Leipzig's city tunnel - late but loved

Train station in Leipzig

Despite being well over budget and years behind schedule, the opening of Leipzig City Tunnel is being celebrated by locals. But has the German reputation for efficiency and punctuality taken a dent?

It looked, at first, like a classic German winter scene beloved of fairy tales and tourist marketing brochures.

Around Leipzig's ancient city centre, framed by elegantly restored buildings with just hints remaining of communist concrete brutalism, were hundreds of Christmas stalls.

There was sausage by the metre, Gluhwein by the litre, and international attractions like energetic bearded Finns smoking salmon on racks over wood fires. A scene, in many ways, you could have witnessed centuries ago.

Apart, that is, from in one corner of the market square, where in mid-afternoon a large impatient crowd began gathering, surrounded by security guards and TV cameras.

As the town hall clock sounded three, barriers were opened and the masses surged forward and down escalators into a huge, brightly lit underground space - part of the Leipzig city tunnels project.

It is a network of tunnels which will make the city's railways connect far better - an unremarkable tweak of the system, you might think.

But the Leipzigers pouring into the new station, its looming ceiling on the scale of a cathedral, were ready to worship something much greater.

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As the first train arrived I found myself barged aside in the rush to get on and remembered ruefully a German once telling me that Thatcherism could never work in his country because they didn't believe in what he called an elbow society.

But this crowd, stuck together with Gluhwein and good spirits, did not seem to mind the crush. The shiny new train trundled through to the city's main station, where the platform was thronged with local dignitaries wearing special yellow ribbons and PR representatives hired for the day to spread the gospel of public transport triumph.

So far, so German, you will be thinking - effortless superiority in infrastructure construction and punctual operation. But in fact the joy here may well have been more relief than anything.

Like quite a few other major projects in Germany, such as Berlin's new airport, this scheme is massively over budget and several years late.

Visitors walking through Leipzig city tunnel in 2008 Rail lovers visited the tunnel in 2008

I asked one of the beaming young PR women why it had taken so long. Her smile briefly faded - this was clearly not part of her pre-prepared script - before she uttered soothing words about "minor technical problems", resumed the beam, and offered me a chocolate embossed with the city railway logo.

Next to her stood a man handing out a special edition of the local paper, the Leipziger Volkszeitung. This publication also seemed reluctant to report the project's difficulties.

Instead it celebrated what it called "the great opening of Leipzig's project of the century", with endless upbeat interviews and articles on tunnelling technique, a somewhat desperate attempt to make boring interesting.

I did finally find more sceptical locals that evening, back in the new station after a meal in the famous Auerbach's cellar, where Goethe, once a student in Leipzig, set a scene from Faust.

Locals waiting for a train running 40 minutes late might not have felt they had sold their souls to the devil, but did wonder whether the multi millions spent on the tunnel system had been the best of bargains.

When it finally arrived there were mock cheers and wild laughter that made me, a veteran of British public transport, feel suddenly at home.

Passengers waiting for train in Leipzig

But it would be churlish - and simply wrong - to conclude that German modernisation is some kind of fiction.

When they - mostly - run on time, the trains are very impressive, as is the architecture. And when I paused in the main station, I suddenly remembered the first time I had been there, in the early 1980s, when Leipzig was part of communist East Germany.

My wife and I had been delayed coming from Berlin, missed our connection, and had to sit for several hours in the middle of the night in one of the vast, looming station halls, dating from World War One.

There were no cafes, no shops, virtually no lights on - just a cold lonely wait, but with a sense of being watched, from a distance, in this zealous centre of Stasiland.

And now that station, like much else in Leipzig, is transformed, as the city recovers its commercial energy and cultural excellence, above all in music.

And amidst the bustle and illumination and enthusiasm of the Christmas revellers and admirers of a brand new transport system, I could see that for these people there truly is a lot more light to enjoy at the end of a very long tunnel.

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