by Mervyn Jones
Austria not only has one of the most efficient rail networks in Europe, it also has some of the finest tourist and heritage railways, tramways and funiculars that can be found anywhere in the world.
The most outstanding perhaps is the world-famous Semmeringbahn, on ÖBB’s Westbahn from Gloggnitz to Mürzzuschlag, a thrilling 42 km (26 miles) crossing of the Semmering Pass (alt. 965m – 3,136ft). The construction of the route in the mid-nineteenth century was a magnificent feat of engineering, later recognised by being the first railway to become a World Heritage Site.
The Semmeringbahn is not alone. Every part of Austria offers exciting journeys; the Brennerbahn crosses the mountainous Brenner Pass (alt. 1,370m – 4,495ft) into Italy; the Gesäuse runs down the exquisite valley of the same name; the Giselabahn, named after Emperor Franz Josef’s eldest daughter, follows the Brixen valley to reach the superb lakeland scenery at Zell am See; the Mittenwaldbahn climbs its way up Tirol’s mountains high above Innsbruck to Garmish Partenkirchen in Bavaria; and, the Mariazellerbahn (Pilgrim’s Railway) runs from St. Pölten to the town of Mariazell, the most important pilgrimage destination in Austria.
ÖBB services are complemented by many privately run companies; for example, the Attergaubahn to the lake at Attersee, the Traunseebahn from the lakeside station at Gmunden and the Vorchderferbahn to Lambach, site of the ancient Abbey. Another is the Murtalbahn, the country’s longest narrow gauge line (65 km – 38 miles) but the shortest is the Reisseck-Hoehenbahn at only 3.4 km (2 miles) but compensated by being the highest in Austria (alt. 2,244m – 7,293ft).
Trams and funiculars also feature in Austria. Vienna has the largest tram network in the world operating modern and vintage trams over 230 km (144 miles) of track. Incidentally, in terms of quality of life, in 2011 Vienna was voted the best to place to live in the world. Did the trams help? Excellent tram services are also operated in Graz, Gmunden, Linz and Innsbruck. Graz’s Schloßberg (castle) perched high above the city is reached by funicular, as is the castle in Salzburg by the FestungsBahn. There are 13 other funiculars such as the Hallstätter-Salzburgbahn, for example, which eases a visit up to the oldest salt mines in the world, the Saltzwelten near the idyllic lakeside village of Hallstatt.
Austria takes its transport heritage seriously by preserving a wealth of historic trains, trams, buses and ships. In this the ÖBB ErlebnisBahn leads the way; each year they publish Ausflüge fur Einsteiger listing ninety excursions using historic material on a wealth of beautiful routes. And it’s not just on tracks; lake and river sailings and rides on historic buses also feature.
The world-famous Zillertalbahn must not be forgotten. Diesel-powered carriages routinely operate on the 32-km (20 miles) journey between Jenbach and Mayrhofen in the Zillertal Valley, but are regularly supplemented by one of five beautifully preserved 100-year old steam locomotives, to the delight of passengers, young and old. Also leaving Jenbach is the Achenseebahnwhich deploys cog-driven steam locomotives to take passengers up to the Achensee, the largest mountain lake in the Tyrol, arrivals and departures being timed to coincide with sailings on the lake.
There are a number of transport museums including the national railway museum (Eisenbahnmuseum) at Strasshof which houses an impressive collection. Further west, at Ampflwang near Linz, is the Austrian Society for Railway History (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Eisenbahngeschichte, ÖGEG for short) which safeguards a significant collection of vehicles, many of which are regularly used for excursions on their own tracks, the Kohlebahn, or on ÖBB’s mainline routes.
We hope you have enjoyed this brief glimpse of Austria’s railway scene. To learn more, consult The Essential Guide to Austrian Railways and Tramways and A Pictorial Guide to Alpine Railways, both written by Mervyn Jones and published by The Oakwood Press. Mervyn can be contacted by his website www.rail-guides.eu
Genießen Sie Österreich! – Enjoy Austria!