The Arlberg Railway – connecting Tyrol and Vorarlberg for 125 years

Posted: 15 May 2009 | | No comments yet

Rene Zumtobel celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Arlberg Railway in Austria, and how after all this time it is still playing a vital part of the Austrian western railway line between Bregenz, Zürich and Vienna.

Rene Zumtobel celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Arlberg Railway in Austria, and how after all this time it is still playing a vital part of the Austrian western railway line between Bregenz, Zürich and Vienna.

This year, the Arlberg Railway line celebrates its 125th anniversary. It is still very important for ÖBB (Austrian Federal Railways) and its customers as it is the only railway connection between the two Austrian provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Furthermore it is an imposing and interesting section of the Austrian western railway line between Bregenz, Zürich and Vienna.

Up to 90 trains use the twisting mountain section on peak days – every day approximately 4,000 passengers travel in the long-distance trains whilst enjoying the great view. In the section between Landeck (Tyrol) and Bludenz (Vorarlberg), which is 63km long, trains pass through a total of 14 tunnels and 20 galleries that serve as protection from falling rocks and avalanches. In recent years, ÖBB-Infrastruktur has invested large amounts of money in safety. In 2003, the 2.2km long Blisadona tunnel was built in the direct vicinity of the railway station of Langen – in the Arlberg Railway tunnel (with a length of 10.7km), the largest European road-railway safety project to be implemented at present. In addition, a larger number of railway stations along the line were modernised and equipped with a customer-friendly outfit. The railway line sees an additional landmark at present as the 100-year-old bridge near Landeck is replaced by a new steel arch bridge weighing 1,400 tonnes.

At its highest point, the railway line reaches a sea level of 1,311 metres – the largest gradient is an incredible 27 per thousand. Even after 125 years, the mountain section in Western Austria has not lost its attraction for customers and railway fans.

The route from Innsbruck to Bludenz

Starting in Innsbruck, the provincial capital of Tyrol, the railway line passes by the following localities on the valley section: The train leaves Innsbruck westbound and follows the Inn Valley via Zirl, Telfs (663m) and Silz to the railway station of Ötztal (end of the two-track route) and from there on to Imst (705m), always following the course of the Inn River, to Landeck-Zams (776m), the end of the valley section on the Tyrolean side. In Landeck-Zams, the mountain section of the Arlberg Railway begins. After the station Landeck-Zams, the line crosses the Inn River and follows the course of the Sanna River upstream. Between Pians (911m) and Strengen (1,028m), there is the Trisanna Bridge, which spans, at a height of 95 metres, the entrance way to the Paznaun Valley in Tyrol, well-known for the skiing resorts Ischgl and Galtür. Then it continues to Flirsch (1,122m), always uphill, via Pettneu (1,196m) to St. Anton am Arlberg (1,280m), the last locality in Tyrol before the Arlberg Railway tunnel. After the railway station of St. Anton, the section passes through the Arlberg tunnel and reaches its point of culmination at 1,311m, and furthermore it leaves Tyrol and arrives on Vorarlberg soil. After the tunnel itself, with a downward slope of approximately 15 per thousand, it reaches the station Langen am Arlberg with its modern design (1,217m) directly at the exit. Then it continues downhill, partly with a maximum downward slope of up to 27 per thousand, to Wald am Arlberg (1,074m), then to Dalaas (932m), Hintergasse (825m) and Braz (705m) to the last station of the mountain section, the railway station of the district capital of Bludenz in Vorarlberg (560m). From there, the line continues via Feldkirch, Dornbirn to Bregenz on Lake Constance.

The stony path to the Arlberg Railway – historical background

The first impetus for the construction of a railway line over the Arlberg and the Brenner in the direction of the Adriatic came from the English captain Rose in the year 1846. He suggested the building of a railway line that could shorten the delivery period of English mail to India and the Middle East. This request was addressed to the Austrian federal administration and caused quite a stir in Tyrol and Vorarlberg. This enthusiasm spread to others. The then president of the Chamber of Commerce of Feldkirchen, Karl Ganahl, became the first advocate of this idea in Austria, and he even won the support of Austrian Minister of Commerce, Karl Ludwig von Bruck, for his project. The ministers of commerce became the most significant fellow supporters of this idea and made it one of their priorities. Unfortunately, von Bruck left his post in the government in 1851. Ganahl’s project lost its keen fellow supporter, and furthermore the financial crisis at the time put a stop to all hopes of its realisation.

A new impulse was given by the memorandum “draft for a new railroad network of the Austrian monarchy” which was prepared in order to stimulate construction activity for railroads and was supposed to be realised with subsidies from the government. The memorandum mentioned the Arlberg Railway again as part of especially urgent construction projects. Ganahl resumed his project with the support of other major prospective investors and got a preliminary concession on 9 April 1865. On the basis of this preliminary concession, he had Achilles Thommen (the site manager of the Brenner Railway Line) prepare a technical project. Thommen presented two versions: a) tunnel through the Arlberg or b) crossing of the Arlberg by means of a Fell cable railway. The cable railway was rejected immediately, and the tunnelling was only investigated and then put on the back burner. Only after 20 years, in 1867, was the Arlberg problem presented to the Austrian Imperial Council for the first time, and so it became a parliamentary issue and a rather complicated one too. Here, we only want to mention the most important stages that could have brought about a solution for the Arlberg Railway problem:

  1. The government made a first attempt with a bill that dealt with the extension of the Austrian railways. It was introduced in March 1869 and withdrawn as early as April of the same year for financial reasons
  2. The Franco-Prussian War 1870/71 once again demonstrated the need for an inland connection to Vorarlberg. The widespread famine experienced there could only have been lessened by way of some arrangement with Bavaria, which ensured the supply of Vorarlberg. The war limited the transport of civil goods to a very great extent
  3. The Austrian Minister of Commerce, Freiherr von Chlumecky, wanted to stimulate construction for railways and introduced a bill for the construction of the Arlberg Railway line. However, a more inexpensive solution for the Arlberg was requested for financial reasons. In a debate, positions became so entrenched that the bill was actually withdrawn by the government in 1877
  4. The dependency of the German railroad network upon maintaining trading and transportation with Vorarlberg and Switzerland became more and more apparent. Another serious factor was the definite decision regarding the Gotthard Railway line in business circles, and it was not possible to ignore the call for an inland east-west connection. The first petition came from Innsbruck, and it was followed by others from all over the country. In the framework of another investigation, a further project was prepared, which then received the majority of votes. This proved to be the final project for the Arlberg tunnel with a length of 10,250 metres. After a decade of parliamentary struggles, the Emperor signed the Arlberg act on 7 May 1880. The way to the construction of the Arlberg Railway line was free. The inhabitants of Tyrol and Vorarlberg received this news with enthusiasm, people celebrated everywhere, and the Arlberg Railway line could now be built. Construction began without delay after the instruction for the start of the work was given on 16 May 1880. The construction site supervision was assigned to the national railway construction division, which appointed the senior government building surveyor, Julius Lott, the construction site superintendent of the Arlberg Railway. A construction sum to the amount of 35.5 million gulden was assigned for the Arlberg railway project. Lott did not live to see the completion of his work as he died on 24 May 1883. The celebration for the opening of the Arlberg Railway line was held on 20 September 1884 by Emperor Franz Joseph I

Railway construction in imperial times

When the senior government building surveyor, Julius Lott, was appointed the construction site superintendent for the Arlberg Railway line by the imperial-royal national railway construction division, firstly staff decisions were made, which were then followed by all organisational decisions. This period can be regarded as the start of the construction work for the Arlberg Railway as Lott began the detailed plans immediately. The line had been approved as a single-track main railway line, but the Arlberg tunnel was built with double tracks from the beginning. At the same time, he gave orders for the construction of the base tunnel. The works were started on 14 June 1880 at the east construction site of the tunnels and were started on the western side somewhat later, on 22 June 1880. In Langen and St. Anton, building headquarters with storehouse, workshops and accommodation for the building workers were built. This was not always easy. The steep valleys and slopes were not suited to the building of sheds and workshops. This was particularly difficult in Langen. Even for surveying, paths had to be built in the steep terrain first. The building of the hutments and workshops was then carried out in a completely new way that could be referred to, without exaggerating, as dovetail method. They just glued everything to the steep mountain slopes. After these initial problems, which occurred not only at the tunnel construction site of the basis tunnel as described above, but at other construction sites as well, had been solved, construction work went ahead well.

Bridges on the Arlberg Railway Line

For the construction of the Arlberg Railway line, almost only stone vault structures from untreated broken stones were used, and the use of iron structures were considered only when these had advantages over the durable stone structures. For the building of the walls, especially weather-resistant broken stones which could be taken from the environs of the construction site were used. The necessary quantity of mortar was made by means of the binders produced in Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Large parts of the Arlberg tunnel, all smaller tunnels, the high pylons of the large viaducts, all smaller viaducts, all vaults with a span of up to 16 and/or 20m and all other smaller structures were realised by means of natural stone masonry. Limestone, gneiss and mica schist were used as stone material.

The modern Arlberg Railway line today

Today, the railway line presents itself as a modern mountain line with numerous measures for the safety of people and freight. As such, the Blisadona tunnel, built in 2003, was equipped with a surfaced lane for emergency road vehicles, with a water pipe for fire fighting and illuminated handrails. The joint safety project of ÖBB and ASFINAG (responsible for Austrian motorways and dual carriageways) is unique too. On the whole, eight emergency and escape routes (FRW) were realised as a cross connection between the Arlberg Road tunnel and the ÖBB railway tunnel that run almost in parallel. In the event of an accident in one of the tunnels, the passengers can escape unaided in the other tunnel via this connecting tunnel. Approximately €47 million was invested, the cost of which was halved between ÖBB and ASFINAG. At the railway stations in Landeck/Zams and in Bludenz, there are rescue trains that ensure safety and fast emergency intervention. In the event of an emergency, these are manned with firemen and equipped with vehicles allowing fire fighting interventions to be carried out on the rails.

The most important railway stations of the Arlberg skiing areas in St. Anton und Langen also present themselves as modern and customer-friendly. The highlight for the modern traffic station in St. Anton was the Alpine Ski World Championship in 2001. The mobility concept was completely tailored to the railway and customers made use of it – over 200,000 ski fans came to the resort on the Arlberg in Tyrol by railway.

However, the Arlberg Railway line is also very important for the transportation of freight. Several million tonnes of freight are transported by Rail Cargo Austria AG (the ÖBB freight division) from and to Vorarlberg or into Switzerland in an environmentally friendly way by rail every year. With the modern 10,000 HP Taurus engines, up to 20% of the energy can be returned in the power supply network when the electronic brake is used for the ride downhill.

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