I documented the Vienna–St. Pölten section of Austria's old Westbahn line in 2012, the last year it carried all the east-west traffic. A parallel line opened in December that year (now a bit over a year ago) for all the long-distance passenger and some of the freight traffic. The line includes several tunnels and is flanked by view-obstructing dams and walls even in the open, all for noise protection.
ÖBB 1116 181 "Hanspeter" enters the 2,460 m Atzenbrugg Tunnel (a cut-and-cover construction purely for noise protection) with a westbound mixed freight
Be it due to the capacity constraint resulting from the big speed difference between passenger and freight trains, or lack of on-board ETCS train control equipment on locomotives used by the freight operators, I saw several freight trains that were diverted mid-way onto a parallel branch-line.
A loco of the Wiener Lokalbahnen of type Siemens ES64U2 (same type as the ÖBB loco above) with a rather lightly loaded westbound container train curves away from the new line at Michenhausen. The photo concentrates industrial ugliness, although the area beyond the noise walls and dams is agrarian
The December 2012 opening of this and a few other new sections was also the occasion for the railjets – the premier trains of Austria's Federal Railways (ÖBB), which I introduced in 2009 – to finally reach their nameplate top speed of 230 km/h (the top in the world for locomotive-hauled trains) in actual service.
Above: cruising at top speed at the end of the long Wienerwald Tunnel
Below: an eastbound railjet with driving trailer ahead and ÖBB 1116 202 in the rear races towards Vienna at full speed near Michenhausen
The new Westbahn is also the place for one of the few hot competitions emerging from the partly EU-mandated neo-liberal reform of long-distance rail passenger traffic according to the principle of open access: ÖBB's railjets, ICEs and classic loco-hauled express trains run alongside private operator WESTbahn's double-deck electric multiple units (EMUs).
Having left the long tunnel across the Wienerwald mountains in the background, a westbound WESTbahn train (a Stadler KISS) approaches Tullnerfeld station
As in the case of the other two hot competitions (on the busiest lines in Italy and in the Czech Republic), the battle led to a price competition that drew more passengers, but eliminated the incumbent's profits (previously useful to maintain services on a wide network including less-frequented lines), kept the new entrant in the red, and led to lawsuits. WESTbahn tries to get an edge with every trick in the book: from employing only good-looking young people as conductors through fighting to lift the on-board smoking ban to giving its train services slogans as "names" and then force ÖBB's station management branch to do them commercials for free by reading those train names in arrival/departure announcements.
For my own travels, the visible effect of the competition was crammed trains (in fact on some railjets run as a single unit I had to stand). On my journey last summer, I test-rode a WESTbahn service on a short section. I found it generally comfortable even on the top floor, but the pressure insulation (as measured by the effect of tunnel entrances on my ears) was markedly inferior to the railjets even at the lower top speed (200 km/h), more like ÖBB's classic IC cars.
The new line includes one new station: Tullnerfeld. It is the classic example of a station on a high-speed line added as political present, with little traffic value: it was built away from any major settlement, to be accessed by car or a connecting branch-line – one that was also diverted from the vicinity of villages on the short parallel section... –, and the number of passengers stands in no relation to the large facility.
The passageway and the concourses at both ends are deserted two minutes after the train left
The waste and mis-planning at Tullnerfeld matters less, however, when we look at the big picture of the entirety of rail spending in Austria. The second Vienna–St. Pölten line, as well as the second Unterinntalbahn in the West (a 40 km line almost completely in tunnels which also opened in December 2012 and which I also crossed en route to Switzerland), definitely count as mega-projects, yet they are remarkable for being completed on-time and within budget. At the same time, Austria was spending even more on a string of smaller projects along the existing network. The most notable part of this is a station reconstruction programme supported by stimulus money (unlike the German government, Austria's Grand Coalition government endorses austerian cutbacks on infrastructure at EU level but not at home). Don't think of minor face-lifting: practically all major junction stations are or have been subject to total reconstruction.
Torn-up platform and tracks and the beginnings of a new overhead footbridge at the station of Bruck a. d. Mur, on the Südbahn line from Vienna to Graz (2012 photo)
The largest station project is not really part of this stimulus programme, as it is supposed to be self-financing: Vienna's new central station (Wien Hbf; replacing the old Südbahnhof and Ostbahnhof terminuses). A new central station makes eminent sense, however, as I wrote on earlier occasions, I consider this a real estate project in disguise: it is accompanied by the sell-off and re-development of adjoining areas formerly covered by rail facilities, while the station design neglected the issue of long walks and a subway connection won't be established for at least another five years. A year ago, two of Wien Hbf's five platforms entered service for local trains, the rest is still in construction.
The eastern end of the in-construction platforms, as well as a new high-rise on the site of the old Südbahnhof terminus, seen from a railjet passing through without stopping
A good example of the stimulus programme is Salzburg Hbf. This through station used to have road-level access only from one side, through a depressing dark concourse and passageway. Now the passageway is open on the other side, too, and everything is wide, bright and wheelchair-accessible. In-between through tracks, the station used to have some back-to-back terminal platforms with a nice old but corroded glass-iron roof. The tracks were now connected, and the new roof construction covering all tracks includes a replica of the old roof in the middle. Last summer the easternmost platforms were still in construction.
Looking north inside Salzburg Hbf, the replica of the old roof begins at the white column at center
The reconstruction of St. Pölten Hbf, which began before the stimulus programme and was completed in 2012 already, paid less attention to spectacular design. It is, however, also the starting point of the theme of the second half of this diary: the Mariazellerbahn, a narrow-gauge (760 mm) electrified mountain railway.
Narrow-gauge diesel railcar 4090 014 departs from St. Pölten Hbf on a hot July evening
Diesel railcars are used on less-frequented services because the railway has no low-capacity electric vehicles. At the time of my spring 2012 tour of the old Westbahn, I rode the Mariazellerbahn on a rainy day, but only half-way because the upper half – and the entire electrification – was closed for a total overhaul, thus all trains were diesel-hauled.
2095 015, a more than 50 years old loco with drawing rods, will soon depart from rain-soaked St. Pölten with heritage cars
Note that the loco has an ÖBB livery but lacks a logo: the reason is that the Mariazellerbahn was taken over by regional operator NÖVOG (owned by the state of Lower Austria) at the end of 2010. This fits into a larger trend: the transformation of former state railways from public service providers into profit-oriented market competitors also resulted in the shedding of lines important for local tourism but loss-making for the operator. While the new operator is investing big in infrastructure and new rolling stock, last year I saw strange signs of cost-cutting on those same heritage cars: peeled-off paint was painted over (instead of the full course of paint removal, corrosion treatment, new paint). For me, the operator change was unlucky: NÖVOG doesn't recognise international railway employee free tickets (though the conductors weren't yet aware of that during my 2012 visit).
ÖBB still runs a diesel branch-line which parallels the Mariazellerbahn for the first two kilometres. At the junction station St. Pölten Alpenbahnhof (also the place of the narrow-gauge railway's old depot), you get a first peek south at the northernmost main chain of the Alps, which the narrow-gauge railway is about to climb.
Diesel railcars ÖBB 5047 011 and 047 as local train from Hainfeld arrive in St. Pölten Voralpenbahnhof (2012 photo)
Before it gets to the high mountains, the line passes several villages between the foothills.
After dropping off that old man with the umbrella at Rabenstein a. d. Pielach station, 5090 014 recedes on a service to Frankenfels (the temporary endpoint in 2012)
In 2012, there was some work done on the section not closed, too. The jolly track-workers below – who didn't feel the need of a raincoat or a hat in the pouring rain – were replacing a switch at the station of Kirchberg a. d. Pielach.
Up to here, the line follows the ever narrower valley of the Pielach river, which soon turns into a gorge.
My July 2013 train to Mariazell, composed of 1099.14 and heritage cars, is about to cross the 61 m Schönau Tunnel at Schwarzenbach a. d. Pielach
Right after the above tunnel is the confluence with the Nattersbach creek. In 2012, it was there that a police car stopped beside me, inquiring what I'm doing here walking in the rain (I'm a tourist, I answered baffled) and where I left my car (I rode the train, and that's when they looked baffled), and then spent ten minutes checking my documents in the car before handing them back with a goodbye. (I'm certain that they found the records of the comedy that was my detainment in Bad Gastein in 2009.)
The valley widens again along the Nattersbach, where the line continues. You can see the bad state of the overhead line masts on the photo below; an even worse state is what required big repairs on the mountain section that was closed in 2012.
Looking down-valley before Frankenfels
The line follows the valley bottom until after Laubenbachmühle, also the place of the new modern depot for electric multiple units (EMUs). Below you see one of three EMUs built specifically for the line in the nineties, meant for a more efficient and attractive service, however, they proved unreliable in practice.
4090 003 in front of the depot, but a construction crew including the bare-breasted rasta guy (it was the middle of a heatwave) was still at work on adjoining facilities
Past Laubenbachmühle begins the climb to the highest point of the line. The c. 300 m elevation difference is scaled on a mountainside in a zig-zag with two horseshoe curves (the middle level is already at the forest edge above the farm in the middle of the photo above). This is called Himmelstreppe (Sky's or Heaven's Staircase), which was also the name given to nine new EMUs supplied by Swiss maker Stadler. Back in July last year, the first few were in testing; they are in regular service since October 2013.
A "Himmelstreppe" peeks out of a door of the new depot
On most of the climb, the view is blocked by forests, but there are some spectacular openings.
A view at Laubenbachmühle from the top level of the climb. A short section of the middle level is visible at lower centre, while the low level with the new EMU depot is visible on the right
After passing the highest point (891.6 m above the sea) in a summit tunnel, the line follows a steep mountainside, crossing ravines on viaducts.
My train with 1099.14 and heritage cars crosses the 116 m Saugraben Viaduct, the largest on the line
After crossing two more valleys in a wild mountain landscape, the line ends at Mariazell, which was a site of pilgrimage before it became a tourist magnet. There were lots of sport-loving tourists on this section.
I'll return to Austria, this time westernmost Austria, in my next rail diary.
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