The International Steam Pages
James Waite reports on an Austrian rack railway
The first part of the Schneebergbahn, from Puchberg as far as Baumgartner, opened on 1st June 1897 as a metre gauge pure Abt rack line. The remaining stretch from Baumgartner to the summit at Hochschneeberg opened on 25th September 1897. The line is a little under 10km long and rises from an altitude of 577 metres at Puchberg to 1,792 metres at the summit. The line was built and initially operated by a local concern as was the standard gauge branch line from Wiener Neustadt to Puchberg which was built at the same time. The lines were taken over by the k.k. Priv. Eisenbahn Wien - Aspang (“EWA”) on 1st January 1899. The Société Belge de Chemins de Fer of Brussels was the major shareholder in the EWA. It’s always been a popular route, largely because the Schneeberg is the nearest high mountain to Vienna which is not much more than 75km away.
The EWA continued to run the line until 1st July 1937 when the BBÖ, as the Austrian state railway was then known, took over its operation. At this stage the line continued to be owned by the EWA but on 1st January 1940, after Austria had been incorporated into Nazi Germany the Schneebergbahn was nationalized and incorporated into the Deutsche Reichsbahn without payment of compensation. After the end of the Second World War in 1945 the ÖBB, the present day Austrian State Railway, took over the line. On 1st January 1997 operation passed to Niederosterreichische Schneebergbahn, a company owned jointly by the Lower Austrian regional authority and the ÖBB. So far as I know the ÖBB continues to own the railway although it has appeared in a list of assets which it wants to sell.
Margaret and I first visited the line in August 1979. In those days it was the last ÖBB line which was entirely steam worked. Not much seemed to have changed since it was built and the carriages and the stations and depot were showing their age – indeed the carriages were really quite filthy, a far cry from the immaculate state of most things in Austria. Nonetheless it was a good ride and even in 1979 a 100% steam-worked line anywhere in Europe was fast becoming a rarity. The locos were clearly in very good mechanical condition and, like most mountain railways, the views on this sunny day became ever more impressive as the train worked its way towards the summit. At Baumgartner station, about two thirds of the way up, the train stopped for about 20 minutes in each direction and large helpings of a filling and inexpensive cake were dispensed through the carriage windows.
I made a return visit on 5th August 2006 as I had a few hours spare in Vienna before catching a night train east to Romania, the next leg of a journey to Viseu de Sus. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and damp day. Things were now very different. There used to be an attractive wooden-built engine shed but now it had been replaced by a large, state-of-the-art structure. Much more depressing were the new diesel trains which took over nearly all the regular services in 1999, apparently built by Hunslet-Barclay at the old Andrew Barclay works in Kilmarnock though I didn’t see any of them carrying works plates. They are marketed as “Salamanders” and are painted in a singularly hideous paint scheme of dark green and bright yellow splodges, supposedly inspired by their reptilian namesakes. Up at the summit things were still much as before but since my visit a large new station has now been built there which opened in July 2009. There’s the summit station of a cableway nearby which appears to be operated by the same organisation. Its lower terminus is a few km away from Puchberg. There’s no obvious way of getting between the two by public transport.
Steam now runs solely as a heritage tourist attraction with carriages which have now been meticulously rebuilt and the varnish on the reconstructed woodwork inside looks so fresh you almost expect it still to be sticky! In 2010 the steam train is scheduled to run on Saturdays only between 4th July and 5th September with only one working each way, leaving Puchberg at 10.15 and returning from the summit at 14.45. The journey time is around 80 minutes compared to the 52 minutes which the diesels are allowed. There’s still a cake stop at Baumgartner! If you make the round trip by steam you’ll be charged a supplementary fare though this is waived if you go up the mountain on a diesel. Full timetable details are on the railway’s website. The line’s first loco is now plinthed at Puchberg. The other five are still in service though with only one train a week running they’re not over-exercised!
The first two km or so of the line run through typical lower Alpine meadows with good road access and there should be plenty of phot spots along this section. Further up much of the route runs through woods and it’s only on the final stretch approaching the summit that the scenery opens up again. There’s an attractive early 20th century chapel at the summit which made a good backdrop for trains waiting to go back down the mountain though this may have changed now the new station has been built. There are well-marked footpaths from the summit station and the views on a good day are spectacular.
I rode out from Vienna on the standard gauge. Wiener Neustadt is a large city on the main line south on the Semmering route with a frequent service. The Puchberg line is worked by single-unit diesel railcars and the ride is scenic for much of its length and steeply graded for the last few km to Puchberg. I was there on a Saturday but arrived too late for the steam working up the mountain and rode up on a diesel train – silky, smooth and efficient but distinctly soulless! I caught the steam train back and was almost the only passenger.
It’s worth waiting around Puchberg station at the end of the run instead of returning to Wiener Neustadt at once. There’s quite a bit of shunting involved as the train is put away and it gives the opportunity to see the loco without the carriages obscuring the front as they do when the train is running. The train crew were very happy to show me round the large new depot which is undoubtedly an impressive structure. Most of its roads are used for the diesel trains though the single road devoted to the steam locos is roomy and the works at the back looks capable of handling most steam overhauls.
The steam locos
Firstly some nostalgic pictures from way back in 1979 from James, has it really made 'progress' since then and are all those passengers in those ghastly Salamanders more interested in their mobile phones and MP3/4 players than anything else?
And now the 2006 version, I've relegated the salamander to last...