How Oldenburgers and the ‘East Frisians’ grew closer to each other

by Rüdiger Zu Klampen


Not all were pleased with the new railway connection. Yet it did provide significant new incentives. How exactly did that work? And what are Deutsche Bahn’s (German National Railways) future plans for this 55 kilometres long railway connection?

OLDENBURG /LEER – Anyone who nowadays travels by the train from Oldenburg to Leer, reaches his or her destination in about 40 minutes. This obviously wasn’t the case 150 years ago, when the Oldenburg-Leer railway connection was opened. According to the original timetables, it used to take from 1 hour and 22 minutes (the fastest connection) to 2 hours and 13 minutes (the slowest connection) to get there. In its first year, the train stopped – as it also does now during its 55 kilometres long journey – in Bad Zwischenahn, Ocholt and Augustfehn, as well as in Apen, Stickhausen and Nortmoor. The railway connection was opened on 15 June 1869.
Oldenburg-Leer was the second railway line which was made operational by the brand new “Großherzoglich-Oldenburgische Eisenbahn” (GOE). A few years earlier, in 1867, the connection between Bremen and the Wilhelmshaven (Heppens) Naval Base was opened. The costs involved implementing this railway connection proved to be lower than estimated, which maybe was an extra incentive to further expand the railway network.

What’s the opinion of Horst Hollmann – a railway enthusiast – of this railway connection?
At that point in time, expanding the Bremen-Oldenburg railway connection to Leer in particular seemed to make sense, according to the chronicler Hans-Jürgen Gaida. In his book “Dampf zwischen Weser und Ems” (Steam between the Weser and the Ems) he explains that the objective was to not only open up the Oldenburg region, but also to literally “lead East Frisian traffic through Oldenburg territory”. Apparently a major (economic) boost was expected due to these measures.

New railway connection with benefits
In the city of Leer the railways were not a new phenomenon. Eastern Frisia had already been connected to the interregional railway network through the Emsland Railway Line of the Kingdom of Hannover (later Prussia). However, for about 13 years (up to 1869) the Eastern Frisians used to literally travel around the Oldenburg region. The planned new railway connection therefore offered major benefits: “The railway connection to Hannover is 74 kilometres less long than via Oldenburg”, Egbert Meyer-Lovis, the spokesperson of the northern region railways, states. To this day, it is indeed “one of Lower Saxony’s major railway connections”. Yet, the history of the railway line is also marked by a dark side: it was used to transport Jews and other victims from Westerbork – a Dutch transit camp during WW2– to the concentration camps. A commemorative plaque in front of the Leer Railway Station reminds us of this dark period in time.

150 years ago the Oldenburgers had already started widening their horizon far beyond Leer, towards the Netherlands. The Dutch too had from quite early on been greatly interested in a Groningen-Bremen railway connection via Leer-Oldenburg. They were even prepared to co-finance the border-Leer railway stretch. Nowadays, this once again proves to be a very hot topic as is demonstrated by the German-Dutch initiative promoting a fast railway connection between Groningen and Bremen (the so-called ‘Wunderline’). The heart of this connection is Oldenburg-Leer. However, a few challenges still remain to be solved here. Such as the reconstruction of the destroyed railway bridge across the Ems near Weener.

In 1869, plans to realise the Oldenburg-Leer connection had also been a source of many a conflict. An example: Westerstede, the capital of the Ammerland, was not to be part of the railway connection! Instead, the planners preferred a shorter, less expensive railway connection via Bad Zwischenahn.

A boost for the region
This later turned out to be a milestone in the touristic success story of this future health resort, while chronicles also reflect that other regional (tourist) establishments near the minor railway stations such as Bloh also benefitted from the newly generated train tourism. At the same time, the railway connection also offered new opportunities for the Eastern Frisia coastal towns and islands. It was simply a matter of logic and common sense: every journey used to once be a quite time-consuming affair, either by horse or by horse and wagon. Yet now, completely new prospects emerged for travellers, manufacturers and tradesmen.

The Oldenburg-Leer railway connection was very well received. The connection offered a “major boost towards the development of the North-Western region”, according to Lioba Meyer, who in 2017 – together with Florian Nikolaus Reiss – co-wrote the most recently published work about the regional railway history, titled “Höchste Eisenbahn” (the Most Nothern Railway Connection). It gave an (economic) boost to harbours and companies, yet also to the production of agricultural raw materials including peat.
Soon freight stations and loading platforms for cattle started to appear all over the region. The new railway connection also boosted the up-coming industrial sector. A perfect example in this context is the iron foundry in Augustfehn. Practically overnight, they were able to transport their products much easier by rail. Peat companies also started using the new railway services.
Still, a large portion of the peat remained in the region, as it was used to fuel the steam locomotives of the Großherzoglich-Oldenburgische Eisenbahn!

What’s on the programme to mark the 150 year celebration of the Oldenburg-Leer railway connection? Ocholt example
The Oldenburg-Leer railway connection, which allowed people to reach other parts of the region from Ocholt (to Cloppenburg and to Varel/Ellenserdamm) as well as from Bad Zwischenahn (to Edewechterdamm), is more than just an interesting piece of railway history. Its future looks bright and exiting as well.

What specifically are the plans regarding the Oldenburg-Leer railway connection?
For the coming years a few changes are likely to be implemented. In this respect, the spokesperson of the regional transportation company (LNVG/Hannover), Rainer Peters, mentions the “Wunderline” project – a joint venture regarding a Groningen-Leer-Oldenburg-Bremen railway connection. Regarding this project, a joint commitment was signed between Lower Saxony, Bremen and the Province of Groningen. Within the first development phase (implementation date: the end of 2024) a travelling time of 2 and a half hours shall be realised. To achieve this, no further adjustments along the Oldenburg-Leer railway line shall be necessary. However: during the second development phase (intended implementation date: the end of 2030) travelling time shall be reduced to 2 hours and 10 minutes. This second phase requires “a phased double-tracked expansion of the railway track between Leer and Oldenburg”. According to information made available to our newspaper, the railway track Augustfehn-Stickhausen appears to be the best option in this context.

About the history of the Augustfehn railway station
In the eyes of Hans Joachim Zschiesche, regional chairman of Pro-Bahn for Eems-Jade, a second railway track along the whole railway connection is simply a pressing necessity or else the railway connection would become “far too cramped”. Zschiesche would like to extend the Regio-S-Bahn Bremen-Oldenburg-Bad Zwischenahn to Leer – “offering an abundance of proper connections on the Westfalen-Bahn” (RE 15).

Improved connections in Leer?
Considerable changes are scheduled in Leer: after the second development phase is completed minor connections are to be realised there involving the Regionalexpress (RE) 1 as well as the Express Train from Oldenburg on the RE 15 towards Emsland, according to LNVG spokesperson Peters. He furthermore refers to the planned modernisations in this context of the Augustfehn (2021/22) and the Westerstede-Ocholt (2024/25) railway stations. “Both the Federated State of Lower Saxony as well as the railways opt for a barrier-free expansion”, the spokesperson of railway connections Egbert Meyer-Lovis confirms.

And last but not least: by 2023 ‘highly comfortable’ new double deck regional express trains shall be deployed between Norddeich and Hannover, as is announced by LNVG spokesperson Peters. The intention is to implement multi-destination trains, which can be split in Oldenburg (for the destinations Leer and Wilhelmshaven).

Pro Bahn is even taking things a step further: spokesperson Zschiesche stated he could even imagine the IC-connection Oldenburg-Leer to be linked to the Wunderline trains, which would thus allow Wilhelmshaven to be included in the railway network as well.

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