Going Underground

The first electrically powered subway on the continental Europe

Budapest was the most important European city east of Vienna at the end of the 19th century.  The country's centralist organization meant that economic development and the industrial revolution were focused largely on the Hungarian capital. The municipality tackled numerous large projects in the run-up to the 1896 "Budapest Millennium Exhibition" – including the first electrically powered subway on the continental Europe, constructed by Siemens & Halske. 

Underground through the center – The subway as a new means of transport

In the early 1890s, the capital city of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had an extensive network of horse-drawn streetcars and a first electric streetcar built and financed by Siemens & Halske. Plans to construct a streetcar line on Andrássy Avenue, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, had to be shelved repeatedly due to resistance on the part of the authorities. During that time, Budapest’s grand boulevard was reserved for the exclusive use of landau carriages and horse-drawn buses. In view of the upcoming festivities due to the national exhibition, however, expansion of the public transport network had top priority. 

At the end of January 1894, the Budapest Electric City Railway Ltd. and the Budapest City Railroad Co. presented the responsible municipal authorities with a proposal from Siemens & Halske for an underground railway, requesting approval for the project. The 3.75-kilometer route was to run – for the most part underground – from Gisela Square in the center of Pest via Waitzner Boulevard and Andrássy Avenue to the exhibition grounds. The primary purpose of what became known as the Franz-Josef Electric Underground Railway was to provide safe and speedy transport for the many visitors expected to attend the national exhibition.

A race against time – Just 20 months to go to the exhibition

Because time was of the essence, the project was approved by the relevant committees with exceptional speed: Within just a few months, on August 9, 1894, a building and operating license was issued – on the condition that the railway would be ready for operation in time for the Millennium Exhibition.


This came out to a mere 20 months in which to build the subway system and provide the electrical equipment for the locomotives. 


Construction began on August 13 and, due to the time pressure, work was done in two shifts. After dark, workers labored by the light of arc lamps. A total of 138,000 cubic meters of soil were excavated, and 47,000 cubic meters of cement and 3,000 tons of iron were required for the support structure.

The construction of the subway proceeded one phase at a time. First, the road surface was opened up and the underlying soil – nearly 142,000 cubic meters in total – was excavated and removed. Then the foundation was laid and the side support walls were built. With time being so short, the open-trench, cut-and-cover method of tunnel construction was used. The tunnel’s foundation, side support walls and 2.85 meter-high ceiling were made of concrete.


Steel pillars were erected on the base slab to support the steel beams of the tunnel ceiling. After the steel construction was completed, the spaces between the individual supports were filled with concrete. 



As is the practice for transport systems at this time, the Budapest underground is supplied with electricity by its own small power plant. For this purpose two extra compound steam engines are added to the existing machinery in the Kertész utca (Gardener Street) power plant of Budapest Electric City Railway Ltd. These each drive a Siemens Mobility inner pole direct current machine with an hourly output of 1100 amps and a voltage of 300V.

The Franz-Josef Electric Underground Railway – Ready on time

Despite various adversities that were unforeseeable when the pioneering project was planned, the underground was completed on time. The opening ceremony took place on May 2, 1896. 


The subway operated with 20 railcars, some of which were wood paneled and some painted. They were manufactured in the Budapest factory of the company Schlick. The entire electrical equipment, including the motors and their switching devices, were supplied by Siemens & Halske. The trains ran on two tracks throughout the six-meter-wide underground tunnel. In the tunnel, there was a two-pole power supply from rails attached to the tunnel ceiling, while the overground section was supplied via double overhead wires. 

Because of the dimensions of the underground tunnel, the railcars were comparatively small, so the line was also known as the “little subway.” Each railcar could accommodate 28 seated and 14 standing passengers. By contrast with the usual streetcars of the day, the driver’s cabin was entirely separate from the passenger compartment. 


The subway ran from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. for the duration of the exhibition, and at peak periods there was a train every two minutes. By the end of September alone, the trains transported just under 2.3 million passengers and covered a total distance of 370,000 kilometers.


The first underground line on the continental Europe – now known as the “Millennium Subway” – has been modernized many times since and is still an established part of the Budapest underground network. In 2002, what is now the M1 line is included together with Andrássy Avenue in the World Heritage List.




Sabine Dittler 

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