Early beginnings

Early beginnings

 By Ernest H. Robl


People ask me how I first became interested in railroads—and, of course, model railroads. On reflection in recent years, I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the credit goes to one person, my great aunt Poldi.



When I was a very young child in Vienna, Austria, in the late 1940s, there wasn’t much to keep a kid entertained. Much of the city was heavily damaged from WW II—and most people had very little money. My parents were living with my maternal grandparents in a very small apartment. My parents had lost their own apartment due to bombing at the end of the war, and there was an extreme housing shortage.

Both my parents were gone during much of the day. My father was completing his Ph.D. in physics and my mother was teaching typing and shorthand at a business school. To give my grandparents time to themselves, my great aunt Leopoldine (“Poldi”), my maternal grandmother’s sister, took me around nearby parts of the city, first in a stroller and then walking.

Several blocks away, there was a small freight yard, where a small steam switcher, probably a Gölsdorf-designed 0-6-0 or 0-8-0, sorted cars for nearby industries and warehouses. The yard was in a slight depression or valley. And my great aunt quickly discovered she could just perch me on a low wall on the sidewalk that overlooked the yard—and I would be happy for hours watching the engine run back and forth.

I was probably five years old, when the crew, which had become used to seeing me on that wall, one day stopped at the bottom of the embankment. One of the crewmembers clambered up the slope. He carried me down the embankment and hoisted me up into the cab. I rode a few hundred yards to a water column, where the engine took on water. A few minutes later, the crew brought me back to my great aunt. That was my first locomotive cab ride. (My grandparents or parents probably would not have let me into the engine, but my great aunt was always the most adventurous of all my relatives.)


My first model train

It was while we were still living with my grandparents that I received my first model train.

It came at Christmas, when we were still living with my grandparents, and it was a 3-rail O-scale Austrian tinplate set from a company called Ditmar (comparable to and actually compatible with American Lionel). I’m sure my great aunt had at least some influence on the selection of that gift.

(Austrian Christmas tradition is that children are sent away briefly on Christmas Eve, while parents set out the gifts and decorate the tree. During the first few years of my life, it was always Poldi who took on the task of entertaining me while the frantic Christmas preparations took place.)

My train set grew by some cars and accessories the next Christmas, after we had moved to an apartment in a new housing development on the far southern outskirts of Vienna. We lived just across the street from the then end of a streetcar line – and only a couple of blocks from the railroad belt line that connected several of the main lines that radiated out from the center of Vienna.

If I hung far out enough from our 2nd floor window, I could see trains passing by. Actually, many of the trains consisted of light engine movements between various terminals. That belt line had not yet been electrified so almost everything was powered by steam. By then I knew enough to realize that some engines were tank engines and others had tenders (mostly class 52 Kriegslok examples).

My parents never had a car prior to the time we moved to the United States in late 1955, so everywhere we went was by public transportation. Streetcar trips to the center of Vienna or to see either of my grandparents took about an hour.

After my father began earning a little more money, we went on several vacations, as far as northern Italy – all by train, of course, some accompanied by Poldi. My mother continued to teach at the business school during that time, and several times took me along on class excursions with her students out into the Austrian countryside – all by train, of course. I was six or seven at that time and remember running circles around her students – all more than a decade older than me – on hikes.

But, most of all, I enjoyed the train trips.


Other priorities

When we arrived in the U.S. in 1955, we landed at a military airport near New York city – my father came to the U.S. under a program to recruit promising European scientists for the U.S. government – and traveled to North Carolina by train.

Though I always maintained some interest in railroads – I did get some Lionel equipment to supplement my Austrian tinplate set – for several decades other things took priority.

Between graduation from high school and starting college, I worked as an intern at the local newspaper, and one of my major projects was a full-page feature on the local shortline railroad.

After graduating from college and both before and after my two years in the U.S. Army, I worked for the news service United Press International (UPI), where I managed to cover several major rail related stories, particularly after I was UPI bureau manager in Charlotte, N.C.

Even during my time in the Army, where I spent nearly a year in Vietnam, I managed to finagle a ride on a Vietnamese train in 1970, which I turned into a magazine article years later.


Rekindled interest

But, it was during the late 1970s – after I had been married and divorced – that my interest in European railroads was rekindled.

By that time, my only remaining close relatives (both my parents were only children, and I was an only child) were my paternal grandmother and my great aunt Poldi. Infirmities had forced my grandmother to move to a retirement home, but Poldi had relocated to a new apartment near the Danube, despite being quite elderly at that point.

So, on a couple of trips, I stayed with her, sleeping on her sofa, visiting my grandmother, and making train trips around Austria. As a youngster, she had entertained me with stories of her adventures. Now, the roles were reversed and I would tell her about the trips I had made.

When Poldi died in the early 1980s, my father inherited her apartment in Vienna. He kept that apartment for several years, until the long-distance upkeep from the U.S. became too complicated.

But, during that time, my father and I both made individual trips to Vienna, at least annually. The times that I stayed in that apartment on the outskirts of Vienna, near the Danube, my routine almost every day was to get up early, take a streetcar to one of the major train stations and then head out on trips around Austria (with a two-week Eurail pass). I’d usually return to Vienna late in the evening, eating dinner at one of the station restaurants, before taking the streetcars back to the apartment.

It was during those later trips that both my father and I independently began acquiring HO scale models of Austrian trains as souvenirs.



It was also during some of these trips in the late 1970s and 1980s that I ran into some real luck. I had contacted the public relations office of the Austrian Railways (ÖBB), and, after an initial visit to their office in Vienna, they provided the first of several “L” permits, which allowed me to ride on locomotives and also provided access to facilities not open to the public.

The then manager of the PR office somehow took a liking to me. I was an American journalist who spoke fluent German and had a strong interest in railroads. In addition to that, I was very safety conscious, and I am sure they never had any complaints about my behavior at the facilities I visited or from the engineers I rode with.

I never got a huge amount of material published on the Austrian railways, but it was enough. And I always sent them clippings of the material I did manage to get published.

I did my homework, and read everything I could on railroad developments in Austria – including thick packets of material given and sent to me by the ÖBB press office.

So, on subsequent trips, I usually just had to let them know when I would be in Austria and pick up my blanket access pass when I arrived – something that would be totally unheard of today.

(On later trips, I ranged further afield, getting engine rides on French TGV and German ICE trains – all helped by my previous experience with the ÖBB.)


Other influences

So, my great aunt stoked my interest in railroads both early and even after her death. But, there were also other influences.

My paternal grandfather, who was a jeweler/watchmaker by trade (for which there was little use in war-damaged Vienna) was a streetcar motorman for several years in the early 1950s. When he suffered a stroke late in life, he turned to model railroading as a form of therapy to help get some of his dexterity back.

My maternal grandfather was an avid amateur photographer all his life and had hiked into the Alps with a glass-plate camera when he was young. When he died, I inherited my first good camera, a folding Zeiss that shot 6x9cm 120 roll-film negatives. It was after I got that camera that—in junior high (middle) school, I learned how to develop film and make prints.

On a variety of Internet searches, I have encountered people named Robl who appear to have at least some interest in railroads — so it’s apparently genetic.

My late father, a brilliant scientist, would never admit to being a railfan, but would go to the Vienna Technical Museum (with its then large railroad equipment collection, since mostly moved elsewhere) on visits to Vienna. And, when I brought by railroad magazines with one of my articles or photos, he would ask me to leave them for a few days. Subsequent discussions revealed that he had read them from cover to cover.

Once, in his later years, we got into a detailed discussion on the relative energy efficiency of the French TGV and German ICE high-speed trains, showing that he had done considerable reading on the subject.

Some of the Austrian prototype HO model equipment I now have sitting on my bookshelves was equipment that he first purchased for himself and which he had on his bookshelves.


Remembering Poldi

But, when Christmas comes around, and I think of the beginnings of my interest in railroads, it’s great aunt Poldi that I think of.

Want to know one of the great ironies about my great aunt Poldi? Her married name (I never knew her husband) was Fleischmann, though I’ve never owned any Fleischmann model equipment myself. Maybe one of these days, if I can find a Fleischmann model of a small Era III Austrian switcher, I will add it to my collection in her memory.



One Response to Early beginnings

  1. Stephen Karikas says:

    Your articles brought back a lot of memories. One of my favorite ones is riding trains all over Austria after the War – could not buy much then as not much was available. But travel, especially by trains, was an inexpensive form of entertainment. Went all over but never did get down to Graz. I still have to make that trip one of these days.

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