In spring 2017 a group of Railfuture members travelled by rail across Europe to Innsbruck in Austria. Their experience showed how easy and enjoyable rail travel can be, allowing tourists to visit several countries in one holiday, unlike many who rely upon airlines. It is noticeable how other countries have heavily invested in their railway to support tourism, which is more concerned with views from the window, comfort and ambience: characteristics not seen as a priority on enough of Britain’s railway. Top two photos by Colin Milsom. Salzburger FestungsBahn (bottom left) is a publicity photo. Bottom right photo, showing Salzburg trolley bus wires and fortress in the background, and all other photos in article by Jerry Alderson.
Railfuture members are not just strong supporters of rail-based transport systems but also frequent rail users both in Britain and abroad. As a result of what members have learned over the years – and the knowledge bank that has been built up - Railfuture is able to use strong arguments from knowledge of railway best practice around the world to identify ideas that could be implemented in Britain
In late April and early May 2017 a party of 23 members of Railfuture enjoyed a privately-organised leisure visit to Austria by train from Britain, mainly for pleasure but also to see how it compared to travel in on Britain’s railway.
The destination of the week-long trip was Innsbruck - the capital of the Tyrol state in Austria - travelling out via Paris, Basel and Zürich, returning via Munich, Wurzburg, Cologne and Brussels.
FROM SNOW TO SHIRTSLEEVES
The first hurdle for travellers on such a trip is traipsing across Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, for which Métro tickets are required. It beggars belief that the French railway system is unable to provide slicker arrangements than this, and ought to have a similar system to the Maltese cross on Britain’s National Rail tickets used for crossing London on the Tube. A barcode (two-dimensional format) reader on the Métro gates and the appropriate code on the main line tickets ought to do the job.
The photo below is from the Brussels Métro (on a day when all travel was free and therefore the barriers were open all day), which has adopted one of the good features of the Paris Métro, namely the use of bright red and green vertical lights against each barrier so that passengers can easily find the right barriers to use.
Photo below shows a very busy Gare de Lyon station on an afternoon. The station is very welcoming with a large, bright and airy concourse shows.
From Paris to Basel travel was by TGV and uneventful.
On checking into their hotel the travellers were all presented with a free Mobility Card (photo below and also https://www.basel.com/en/Getting-there-exploring-the-City/Exploring-the-City/Mobility-Ticket), which is an all-system travelcard, for the duration of their stay. Few instances of this occur in Britain and it is something Railfuture would like to see copied in order to promote increased use of public transport. The card was ideal for looking around Basel city centre including using the tram out into the suburbs, such as Bruderholz, high in the hills behind the city. In the past there have been proposals to convert tram routes to bus operation.
From Basel the group joined the Euro City train to Zürich. This had come from Frankfurt via Karlsruhe and Freiburg, and sped them non-stop to Zürich in less than an hour. From there they took the Austrian Railjet to Innsbruck, passing through Liechtenstein without stopping, and then going under the Arlberg Pass and along the spectacular Inn valley to Innsbruck.
Innsbruck is the capital of the Tyrol with buildings and ambience to match, and mountains towering to north and south. It has a small tram system with two urban routes and two rural, and a recently rebuilt station whose architecture unfortunately does no credit to the city. The station is at the junction of north-south lines to Germany and Italy, and east-west to Switzerland and Vienna.
The city has rural trams, known as the Stubaitalbahn, rising around 500m through woodland to Fulpmes. Although snow completely covered the tracks, the tram was very sure footed and got to our destination on time. The comprehensive ticket system is multi-modal allowing travellers the ability, for example, to go one way by tram and the other by bus.
BREGENZ (AUSTRIA) AND LINDAU (GERMANY)
Part of the group then took a train from Innsbruck to Bregenz in Austria, then a twenty-minute ferry ride to Lindau in Germany. Bregenz has a pleasant frontage on Lake Constance but seemed to be mainly modern buildings with the railway running between the lake and the town (the train actually continued to Lindau).
Lindau is a real treat for visitors, especially those arriving by ship. It is a large medieval town that survived the war because it was used as a hospital area and, unlike a lot of old towns, never had a major fire. The centre is pedestrianised with dates on the buildings going back hundreds of years. It is built on an island with a road bridge and a four-track causeway serving a large railway station. Two tracks arrive from Germany and two from Austria. Lindau was seen by mad King Ludwig, builder of Neuschwanstein Castle, as the gateway to his realm. He commanded construction of a lighthouse, a large railway station and a big Post Office (now closed).
Another part of the group went to Salzburg, which has trolley buses rather than trams. It is possible to obtain a comprehensive group ticket, which covers all modes including the funicular to the fortress. By comparison, London’s cable car is not included in the travel card, which Railfuture considers a short-sighted mistake and patronage has suffered as a result. The group also took the Lokalbahn as far as the newly extended (in 2014) terminus at Ostermiething. Very little development has taken place, so the station was surrounded by fields, but the wisdom of providing good rail facilities in advance of development – something that Railfuture has encouraged in Britain - will pay dividends in the future.
The photo below shows one of the older Lokalbahn trains waiting for passengers to board in the underground platform at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof station.
Some of the group took the train across the border to Bolzano in Italy. Until 1919 this was Bozen when it was part of Austria Hungary. Our local train from Innsbruck arrived at the frontier Brenner station where we changed onto an Italian train. Obviously, there were no formalities. The centre of Bolzano has changed little since imperial days, the two exceptions being Mussolini’s handsome train station and his bus station, which could do with a bit of smartening up.
ZILLERTALBAHN AND ACHENSEEBAHN (AUSTRIA)
A short train journey from Innsbruck takes passengers to the junction at Jenbach. There we took either or both of the Zillertalbahn and the Achenseebahn. The Zillertalbahn is a narrow-gauge (760mm) adhesion railway extending 32km up the Ziller valley to Mayrhofen. It is largely locally owned, runs a frequent half-hourly daytime service and, apart from one steam train a day, uses diesel locomotives to propel carriages, as shown in top left of main photograph, giving a much more pleasant ride than in a diesel railcar. The railway is part of the Tyrolean integrated tickets scheme, Verkehrsverbund Tirol (VVT). The VVT has run since 1995 and provides tickets between any pair of zones in the Tyrol, which may be used on any form of public transport. Needless to say it can claim great success in terms of convenience, including “expanding public transport by more than 60%”. British politicians should take note!
The Achenseebahn is considered to be Europe’s oldest cog railway which is still steam operated, using locomotives dating from the opening of the line in 1889. It rises 440m in less than 7km and uses the Riggenbach rack system, terminating at Seespitz am Achensee from where there are steamer trips on the Achensee, as shown in top right of main photograph.
HUNGERBURG AND NORDKETTE
The mountain north of Innsbruck is the Nordkette, rising nearly 1500m from Innsbruck. Access to the summit (for non-mountaineers) begins on the Hungerburgbahn, a funicular which was reconstructed in 2007 and now begins underground, crosses over the River Inn, tunnels through part of the mountain, and then comes into the open, with two stations en route. The gradient varied throughout the journey, and the compartments of the train were suspended from a frame so than each remained upright at all times. The stations were designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect.
From Hungerberg, there is a cable car to Seegrube, and another from there to Hafelekar from which a panoramic view of the city below can be enjoyed.
The group’s return journey to Britain began by regional train from Innsbruck up the side of the Inn valley and over the mountain to Munich. This is a very pleasant ride, through spectacular scenery, on a train with plenty of spare capacity most of the way, plenty of legroom and panoramic windows. It’s just what train travel ought to be like. From Munich the group took the ICE train to Würzburg, a medieval city on the River Main. About 90% of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing two months before the end of the War, but the city centre has been largely reconstructed on traditional lines. There is a busy tram system with five routes.
Reaching St Pancras station in Britain required changing trains at Cologne and Brussels. Because the train from Würzburg was late running, the group avoided missing their connections at Cologne and Brussels by catching an earlier ICE train to Cologne, found seats, and had no trouble with the ticket inspector, which shows the need for flexibility especially when the railway is the cause of the problem.
IMPROVING LONG-DISTANCE TRAVEL BY RAIL
As is often the case on long journeys, especially for families with children, it would have been much easier (and probably cheaper) to go by air. This should not be the case, and with improvements long-distance rail travel should be more attractive and more widely used. Rail also has the key advantage of opportunities to stop off during the journey to visit places other than the final destination, providing that the tickets allow it.
The Railfuture members came up with some idea son how the rail experience could be improved.
1.Whilst railway tickets are very much in the computer age, the system behind them is still in the Dark Ages. In Britain National Rail offers special domestic tickets under international (CIV) conditions of carriage (guaranteeing validity on a later train if delayed en route) for use in association with Eurostar, but they can be very difficult to discover and obtain. As not all train operators seem aware of CIV tickets, and often give a different answer, getting the best ticket can be pot luck. They should be easy add-ons, similar to Plus Bus.
2.Crossing Paris – Métro-inclusive tickets are urgently needed.
3.Each leg of our journey involved different tickets, either a group ticket or a set of individual tickets. Apart from the lack of consistency, a group ticket with a string of reserved seat numbers was not the easiest way for 23 people to find a seat. (Remember ‘RailTeam’ – “Enjoy seamless high-speed travel across Europe” …).
4.Reserved seats on trains were indicated on small screens on the edge of the luggage rack, as in the UK. But their operation appeared to be both consistent and rational. British TOCs seem to revel in different ways of displaying and updating reservation information, including lengthy scrolling texts. None of this on the European mainland. The miniature screens above the seats simply showed the start and finish of the current reservation. Shortly after leaving the origin of the reservation, they simply changed to show the start and finish of the next reservation. No scrolling. Simple.
5.Almost invariably platforms were divided into sectors, and there were posters or indicators showing where each carriage stopped. You could easily stand on just the right part of the platform. Remember BR InterCity’s coloured sectors?
An example of train section displays at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof.
6.Departure sheets were printed on yellow paper, and arrival sheets on white paper, something that could easily be copied in Britain for all modes of transport.
The above are some useful ideas for Railfuture to take forward in its campaigning when it meets rail industry representatives.