Monday, 6 August 2007

Road tips 7 - Bundesautobahn A555 between Cologne and Bonn

Today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the A555, the road that is now generally regarded as the first German Autobahn. It's not the only contender for the title; the older AVUS motor racing and testing circuit in Berlin, now integrated into the Autobahn network, is one - and if my memory serves me correctly, another section between Frankfurt and Darmstadt also has a claim.

In fact, the A555 didn't formally become an Autobahn until 1955 and only got a second carriageway as part of a huge construction project in the mid-sixties. Until then, it had a single carriageway layout providing two lanes in each direction. What marked out the A555 in comparison with earlier roads when it opened in 1932 was that its use was restricted to motor vehicles and its junctions were grade separated.

On this basis, I reckon the claim of the A555 to be the first Autobahn is a fair one. It's worth noting, though, that this isn't just a dry technical matter but a slightly sensitive political question for Germans as well. Classifying the A555 - opened the year before Hitler came to power - as the first Autobahn allows the motorways to be regarded as an invention of democratic Germany, rather than as a product of the Nazi regime. Personally, I think that's probably irrelevant - the big construction push that gave the Autobahn network the basic outline it has today certainly did take place under the Nazis, so I don't think it makes much difference whether the birth of the Autobahns can be traced all the way back to 1932 or only to some politically inconvenient later date. I can't really see that this valuable infrastructure project deserves to be tainted by its links to the 1933-1945 period either way; it would probably have been built anyway - if at a slower pace.

So what's the A555 like today? I lived in Bonn for a number of years in the nineties, so I had the A555 on my doorstep and know it well. Large sections have no speed limit and the long, straight southern stretch nearest to Bonn is of the best pieces of unrestricted road anywhere on the German network. It's also one of the closest decent unrestricted sections of Autobahn to the UK, but please, please don't take that as a recommendation to take your car there for a high-speed blast unless you have a lot - and I mean a lot - of experience at driving at speeds that are much higher than those that are common on British roads. Traffic on unrestricted German Autobahns does move faster than traffic in other countries, but opportunities to go much beyond 100mph safely and responsibly are comparatively rare these days because of the weight of traffic and the condition of some of these roads. Those opportunities are hard to judge if most of your driving has been done in countries with speed limits, however good a driver you might think you are - and the consequences of cocking it up don't bear thinking about.

That apart, you may be asking why the Germans should have all the best roads (sorry if that sounds a bit like the question about the devil and the best tunes - didn't mean it to come out that way). The answer is that I'm not sure that they do. There are about 12,000km of German Autobahn (more than three times the British total of about 3,700km) but the standard of much of the network is surprisingly low. Often there are no hard shoulders and most sections have four (i.e. two in each direction) lanes, rather than six. New Autobahns are still being built according to this comparatively low standard. The age of some Autobahns also means that route alignments, slip-roads and junctions are often poor. Britain has avoided many of these problems - not through skill or foresight but simply because we started building our motorways much later.

One of the most interesting facts published in the German press today in its coverage of the A555's 75th birthday was to be found in the Financial Times Deutschland; only 3,000km of the German network has six lanes, the standard that is almost universal in the UK, so on this measure, the two countries are probably more or less equal. Remember too that much of the UK A road network would be classified as motorway in almost all continental countries - stretches of the A14, A34, A55, A19, A38, A13, A12 and A2, to name some of the most obvious examples, would qualify - and things don't look so bad here.

That said, I'd have to admit that we still don't have anything to match the gloriously long, flat, straight unrestricted southern stretch of the A555 near Bonn. I'd love to have been able to take the CL500 there this week.

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