150 Years over the Brenner

150 Years Over the Brenner by Rail

Austria marks an anniversary with a special locomotive scheme

By Ernest H. Robl

Unlike in the United States, where a single event — the driving of the final spike — marked the completion of the First Transcontinental Railway in May of 1869, an event whose 150 year anniversary will be celebrated in two years (from the time of this writing), Europe marked many key events as critical rail lines knitting the continent together were completed.

In central Europe, these were often the completion of lines over mountain passes, as the Alpine ranges provided great physical barriers and challenges for railroad construction. The Semmering line in Austria, whose 150 year anniversary was observed a few years ago, is sometimes described as the first modern mountain railroad. The Semmering line provided a key link between Vienna and southern Austria — and other lands further south.

This year (2017), Austria is celebrating the 150 year anniversary of the completion of the line over the Brenner Pass into Italy and to the important ports of the Mediterranean further south.That line through Austria also provided a key link to the south from Germany and also gave that country access to Italian ports. Basically, the Brenner line was one of the last missing pieces on the route Berlin-Munich-Innsbruck-Venice.

While the anniversary of the Brenner line will be observed by both Austria and Italy — the Brenner Pass marks the border between the two countries — when the line was built, both sides of the pass were part of the Austrian Empire. Both sides of the pass were part of the Austrian region of Tyrol (Tirol in German). To make things less confusing, I’ll use the German spelling Tirol the rest of the way. Today, Innsbruck (which is where the Brenner line begins) is the capital of the Austrian state of Tirol. The region south of the Brenner Pass was split from Austria after World War I, and is known as South Tirol.

The passenger station at Brennaro/Brenner has the border running right through its middle.

Two place names

The residents of South Tirol still largely speak German and sometimes describe themselves as “German-speakers with Italian passports.” There are still many family ties between Tirol and South Tirol, and it is quite common to find people with an Italian first name and a Germanic last name — or vice versa.

When Italy acquired South Tirol, it insisted that places with Germanic names now get Italian names. But, the old names did not go away too easily among the German-speaking population. That’s why today you’ll find many places with two names — even on the official station signboards. Some are fairly similar, like Brennaro/Brenner; others, like Fortezza/Franzensfeste retain the basic meaning but have substantially different words.

The anniversary locomotive

As has been the case for other important railroad anniversaries in Austria, the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) are marking the event with a specially decorated locomotive. (Technically, it’s not really a special paint scheme, as the decorations consist of a printed heavy plastic wrap.)

And, as has been the case in the past, Roco (along with Fleischmann, which is now owned by the same company) sponsored the special scheme — meaning that the Roco and Fleischmann logos actually appear on the prototype locomotive and that the two companies have exclusive rights to produce the models..

The Roco (HO) and Fleischmann (N) model versions of the 1116 159-5 electric locomotive (a Siemens Taurus 2) are scheduled to available in the fall of 2017. The prototype in this paint scheme is already operating on Austrian rails.


A Roco catalog illustration of a pre-production sample of its HO model of the Brenner anniversary locomotive. The illustration shows the Austrian side.  (As with most Blog illustrations, click on the image for a larger version.)

Worth noting is that the locomotive scheme, designed by noted Austrian graphic designer Gudrun Geiblinger, has two different sides, with one locomotive side focusing on the Austrian side of the Brenner line, while the other side focuses on the Italian side.

Exploring the line

I’ve often considered the Austrian segment of the Brenner Line of the best train-watching spots in Austria — that few people outside of Austria know about.

The Austrian segment from Innsbruck to Brennaro/Brenner is only 37 km (23 miles), but it probably has as much scenery per kilometer as any line anywhere. The uphill grade on the Austrian side is 2.25 per cent — quite steep for a mainline. Trains take about half an hour to get from Innsbruck to the Italian border, with locals stopping at many small villages. (But these stops are fairly brief, so be ready to get off, if you plan to do so.)

Why is the line not that well known? Many tourists traveling between major cities in Germany or Austria and Venice do so on night trains. Many railfans visiting western Austria, including those staying in Innsbruck, opt instead to travel on and photograph the better known Arlberg line to the west of Innsbruck, headed toward Switzerland.


This photo from 1994 at St. Jodok am Brenner clearly shows the 2.25 per cent grade up to the Italian border. The Europa Bridge of the Autobahn is visible at far left. The so-called corridor train is headed through Italy back into Austria. In the era before multi-system locomotives, this train will have to change locomotives at Brenner/Brennaro, with the Austrian locomotive then heading back to Innsbruck.

But, the Arlberg line probably has as high a traffic density as any line in Austria, in part to its role as a connector between Germany and Italy.

As the Italian railways have a different electrical system from Austria, many trains still change locomotives at Brennaro/Brenner. That station has tracks with both the Austrian AC system and the Italian DC system. Austrian EMUs that terminate there are routed onto tracks with the Austrian electrical system.

Non-multi-system AC locomotives from Austria and Germany are routed onto tracks with the Italian system. They enter the station with their pantographs down and coast to a stop. They are uncoup0led and an Italian switcher pulls them from their train and kicks them onto a track with the Austrian electrical system.

Of course with the increased availability of multi-system locomotives capable of operating under both AC and DC, some trains no longer need to change locomotives.


Because of the grade up to the pass on the Austrian side — the grade on the Italian side is much, much less — most uphill trains (including those with multi-system locomotives) get a helper uphill. These sometimes accumulate at the crest of the pass — and then typically descend to Innsbruck in locomotive-only trains of two to five locomotives.

As modern electric locomotive can provide sufficient dynamic braking for most downhill trains, the helpers are not needed downhill, though during very heavy traffic periods, an extra engine or two may be tacked onto a downhill train to save an extra train movement.

Related articles

I’ve already focused on the Brenner line in two previous posts to this Blog.

  • One focused on the first real Austrian Brenner Locomotives, multi-system locomotives developed for a project that never came to fruition.
  • .The second looks at how a photograph can provide valuable pointers about Alpine Scenery.

So, I won’t repeat the content of those posts. But, I do encourage you to look at the images with them.

The Base Tunnel

Within a decade, however, the Brenner Line is slated to become a local-traffic only commuter line. From both the Austrian and Italian side, workers are building the Brenner Base Tunnel. That tunnel will have two distinctive features:

  • Combined with the  Innsbruck bypass freight train tunnel (which is already in use) and to which the new line will link underground, this will become the world’s longest railroad tunnel at 64 km..
  • The tunnel (planned completion 2025) will have underground junctions at both ends. One will be near Innsbruck, where the line from the Innsbruck passenger station will join the existing Innsbruck bypass tunnel. The other will be at Fortezza/Franzensfeste where the line will split between the route south to Venice and the route going back into southern Austria.


This excerpt from a 2005 map (included in the main Austrian passenger train schedule book) shows the line south from Innsbruck over the Brenner pass — and the route that will be bypassed by the base tunnel. (also note the connection back into southern Austria).

You can be almost certain that when the Brenner Base Tunnel is completed and does open, Austria will have a special locomotive scheme to commemorate the event. Meanwhile, you can look forward to the models of the current Brenner commemorative locomotive.


Wikipedia has lengthy articles about both the Brenner Line and the Brenner Base Tunnel, if you are looking for more technical details.


As always, comments are welcome.


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