The Big Screwdrivers …

The Big Screwdrivers …

And other memories of Vienna transit

By Ernest H. Robl

My parents never owned a car until we came to the United States in the second half of 1955, just before I turned nine years old. So, all my trips around Vienna until that time — and on subsequent visits — were by public transit, mostly streetcars.


The streetcars that my paternal grandfather operated were either this type or another very similar pre-war type. These cars were still operating in the 1970s, when this photo was made at the Prater transit hub. At that time, these cars still had an onboard conductor, who is riding on the front step as this car arrives at its stop. (The car has been slightly modernized with the addition of a regular pantograph, in place of the Lyra collector with which they were originally equipped.)

One of my strongest memories from my younger days, relating to streetcars comes from 1956, and requires some set-up.

The long set-up

I’ve already mentioned that my parents and I came to the U.S. in 1955. Well, the offer that the U.S. goverment had made my father, a physicist, was that we would come over for a year, and if we did not like it in the United States, we had the option of returning to Austria (at the U.S. government’s expense) at the end of that year.

(Keep in mind that I was very young at that time, and that this was very long ago, so I’m relating the details as best as I can remember them or as they were related by my parents when I was older.)

Shortly before we came to the U.S., my parents finally got their own apartment, at the far southern outskirts of Vienna. (Due to war damage, there was an extreme housing shortage, and my first years, my parents and I lived with my maternal grandparent, in a fairly small apartment, something I mentioned in an earlier blog, Early Beginnings.)

As my parents were not absolutely sure that we would stay in the U.S. permanently, they were not about to give up their apartment. That meant that they left most of their belongings behind, and that we lived in a furnished apartment in the U.S. during that first year.

Well, obviously we decided to stay, and that meant that someone had to go back to Austria to arrange for the shipping of the furniture, disposal of some items, and the closing of the apartment. As this involved all sorts of legal complexities, it would take several months to sort out. That meant that my mother would need to go back, as it would have been impossible for my father to take the time off from work. Because my father was also doing a considerable amount of travel for his work, that meant that I would go back to Austria with my mother.

I had attended fourth grade in the U.S., during which time I learned English in about three months. (I have very little memory of that time, and my mother later told me that trying to learn a new language and culture was quite traumatic — and a very unhappy time, especially in the beginning.)

Now, I would end up going back to school in Austria, for the fifth grade — another dramatic cultural shift. My mother, who had been in education herself, found me a place in a somewhat prestigious school in downtown Vienna — and not the closest school to where the apartment was. The idea was that this school would be somewhat more tolerant of whatever problems I might have not having attended fourth grade in Austria.

So, around age 10, I ended up commuting more than ten miles by streetcar to school every day.

(School buses are basically unknown in Austria. Students receive transit passes and are expected to take local transit to get to school, with only the first few grades focused on small neighborhood schools.)

I remember a lot more about riding the streetcars than I do about that school. I do recall that the transition back to going to school in German was not easy, and for a while, I ended up using the English spelling for many words that were similar in English and German.

But, to make things more interesting, my parents had also decided I needed some musical education (not provided by the school I attended), so my mother found me a piano teacher.

The normal commute involved one or two changes of streetcars; the two days a week (if I remember correctly) that I had piano lessons, there was an additional detour by streetcar in each direction.

I need to point out that I had no musical talent, whatsoever. I knew that quite early on, but, it took a long time to convince my parents.. Whatever creative talents I had were in the form of writing and photography.

So, I (and my piano teacher) suffered through the piano lessons. The only bright side was the additional side trips by streetcar on a line that I did not normally travel.

Some quick technical background

At that time, most Vienna streetcars still had conductors. They would sell you tickets or check your tickets for validity if you had transferred from another line.

These conductors would make their way through the streetcar train, and, if it consisted of several cars, change from one car to another at intermediate stops. Their duties also included throwing switches, when this was necessary at junctions.

There were several ways this could be done, but I’ll just relate the method relevant to this story.

By that time (mid 1950s) many switches were already converted to remote operation. On the newer streetcars, this could be done through the regenerative braking system as an operator approached a switch that was lined the wrong way for this particular train.

However, this was not practical at some locations, including one on the route that I took after leaving my piano lessons.

For those situations, the streetcars carried a device similar to a giant screwdriver. On the oldest cars, this device was carried on the outside. It had a T-shaped handle at the top and was about two meters long. (Look at the image at the top of this Blog article. The device can be seen in front of the front car’s diagonal corner window and in the area of the car number at the front.)

The device would be wedged into the switch points and used to snap them to their new position. (The points locked in both end positions.)

On those older cars. the idea was that the operator could open the corner window and use the long lever without leaving the car. This seldom worked out, as, first the wood-framed corner windows often stuck when not used for a while. And, using the lever from inside the car requjired stopping precisely at the right spot to apply the lever — something that was extremely difficult to do. So, in most cases, the conductor still had to get out, unhook the lever, and throw the switch.

On newer cars, introduced in the 1950s, a much smaller device was carried inside the streetcar, near the seated operator. This one was only about a meter long and had a round handle about six inches in diameter. But it had the same function. Its end was shaped like a giant screwdriver and it was wedged into the switch points to throw them.


One of my favorite places to hang out even back in the 1950s was the transit hub in downtown Vienna, diagonally across from the Opera. This was not only the turning loop for several streetcar lines but also for the interurbans of the local railway between Vienna and the suburb of Baden (The Wiener Lokalbahn, also known as the Badner Bahn, with the initials WLB.) This photo was made in the 1970s. Lilliput has an HO mode of the WLB interurban trains, which have trackage rights on the Vienna streetcar network for several miles.


By the mid 70s, the WLB had already begun adding more modern equipment. This train is crossing a temporary bridge over a construction site for the new Vienna subway, which I also rode on subsequent visits.

The big pay-off

On my streetcar trips I usually tried to sit or stand right behind the operator, so I could follow what was going on. In the trips leaving my piano lessons, I usually rode with the same crew and probably talked to them at least a little. I may have even told them that my grandfather was a streetcar motorman for a while.

Anyway, one day the streetcar was unusually crowded and the conductor was caught in a jam of passengers near the back of the car as we approached the switch that was normally lined for the wrong route. After we came to a stop, I noticed the motorman looking back for the conductor to come forward to throw the switch.

I said something along the lines of, “It’s okay,” grabbed the switch lever from its brackets, and sprinted out the door. I had seen the conductor throw the switch often enough that I knew where to insert the screwdriver-like tip of the lever. With a quick tug, I snapped the switch points into the correct position for our route.

I don’t remember what either the motorman or conductor said to me afterwards, but they certainly didn’t complain, as they let me throw the switch again on several subsequent trips.



In 1993, when I was photographing Vienna landmarks for my stock photo collection, I framed this shot of the Vienna City Hall (Rathaus) with the cars of a passing streetcar train.


All went well, until one day, the motorman failed to notice that there was an inspector (“Kontrolleur”) lurking at the back of the crowd waiting to board.

The chief role of these inspectors was to catch fare evaders, and for that reason, they usually stayed out of sight until the streetcar doors were about to close. When they boarded at that time, it was too late for those without valid tickets to try to get off.

But these inspectors also had the secondary role of monitoring the general operation of the streetcar system and making sure that employees conformed to all applicable rules and operated the streetcars in a safe manner.

When we reached the stop, I made my usual move, sprinting out the door to throw the switch points. I had already thown them and was on my way back into the car with the switch lever, when the inspector came forward. He asked me something along the lines of “What do you think you are doing?”

“Lining the correct route for the streetcar,” I said, proud of knowing the correct terminology for what I had just done.

I boarded the car with the switch lever, with the inspector right behind me. By that time both the motorman and conductor had seen what had happened and knew they were in trouble. And the inspector let them have it.

What did they think they were doing letting a kid operate streetcar equipment, the inspector wanted to know, even using a few words that I had never heard before. I’m not sure what the crew replied, but I thought that what I had done was hardly operating streetcar equipment. I knew enough not to tell the inspector that — or that by then I knew enough that I could have actually operated the streetcar.

And, that ended one of the more fun parts of that trip to Vienna.

Shortly thereafter, I convinced my mother that I reallly, really didn’t want to go to the piano lessons any longer. And that was about the time that all arrangements for shipping our belongings and closing the apartment were completed.

Though she was sad to once again leave her parents and other relatives and friends, she was more than happy to leave Vienna and Austria, for reasons I really wasn’t fully aware of back then. The fall of 1956 was the time of the Hungarian revolution. The Soviets had sent tanks into Hungary to put down that revolt — and many in Austria, including my mother, were worried that they wouldn’t stop at the Austrian border. (Today –2017 — the Hungarian railways have a locomotive in a special paint scheme to commemorate the 60th anniversary of that then unsuccessful revolution.)

The voyage home was itself memorable in many ways. My mother and I went by train to France, from where we took the S.S. United States, then the world’s fastest ocean liner, back home. But, much of that December Atlantic crossing was through a severe winter storm — so bad that the ship was a full day late getting into New York. We were told that was the only time (at least up to then) that the ship had been more than a few hours late in arriving, but that the captain had been forced to turn the bow of the ship into the waves, for fear they might roll the ship over. A lot for a ten year old kid to deal with.


Streetcars are a fascinating part of rail-based operations — and also lend themselves well to being modeled. Most streetcar equipment is designed to negotiate very sharp urban curves, and the models can operate over similarly small curves.

Many standard gauge (as is the case in Vienna) streetcar systems are interconnected with the national rail networks, though equipment seldom goes from one system to the other, because the two have quite different technical standards.

Many European model railroads include streetcars. In fact, there are modelers in Europe who focus primarily on streetcar systems.


This current Roco HO model basically reflects the red and white colors of the Vienna streetcar system, though it is not lettered for any particular system, and this model differs in some details (particularly the route number signs) from the Vienna cars of a similar type.

Many of the major model manufacturers produce at least some streetcar or interurban models. Other smaller manufacturers even focus primarily on transit models.

After long consideration, I came to the conclusion that a streetcar line just wouldn’t fit into my planned layout, so my one streetcar model, bought on a trip in 2000, will stay in its display case.


But, I do have all those interesting memories of travel around Vienna.


As always, comments are welcome.


2 Responses to The Big Screwdrivers …

  1. Gordon Preller says:

    Very interesting Ernst! I always enjoy your articles (even if I am late reading them). By the way, you transposed the 6 and the 5 in the date of the Hungarian Rising – 1965 should be 1956. I was a 6 year old Air Force brat,newly arrived at Bitburg, Germany, at that time. Totally oblivious to the situation in Hungary and to the fact that our family kept “bug-out bags” packed for the entire four years from 1956 to 1960.

  2. Ernest Robl says:


    Thanks. I’ve corrected the date. Yes, it was a matter of my fingers getting in the way of each other as I was typing.

    – Ernest

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