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Vienna´s weekly European journal

Transport in Vienna - yesterday and today



Transport in Vienna - yesterday and today

From the horse-drawn tramway to the ultra-low floor tram, from the metropolitan railway to the underground Vienna has one of the most modern and most widely used public transport systems in Europe.

In the mid-1900s Vienna and its suburbs had 250,000 inhabitants. Transport was undertaken with sedan chairs and hire-coaches – or you walked. With the decision in 1857 to pull down the bastions that encased the inner city the way was opened for a cosmopolitan traffic solution. This decision has affected the urban structure to the present day.

In place of the broad meadows which circled the city walls the Ringstrasse was laid out and with it the Monarchy created a world-famous memorial to itself.

An old drawing of a horse-drawn tramway with passengers and onlookers, ca. 1900

The horse-drawn tramway took the Viennese to the suburbs

The tramway captures Vienna

In 1864 the municipal council agreed to test a horse-drawn tramway system.
On 4 October 1865 the first horse railways began running at last from the Votive Church towards Dornbach. A major competition unfolded between the private operating companies. This fact, coupled with some of the most varied abuses, resulted ultimately in the City itself taking over control of the tramway.

And with the Vienna municipality’s control began the great days of the Vienna tramway. Electrification was started; the line-identification system with numbers and letters, which is still used, was introduced.

It was the employment of electrical power which brought the decisive break-through to economy and operational safety. The route of Vienna’s first electricity-powered tramline, which started running on 28 January 1897, corresponds to that used by Line No. 5 which operates to this day.

In the following years the horse tram network was swiftly electrified so that the last horse-tram was replaced by the “Electric” as early as 1903. The Vienna tram is affectionately referred to as the “Bim” by the local population, a reference to the “bim-bim” signal-bell it uses.

A black-and-white picture of the urban railway, 1981
Black-and-white picture: a double-decker bus driving by the State Opera, 1965

Unlike double-decker busses (r.) the arches of the urban railway (l.) are still an integral element of public transport in Vienna

The metropolitan line (Stadtbahn)

The decision to build a metropolitan line railway was taken in 1892. It was put into service on 9 May 1898.
The metropolitan line carriages were at first drawn by steam locomotives.

Widespread knowledge about the Vienna metropolitan line derives from its extremely high quality architecture – all its designs, from the large stations to the smallest details, came from Otto Wagner’s bureau. The one-hundred or so year-old constructional project covers a stretch of more than 40 kilometres and is the city’s largest single item of real estate. It is an outstanding item of cultural heritage, not conserved for museum purposes or re-dedicated but still used for its original purpose and a highly effective part of the present-day underground network of the Vienna public transport system.

Today’s underground is based to a not insignificant extent (the U4 line and part of the U6 line) on this railway system. In those days it was a complete railway system using steam locomotives.

* In 1925 the metropolitan line was restarted, following electrification, by the City of Vienna as a municipal transport system. Operations were conducted, however, using tramway coaches.

* In 1976 the first new underground train travelled the length of the Heiligenstadt to Friedensbrücke line. This was declared as a “test operation” although the stretch in question had been in use since 1899.

Otto Wagner’s buildings were for a while hardly appreciated; several stations worth being saved were torn down.

Not until re-vitalisation of the suburban line and renewal of the Gürtel metropolitan line was started was any attempt made to save as much as possible. The impressive high-standing stations along this line were lovingly renovated.

However one problem could not be solved at the time. On account of dense building development and permanent traffic in the narrow streets it was considered impossible to achieve crossing of the inner city. To this day trams circle the city along the Ringstrasse. The city itself is transited above ground only by busses.

A tramway in Vienna, 1961

Not long after this picture was taken tramway no. 13 was replaced by the bus line 13A which still runs between the Central Station (the former Southern Station) and Alser Strasse today

Tramway network maximised

During the First World War the tramway was pressed into service for several transport purposes. Freight-coaches brought potatoes into the city and took patients to hospital.

In the 1920s the Vienna tramway reached its zenith. More than 3,000 carriages were on the rails.

During the inter-war years the Vienna tramway network was extended to its greatest length ever: 292 street kilometres.

Right-wing regime introduces driving on the right

After Austria’s annexation by Hitler Germany everything, not only politics, moved far to the right: in alignment with German regulations driving on the right was introduced in September 1938. The tramway coaches had to be partly rebuilt, many stops and rail connections had to be relocated. The same applied to motor vehicle traffic.

The fact that during the Second World War, a time of great hardship, record numbers of journeys were registered was almost a miracle. In 1943 732 million passengers were transported, the number of personnel employed in 1944 was nearly 18,000.

A major task, undertaken for reasons of economy, was the introduction of conductorless carriages as from 1964 and of conductorless driving coaches as from 1972. The complete transformation to one-man operation took more than thirty years to accomplish.

The last trams using conductors travelled around Vienna up until the end of 1996, on the 46 line, longer than in most other cities.

Novelties in the 1990s

Operational improvements such as RBL (computer-controlled management system), informing passengers via display boards about departure times, were introduced.

In 1995 the Vienna tramway system passed a new milestone in coach construction by introducing the first low-floor carriages. A lengthy test-phase has shown the carriages to be valuable in everyday use and to bring appreciable improvements for passengers. These “ULF” (Ultra-Low Floor) articulated carriages are vehicles with a through going low-floor construction, so that the floor has the lowest height world wide of 18 cm meaning that, if necessary, the mounting height can be brought down to 10 cm.

Discover Vienna on board a vintage tram

The hey-days of the Vienna tramway system are recalled at present in the Vienna Tramway Museum. With about 100 vehicles it has one of the largest collections in the world.

The museum, housed in the former Erdberg tram garage, is quite unique. Nowhere else in the world is there such an extensive collection of carriages belonging to a single enterprise. The vehicles, nearly one hundred in number, can be inspected from the start of May to the start of October (, At the pay-desk popular miniatures of the carriages as well as books and other mementoes can be bought. Occasional round-tours are also organised where you can explore Vienna on board a vintage tram.

Tramways in a museum

The historical carriages of the Tramway Museum can be rented for special tours

Bus as complement to rail network

Municipal bus operations were started on 23 March 1907. In the initial stage this new method of operation was mainly a large-scale trial.

It was not until after the First World War that bus operations were able to compete with the already well-established electric tramway. The first large series of busses were built, and more and more of them were placed in service, mainly in the tram-free inner city. In 1924 a separate central workshop had to be built for the extensively increased bus-fleet.

As a pioneering novelty Viennese busses as from 1936 were fitted with diesel engines. Many of the busses built before 1936 were also re-equipped with diesel engines in place of the original petrol-driven ones. Interrupted by the Second World War the conversion process could only be completed in 1953.

The aftermath of the war was a catastrophe for Vienna’s bus operations. Of the 130 busses on the books not one remained in running order. The restoration of all the war-damaged busses could not be completed either until 1953.

In order to improve the passenger capacity of busses double-deckers were introduced in 1960 (remaining in use until 1991) and as from 1963 articulated busses came into operation.

Also in 1963 the City of Vienna bus company took a major step towards environmental protection. In that year busses and the requisite tank facilities were adapted to natural gas. Existing busses with diesel engines were refitted so as to enable them to use a mixture of diesel fuel and natural gas. By 1977 also 300 busses had been adapted for this dual-fuel operation.

From this point in time new-built busses were fitted with special gas-engines (“Otto engines”) since they could be operated entirely on natural gas without any admixture of diesel motor fuel.

As from 1988 the busses were then fitted with exhaust catalytic converters.
A special type of bus developed for use in restrictive inner city circumstances was the “City Bus”. This compact vehicle was operated from 1977 to 1995, although as from 1992 it was progressively replaced by the environmentally-friendly “Midi Bus”. Since September 2012 the newest innovation of Vienna Lines, the electro bus, operates on the City Bus lines 2A and 3A. It is charged via a collector on the top of the bus, which can be lifted up and down in the loading unit at the final stop. Regenerative braking is also included.

A driving bus

The 13A carries passengers across the town, passing through districts 10, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 on its way

Bus services are an irreplaceable constituent of the Vienna public transport system, which now has approximately 500 busses, on about 80 lines on routes covering some 380 kilometres and used by approximately 115 million passengers every year.

Tramway tunnels

In 1957, after the success of the underground tramway in Brussels, agreement was reached on an investment programme for public rail transport. Plans for underground tramway networks – referred to in the press as “Ustrab” (sub-tarmac tramway) – received fresh impulse. Several variations were mooted, all of them closely concerned with transiting the inner city. In 1963 a plan was conceived which, from today’s point of view, would have deserved to be realised.

Initial planning was set in motion, conceived for three development stages. The first step was for tunnelling under difficult crossings. The Südtiroler Platz deep-station was built, generously dimensioned passageways connected the metropolitan lines (S Bahn and tramway). The next constructional venture was the Schottentor loop, known popularly as the “Jonas Saucepan” (after the then mayor, Franz Jonas).

The construction of the new central railway station (railway service starting 2012, completion 2016) brings the newly renovated underground stop Südtirolerplatz closer to the railway links. The modernisation of the Ustrab stations Blechturmgasse, Kliebergasse, Matzleinsdorfer Platz, Eichenstraße and Laurenzgasse, all dating back to the 1960s, was also completed in 2011.

The move towards an underground railway

The Ustrab tunnels under the “Zweier-Linie” (running parallel to the ring) and beneath the Gürtel (belt road) were made with the underground railway in mind. Originally only envisaged for the stretch from Secession to Volkstheater, the tunnel was progressively lengthened during the construction phase.

On the Gürtel the existing Südtiroler Platz deep-station was connected with an Ustrab tunnel.

The next network drafts already looked forward to a completed underground railway. The basic structure of an inner-city transit system was no longer under discussion.

In 1969 the time had finally come: on Karlsplatz, one hundred years after the first plans were made, construction of the basic underground (U-Bahn) network was started under Mayor Bruno Marek.

In 1976 a public test stretch was put into operation, the trains commuted between Friedensbrücke and Heiligenstadt.

On 25 February 1978 the whole of Vienna went wild enjoying the 6-minute U-Bahn journey from Karlsplatz to Reumannplatz (U1).

At about the same time, at street level along the underground stretch, Vienna’s first pedestrian areas, Kärntner Strasse and Favoritenstrasse, were inaugurated.

The early 1980s were full of underground fever. One after another lines were being opened and extended.

Whereas the U1 was a completely new stretch, and the first rail transport system to reach into the centre of town, the U4 was derived from the original Danube Canal-Wiental line.

A black-and-white photo of an underground train driving along an above-ground section, 1983

Underground line U4 between Meidling and the future Längenfeldgasse stop on the old track, May 1983

In 1982 the opening of the U1 to Kagran marked the completion of the basic U-Bahn network.

The 1990s, during a second constructional phase, saw the inner city being under-tunnelled from east to west by the U3, and the U6 as a prolongation of the old Gürtel metropolitan line.

Vienna underground today

Today’s underground railway system combines three sorts of stretches:

* The metropolitan railway built by Otto Wagner between 1894 and 1901 (U4 and U6)
* Rebuilt tramway tunnels constructed in the 1960s (U2)
* New stretches built since 1969 (U1, U2, U3, U6)

Extension of the U1 and U2 lines

In 2006 the U1 underground line has been extended from Kagran to Leopoldau. It is now possible to transit the whole city from Reumannplatz to the Leopoldau terminal (total length 14,6 km) in about 25 minutes.

The aim of this U1 extension, in addition to facilitating transport for more than 90,000 persons in the populated catchment areas, is to reduce the amount of motorised private traffic in Vienna.

In particular it will be commuters from the northern parts of Lower Austria who will be able to switch to public transport by making use of additional Park & Ride facilities.

The planned extension of the U2 underground line has only been partly implemented. The latest new U2 section was opened in May 2008. The new stops are Taborstrasse, Praterstern, Messe-Prater, Krieau and Stadion.

Vienna’s underground railway system is now in its fourth extension stage, which is carried out in three steps: U2 to Aspern Lakeside by 2013; U1 to Oberlaa by 2017; and the southbound U2 extension to Arsenal and Gudrunstraße by 2019. All in all, investments into building the city’s underground railway system from 1967 to 2008 totalled € 7.5 billion.

24 hours underground service

In a referendum in February 2010 the majority of the Viennese citizens voted in favour of an underground service running all night. On 3/4 September, the 24 hours underground service running on nights before Saturday, Sunday and public holidays was introduced. From 12 p.m. until 5 a.m. all underground lines are operated in 15-min-intervals. As a consequence, the night-bus-system was adapted.

An underground train on an above-ground section at night, with housing blocks in the background

The night-time underground service gets night owls home quickly and safely

The Vienna Lines (Wiener Linien)

The Vienna Lines are among Europe’s most attractive and reliable inner-city transport enterprises and they enjoy a high degree of customer satisfaction.

With a market share of 37 percent for all journeys undertaken within Vienna, the Vienna Lines are in the international top league and are easily the Number One within Austria itself.

Vienna Lines passenger numbers increased again in 2009 for the sixth year running – even though 2008 had already seen an enormous rise in passenger number thanks to the European football championships, some games of which took place in Vienna. A total of 811.9 million passengers used the various Vienna Lines services in 2009: an average 2,224,100 million passengers per day. This means that the number of passengers has risen by 1.02 per cent as compared to the previous year.

Around 875 million passengers used Vienna Lines in 2011 (compared to 838 million in 2010). Especially at night, passenger numbers have tripled due to the introduction of the 24-hours underground service.

With more than 8,000 personnel the Vienna Lines are one of Vienna’s largest employers.

In 2011 Vienna Lines invested 477 million euros in the extension of the underground network: half of the funds were provided by the City of Vienna and the other half by the federal government. 475 million euros were budgeted for 2012. The money is invested in the construction of new tram and underground lines, the purchase of new climatised vehicles as well as electro busses and the renovation of stations.