train ran, rather than being fixed widthwise. The result is that the "Ulbricht wagon" can sleep only 12 people instead of the usual 20.

"That's a big loss for us, but we have to make do with what they ordered," Mrs. Becker said.

It is just these unusual features, however, that attract many guests and especially big businesses -- once the pariahs of the Communist system. Companies such as Switzerland's Nestle and South Korea's Goldstar have chartered the train for conferences on Eastern Europe, and it is also used for private parties.

The railway can provide up to 38 cars, including the medical car, day coaches, sleeping and dining cars, a dancing car and a conference car with film and video equipment.

Chartering makes up about 60 percent of Bahntours' business, Mrs. Becker said, but regular day trips are growing in number -- such as Mrs. Sudrow's encounter with the luxury in which her former masters traveled.

According to conductor Jochen Berg, the trips with local people are also the most fun. Attracted by advertisements to "travel like the red Prussians," many people splurge for the $50 ticket in hopes of spending a day as they imagine their former Communist leaders would have.

"People get great pleasure in being able to do something that was once forbidden. They like to think that they're living like the Politburo lived," Mr. Berg said.

Cook Manfred Emmerich, who used to work on the train when it served the country's leaders, said the new trips were not quite like those made by the country's former bosses.

Some leaders, such as former Prime Minister Willi Stoph, required special diets and often were accompanied by a doctor who supervised the cooking. And all were followed by a retinue of security guards and advisers. "We were always worried that we would fall out of favor," Mr. Emmerich said. "But we still have our jobs. They lost theirs."

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