The Different Railroad Eras

The Different Railroad Eras

By Roger Heid


Somewhere along the line, someone decided to break down railroad history into different time frames, so far 6 of them, starting about 1870 until current. The individual eras are assigned Roman numerals. This system is primarily based on German history, in conjunction with certain political and economical changes. The eras are listed below:

Era I  —  1871 to 1920

Era II  —  1920 to 1945

Era III  —  1945 to 1968

Era IV  —  1968 to 1985

Era V  —  1985 to 2000

Era VI  —  2000 to current

Now I will give you a rough overview of the individual eras. Going into all the details would make this Blog way too long.


Era I

The defeat of the 2nd French Empire during the Franco-Prussian war (July 1870 – May 1871) led to the ultimate unification of all German speaking jurisdictions, now forming one country governed by Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

At the onset of Era I, the railroads were mostly small rural systems, some privately owned, some sponsored by the regents of a given area. The decades following the unification spurred the growth of state operated railroads, such as the Royal Prussian Railroad (K.P. St. E  -  Koenigliche Preussische Staats Eisenbahn) and the Royal Bavarian State Railway (K. Bay. St. B.  – Koenigliche Bayerische Staats Bahn).

Of course, there were others. The states of Hessen and Wuerttemberg, for instance, had their own railways. As time went by, more and more small entities merged to form bigger organizations.

Era II

The end of WWI left Germany in shambles. The Royal German Empire had vanished; the Weimar Republic came into existence. At first, the existing railways were administered the old way. But in 1924, the Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft (DRG) was formed. Now, there was only one entity governing all of the German Railways, all under one hat.

Era II saw many technical innovations, including the introduction of Electric and Diesel locomotives. Trains in general became longer and faster, also more luxurious. Some say this was the Golden Age of railroads, some may disagree. I leave it up to you to decide on that one.



The end of WWII left Germany in shambles, once again. Prussia disappeared from the political map altogether. The rest of the country was divided into West and East Germany. East Germany was behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’.  As far as the railway system was concerned, well, that was a rather difficult situation, to put it mildly.

The four years from 1945 to 1949 were rather interesting. During that time, West Germany was governed by the Allied Forces, namely the USA, England and France. Each of them had set up a Military Government in their assigned sectors. Great efforts were made to continue a public railroad system. Just about anything that had escaped the destruction of the war was pressed into service. Many bridges were either gone or heavily damaged. It took a while to restore enough of the infrastructure to make contiguous rail service possible.

In West Germany, a new constitution was ratified in 1949, along with the introduction of a new currency. The Bundesrepublik Deutschland came into existence. It is also referred to as the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany).  This was also the year the DBB was formed. The acronym DBB stands for Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railroad).

During Era III, many old steam locomotives were retired from service, some were preserved in museums. Electrification was expanded, leading to the introduction of new Electric Locomotive types. Newer Diesel types were also developed and put into service.

Altogether, Era III was an interesting and challenging era for all those concerned. I lived in Germany for almost the entire time. I witnessed many of the changes.


Era IV

This era starts right about 1968. There really is not that much to write about this one. More and more steam locomotives were taken out of service to make way for the more efficient Electric and Diesel types. Newer rolling stock came into service.

About the most significant change was the way locomotives and traction stock was numbered. Now computers came into play to manage the numbering system. For instance, if you have a steam engine of the BR 44 series, but it says 044-xxx on the name plate, it signifies that is was in use during Era IV.  Otherwise, there were no real important changes or additions during that era.


Era V

So it was decided that Era V starts around 1985. It is commonly referred as the era of modern railroads. There were some significant changes made, for both, political and economical reasons.

In 1989, the infamous Berlin wall crumbled which led to the German reunification at the end of the following year. This was also the beginning of the end of the USSR, namely the Russian Empire and the associated Warsaw Pact. The Cold War came to an end.

Subsequently, the East German railroad (DR) was merged with the DBB. As a result, some Diesel locomotives of Russian manufacture wound up in the DBB’s loco roster. The ‘Ludmilla’ is an example. In addition, all this Eastern stock had to be re-named.

Another important change occurred in 1994. The DBB, up to then controlled by the German Government, was dissolved in order to re-emerge as the DB (Deutsche Bahn), now privatized. New private names popped up, such as Cargo and Railion.

Some say that the service under the new administration is not as good as it used to be. Personally, I cannot testify to this as I have no experience with this issue. Maybe, someone can leave some comments about this situation.


Era VI

As of the year 2000, we are in Era VI, by the virtue of whoever decides the era time frames. About the only thing I noticed are the very colorful paint jobs on certain locomotives and rolling stock. Maybe someone who traveled in Germany during the recent years can fill us in by leaving some comments.

You noticed I did not add any pictures to this blog. There would be simply too many to choose from. If you scan through the offerings in the Reynaulds web site, you will find that most all manufacturers have locos and rolling stock covering all of the eras listed above. If you model a specific era, you probably know what you are looking for.

Finally, it comes to mind that the first real railroad in Germany ran in 1836. I will write about that in a different blog, later on. So what is the era from 1836 to 1870 called? Era Zero? Naw!

Well, the answer is seemingly quite simple. Prior to 1871, there was no nation called Germany, in a political sense, therefore no ‘Era’.

One Response to The Different Railroad Eras

  1. Luke Barber says:

    A few notes on some of the eras:

    I have seen the term Era 0 used for pre-unification, I’ve also seen Era I broken down into sub-eras, such as:
    -1a: Pre-unification
    -1b: Post-unification-1900
    -1c: 1900-beginning of WWI
    -1d: Beginning of WWI-founding of DRG

    Many other things did happen in Era IV, including:
    -Greater international cooperation, with an increase in international passenger services and equipment that could work across borders such as multi-current locomotives and the “Eurofima” series of coaches
    -Railways adapted brighter-colored paint schemes around the early 1970s, and often changed them again at the end of the 80s (such as ÖBB going from Tannengrün to Blutorange, and then switching over to the red-and-white “Valousek” paint scheme)
    -West Germany started using tubular outriggers rather than cross-span catenary on new electrification
    -East Germany embarked on a large-scale electrification program following the 1973 energy crisis
    -The rise of Intercity, EuroCity, and Interregio services in many countries
    -The growth of intermodal transport

    The main defining characteristic of Era VI is the “open access” policy of the EU member states in regards to their rail networks

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