The ill wind that blows when the timetable changes

Each year, in the night between the Saturday and Sunday around 12 December, there is the annual railway timetable change (Fahrplanwechsel) in Austria, and the countries also served by ÖBB. In typical European solidarity and fraternity, it is not just Austria’s timetables that now change, but also those of many other European countries bound by a strong alliance to rail travel, with the Austrian timetable linking into thoses of many neighbouring countries.

The chances are that most people who are not regular “rail riders” only learn of the new routes that are being (re-)introduced, and apart from a poorly feigned “oh, that’s nice” it barely registers with them. This year, the relaunch of the Vienna-Paris sleeper stole the headlines. In future years, it is likely to be a similar case until ÖBB’s great tunneling projects, the Semmering Basistunnel and the Koralm Tunnel, hog the headlines towards the end of the 2020s. The Semmering Basistunnel has been a topic of newsworthyness ever since I have been living in Austria.

The nostalgic me will of course miss the stretch from Semmering to Gloggnitz, and the current Südbahn that will be relegated to branch line status once the Semmering Basistunnel enters active service. However, there is little point in denying the progress for both passenger and freight services that will be seen on the new Südbahn between Vienna and Graz. Vienna to Graz will only two hours away, with the new tunnel taking about 35-40 minutes off the journey time.

The Koralm Tunnel will be a game changer between Graz and Klagenfurt, connecting the provincial capitals in about an hour. Currently going by rail between the two is a timely affair, via Brück an der Mur, Knittelfeld and St Veit an der Glan. Of course the track between Brück an der Mur and Klagenfurt will be relegated to a regional line, and that will possibly impact local life, especially for those who depend on the railway for getting to and from work or even school.

I am of course old enough to remember the fallout of the Beeching Report in the UK. It saw many branch lines disappear in the mid to late 1960s and very early 1970s. Some still exists as private heritage railways, but the loss of the railway didn’t just mean the end of the line for passengers, who had depended on it to get to work, but also for some freight operations. The simplistic and storybook role of the Fat Controller’s railway in Reverend Awdry’s books became consigned to history, and of course steam gave way to diesel trains. Austria doesn’t have the issue of diesel trains, as its lines are electrified. In Britain, electrification of even mainlines is far from complete. And of course, the proposed HS2 route to Leeds was recently scrapped.

Austria and Britain are vastly different in their set-ups. I was originally emotional at the notional return of the GWR – the Great Western Railway, also known affectionately as God’s Wonderful Railway, but my joy was quickly overcome when transparency of ticketing prices and practices became impossible to understand for the layman. Austria’s equivalent, WestBahn, has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, having commenced services between Wien Westbhf and Salzburg when the timetable change took place in 2011. And from April 2022, some services will also go through to Munich.

Back in 2012, there were cheers as the RailJet service from Westbhf to Salzburg Hbf entered into service with a journey time of 2h22m. Back in the early to mid-noughties, the announcements featured the future promise of Vienna to Innsbruck in 4:10, an hour quicker than the 5:10 that was standard duration at that time. This is now very much the reality.

I have always loved the way that in Austria the cost of a trip has remained the same for the distance travelled, so 100km in Western Austria costs the same as say a trip of 100km from the edge of Vienna out along the Westbahn (the line, not the aforementioned company) or the Südbahn. In addition the 50% off for booking online with a Vorteilscard. Interaction with a ticket office only gets you 45% discount nowadays. And of course there is now the Klimaticket, recently launched to much fanfare that gives you Austria by rail from EUR 3 per day (contingent on your signing up for 365 days). Much to my chagrin, I had to disappoint a non-rail savvy acquaintance that he wouldn’t be able to pitch up at the Hauptbahnhof here in Vienna and alight 750km away in Feldkirch for a sum that was cheaper than most filled rolls at a chain baker of his choosing.

So is it congratulatorily back-slapping all round at ÖBB whenever the new timetable goes live? The answer is sadly not. The reality is that ÖBB has reduced the number of stations served from 1,090 in 2015 to 1,044 in 2020. One such example of stations that have been “abandoned” is on the Gailtalbahn down in Carinthia, which now terminates in Hermagor, having until a few years ago run through to Kötschach-Mautern. Plans are afoot for the closed section to be opened for Draisinen (handcars) before too long. However, the problem is that by closing the railway, it isolates communities, or makes them more unattractive for people to move to. In Vienna, the impact of a closed station is negligible – after all Strandbäder closed in 2000, due to the opening of Neue Donau U6 station. The old Erzherzog-Karl-Straße station, which one of my friends in the 1990s used to jump on the train to Bratislava with me, is now only served by the S80 around once every half hour. Again it has the nearby Stadlau station and U2 that have removed its reasons to continue to exist.

Outside Vienna, it is the people on very modest incomes, who can’t afford to run a car and who struggle to be able to commute to and from work when the railway goes, and communities can die out as a result, as the Postbus service often only covers a bus or two to help around school hours to ferry the little dears to and from school. Similarly, a lack of infrastructure in the evening also causes a lot of youth drink-driving, in the provinces, as there are no realistic ways for the local youth to get around for their much needed social life (when there is not a lockdown for Nachtgastromie). This time around the unlucky stations include Hönigsberg in the Mürztal, near Mürzzuschlag, an area that will be affected substantially by the changeover to the new Südbahn once the Semmering Basistunnel opens.

There is weasely talk of “timetable optimisation” (Fahrplanoptimierung), which from my understanding is actually a synonym for “confounded commuters”. The mildest of tinkerings seems to have a domino-like cascade, and invariably it is the heaviest of users of the system who face the most disruption. The little old lady who travels to her sister twice a year doesn’t observe the impact of the changes, but it is the shiftworker standing on the platforms all year round, who initially feels it most – usually in the darkest, bleakest and gloomiest times of the year, although with the instruction to work from home, some presume that the impact will be less noticeable.

Sadly if anything the impact is more pronounced as it is those very people who are so tied to the functioning of the timetable that are affected most. They need the train to be able to get to work, since many are in jobs that demand physical attendance, and whose jobs are not able to be moved to remote working at the beck and call of the government in countering rising infection levels. For me the sad thing is that ÖBB seems more than happy to keep pumping in millions into characterless station renovations (all glass facades) while shutting stations rather than downgrading them to request stops.

As a postscript, I should add that the pandemic has dramatically curtailed my own rail travel. Despite my grievances about shutting stations and extravagant rebuilds in commuter towns, I love train travel. I dearly hope that I might be able to enjoy it again very soon.