Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 02:54:56 AM EST
The westernmost state of Vorarlberg is separated from the rest of Austria by the water divide between the Rhine and the Inn (and thus Danube) rivers. Since 1884, a single railway provides connection across the mountains, with steep approaches to a summit tunnel over 10 km in length under the Arlberg Pass. On my two holidays in Switzerland in the summer and autumn of last year, I also stopped here. Beyond steep climbs with spectacular bridges in spectacular landscape and an eventful history, the line is notable for an arrested development: a modern double-track mainline in some parts and a single-track line with sharp curves in other parts.
The end of an eastbound (descending) railjet atop the Trisanna viaduct below castle Wiesberg (the tip is visible on the left) and above a 110-year-old hydroelectric power plant restored after massive floods damaged it in 2005
The Arlberg railway has a rich history, which includes the Orient Express, early AC electrification (1923–1925), avalanche disasters, rock- and mudslides and runaway trains. Originally, of the over 130 km line from Innsbruck to Bludenz, only the 10,250 m Arlberg Tunnel was built double-track. From the 1960s until the early 2000s, a number of sections were double-tracked and upgraded in a fashion typical for Austria: practical new construction on a new alignment. However, to explain the arrested development: the east-west line could never achieve the international traffic importance of north-south trans-Alpine lines, thus, even if the completion of double-tracking has substantial time saving potential, much of the extra capacity would likely remain idle. Especially on the mountain section, where all-stopping passenger trains have been discontinued over a decade ago.
Above: Rail map of Western Austria, with double-track sections as thick lines; the yellow background highlights the mountain section of the Arlberg railway. Edited cut-out from Map of Austria at Railways through Europe
Below: Map of the mountain section of the Arlberg railway. Cut-out from Wikimedia map by users Pechristener and Lencer under CC bY-SA 2.0
Let's begin the journey at the foot of the eastern ramp (which has a maximum gradient of 26.4‰): Landeck, the small city where the valley of the Inn river turns south towards Switzerland and thus the line has to leave it.
Above: on a cloudy morning, ÖBB 1144 004 and 1116 157 with an eastbound freight stop almost at the end of their descent at the entrance signal of Landeck-Zams station
Below: the bridge over the Inn river in Landeck is still single-track, but the old corroded structure was replaced in 2009
Beyond Landeck, the line curves along the southern side of the valley of the Sanna river. The Sanna forms at the confluence of the beautifully named Rosanna and Trisanna rivers inside a gorge. This is the most spectacular point of the line: next to the ruin of Wiesberg castle, it crosses the Trisanna atop a tied-arch steel bridge with a span of 120 m and a clearance of 87 m. The current arch dates from 1964 (replacing the original steel arch which was reinforced with a "fish-belly" steel truss deck in 1923).
Above: Looking from the north into the valley of the Trisanna as a westbound (ascending) railjet leaves the viaduct
Below: Looking from behind the castle in the south-east into the valley of the Rosanna as the eastbound (descending) IC 119 (which came all the way from Münster in North Germany), consisting of an ÖBB class 1116 and classic ÖBB IC cars, reached the viaduct in the evening. The house at center bottom has rooms to let
At the picturesque village of Flirsch, the steep V-shaped valley has a bend and becomes a less steep, wider U-shaped (former glacial) valley. Here the rail line crosses the Rosanna twice in quick succession.
Above: looking east as a westbound freight train with an ÖBB class 1116 and a class 1144 in front (and a still invisible 1116 in the back) cross the Rosanna Bridge II
Below: looking west-northwest as an eastbound (descending) double-unit railjet (with ÖBB 1116 230 and 218) crosses the Rosanna Bridge II
The rest of the eastern ramp is double-tracked, with the top speed of trains doubling from 70 to 140 km/h. The final and newest section, opened in 2000, re-located the line from the middle of the town on the northern bank of the creek to a route on the southern bank that is all tunnel (including an extension of the Arlberg Tunnel itself to 10,648 m) except for the new station of St. Anton am Arlberg.
Above: the line leaves the old alignment below the village of St. Jakob am Arlberg with the new Rosanna Bridge IV, crossed by a westbound ÖBB IC train with car transport wagons at the end
Below: leaving the new 1,743 m Wolfsgrube Tunnel, a westbound railjet with ÖBB 1116 216 in front arrives in St. Anton am Arlberg station
Having climbed 535 m since Landeck, the line peaks at 1,311 m above the sea (160 m higher than the Gotthard railway) inside the Arlberg Tunnel, a single-tube, double-track structure. Since 1978, the road competition runs across the parallel Arlberg Road Tunnel, which is also single-tube. To enhance the safety of both, between 2004 and 2008, eight connecting rescue tunnels were excavated between the rail and road tunnels.
The entirety of the western ramp is on the north side of the valley of the Alfenz creek/river, a portent of avalanche danger every winter. The western ramp is steeper than the eastern ramp (up to 31.4‰), mastering a greater elevation difference (752 m). Apart from the first six kilometres, it is still single-track. Trains from opposed directions meet at half distance at the station of Dalaas, also (in)famous as the place of two major train disasters.
In 1924, in a "traffic jam" in the wake of avalanches, a coupler broke in the middle of an ascending freight train. The runaway group of wagons was deliberately derailed at Dalaas, causing a big train-wreck miraculously survived by all brake-men and station employees. No such luck in 1954: a train and the station building were hit by an avalanche, killing 10 people, all of them inside the building where passengers of the train rested for the night after a previous avalanche blocked the line. (This was part of one of the worst avalanche events since the Middle Ages, with altogether 268 buried, of which 125 dead, and 600 buildings destroyed by altogether 400 avalanches in a relatively small region over three days.)
Above: wreck of the 14 escaped freight cars on 13 January 1924
Below: After the avalanche on 12 January 1954, the damaged station building, with the end of a passenger car thrown off the tracks further away on the lower left
Archive photos from bahnarchiv.net (reproduction in compliance with the condition that indications of the source aren't removed)
After 1954, the station building was replaced with an ugly but avalanche-resistant, wedge-shaped building, while the viaduct in the background on the above photo still stands, but I don't have good photos showing either: when I was there last October, the valley was filled with rain-clouds.
Above: a view of the old footbridge (see right edge on 1924 photo) across the western end of the station
Below: ÖBB 1116 116 with the westbound (descending) IC 118 (which is to run all the way to Münster in North Germany) has to wait in Dalaas for a delayed railjet from the opposed direction
The most-photographed spot along the western ramp is a big curve just west of Braz station.
Above: an eastbound double-unit railjet climbs the curve at Braz. The first unit (with ÖBB 1116 249 in the rear) exhibits a special livery with a wind-blown Austrian flag as motive (created in 2012 for the 175th anniversary of railways in Austria), here modified as advertising for last year's FIS Alpine Ski WM in Schladming, Austria
Below: another double-unit railjet on a westbound run
Runaway freight trains raced down the western ramp in 1924 (see above), 1947, 1971, 1993 and 2010. Although friction on tunnel walls slowed these trains, part or all of them derailed in curves in the open. No one died, but the last such disaster, which happened just in the curve at Braz in June 2010, destroyed a cargo of new cars worth millions. The cause of this brake failure was a chain of events ending with a freak event:
- The first wagon was an articulated one owned by a French company. The two halves were connected by a brake hose connection which was secured against hanging too deep by a rope.
- At the departure station in Hungary, a rope clamp was replaced by ÖBB's Hungarian subsidiary in improper fashion.
- Under stress on the mountain line, the safety rope snapped.
- Rails were recently replaced where this happened, with the old rails still waiting to be picked up in the middle of the track, thus the loose brake coupling hit against those rails hard, breaking the connection.
- The freak event: the freed brake hose of the trailing half hit against the underframe in such a way that the coupling head got stuck in a position in which the brake hose snapped, preventing air from escaping and thus preventing the initiation of fail-safe braking, leaving all but the locomotive and the first half of the first wagon unbraked.
Due to the too many players in too many countries, the legal proceedings were complex.
Aerial view after the disaster from the south-west. The front of the train is well visible at bottom center, the wreck of the end can be made out on the left side of the curve at upper left. Photo from Vorarlberg Online
I close with another view of the Braz curve – from inside a train:
:: :: :: :: ::
Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.