The Slow Side of the Danube


The following article was marketed to newspaper travel sections in 1995, based on a trip I made in 1993. It covers much the same area of Austria as my earlier Blog article, “Chasing a train by train,” which focused on a preserved steam locomotive operating in this area. The following article no longer represents the current status of the line. See the Postscript for additional information. When I had a Web site devoted to my freelance writing and photography business, the following article was included as one of several samples of my work. What follows is the version of the article that was on my site, with only minor formatting changes.


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Austrian class 5047 diesel railcar at Spitz an der Donau, Austria.

The Slow Side of the Danube

By Ernest H. Robl

Late afternoon sunlight glistened on the grape vines that stretched up the hillside towards a castle ruin on my right and off the ripples on the Danube River to my left.

But, the group of schoolgirls a few meters away weren’t interested in either of those sights; they were giggling about one of those things that only teenage girls could understand.

After all, they traveled this route every weekday and didn’t even find it amusing that, when the self-propelled railcar we shared hooted its horn before entering a tunnel, a towboat on the nearby river mistook the sound for a greeting — and responded with a toot on its own horn.

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View of the Danube from the open window of a class 5047 diesel railcar traveling the Wachau route in Austria. You actually see more of the Danube and the surrounding rolling hills from the train as the railroad route is usually slightly above the nearby road, whose view is often blocked by trees.

There were only a dozen of us aboard the modern railcar that serves rural regions of Austria as a combination school bus, commuter service, and carrier of express goods and mail, stopping nearly every three to four kilometers for another small town. Among the passengers that afternoon, I was probably the only non-local — which was a shame, because, with windows open on both sides, anyone could fully enjoy (and photograph) the vistas that appeared around every turn.

Very few people would argue that you could see much of any country by traveling only major highways.

Yet, I often encounter those who go to Europe, riding only mainline trains between the big cities, thinking that they are actually seeing something of the country that they are being whisked through at increasingly faster speeds.

The irony is that many of these travelers use Eurail or other time passes. And, these passes are equally as valid for branch lines as for the heavily-traveled routes that get you from one major city to another without seeing anything between.

Following the Danube

On the south side of the Danube in Austria, trains rush between Vienna and Salzburg at 160 kilometers per hour. Soon the speeds will be even greater as new track bypassing curvy sections is completed. Yet, these curving sections wound along the scenic equally curving shore of the Danube. So, you will go faster and see less. Most of the rolling stock on this line consists of climatized cars on which you cannot open windows.

Of course, there’s still the lesser known rail line on the north shore of the Danube, through the hilly wine-growing region known as the Wachau. There, the trains achieve only brief bursts of 80 kilometers per hour and take as much as three hours to cover 120 kilometers.

On these trains, you can not only open windows, but also wave to hikers, bikers, and even to towboats and barges on the nearby Danube. Nearly all of the 120 kilometers between Krems and St. Valentin that constitute timetable route 81 of the Austrian Federal Railways do run within sight of the Danube.

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Visitors to this restaurant at Spitz can enjoy both traffic on the Danube and their meals on this awning-covered balcony.

And these tracks also wind along vineyards, through dozens of small towns clustering around spotless churches, and below the ruins of medieval castles. You can take all this in from your open window, and, if the fancy strikes you, alight in the next town and check out these details on foot.

The number 81 timetable [a different timetable now applies!] lists nearly three-dozen stations in those 120 kilometers between Krems and St. Valentin, so there’s one convenient about every three kilometers. Not all trains stop at each of these, but most do.

If you do detrain, you can linger for as long or as short a time as you want. Within half an hour, or at most an hour, you will find another train to take you onward — either in the direction that you were going previously or back in the direction from which you came.

Trains? Well, if you’ve only spent time on mainlines, these won’t be the trains you are used to. Although a few trains are hauled by diesel locomotives — and on special occasions even by historic steam locomotives — most of the trains on this line consist of a single self-propelled diesel railcar.

While this is very much a secondary line, don’t expect old run-down equipment, however. The typical train on this line features a class 5047 diesel railcar, a series that came into its own in the late 1980s.

The branch line savior

On the Austrian Federal Railways, this unassuming but effective piece of rolling stock (operated by a single driver-conductor) is called the “branch-line savior.” It kept passenger transportation viable for many secondary lines which might otherwise have been abandoned.

So, how do you find you way onto this route? The route makes for a perfect day trip from either Vienna or Salzburg.

I most recently made this trip from St. Pölten, a city an hour’s travel time west of Vienna on that busy Vienna-Salzburg mainline. (St. Pölten was a convenient base for trips around central Austria and less expensive than staying in Vienna.)

From St. Pölten, trains leave at least one per hour for Krems, on the north side of the Danube, a distance of 31 km that the trains cover in about half an hour with several stops in small towns. (Between St. Pölten and Krems, you’re heading north on a secondary line, Austrian timetable route 11, through some pleasant, if unspectacular scenery.)

You can also leave from Vienna’s West station (Westbahnhof) and change trains at St. Pölten or leave from Vienna’s Franz Josephs Bahnhof (FJB), with a train directly to Krems that takes an hour and crosses to the north side of the Danube at Tulln.

The drawback in the latter cases is that trains on the secondary line Vienna FJB-Krems (timetable route 80) don’t run as often, and a departure from the much larger Vienna West station with a change at St. Pölten may be more convenient.

From Salzburg, take the mainline towards Vienna — there are several trains per hour during most of the day — and change trains at St. Valentin, the western connection point. (Make sure the train stops at St. Valentin — some express trains don’t. If not, change in Linz to a Linz-St. Valentin local.)

Regardless of where you join route 81, however, and regardless in which direction you travel, keep in mind that a seat on the south side of the train provides views of the Danube. Most of the time, however, the railcars on this line are not crowded, and you can freely move from one to the other.

Virtually all of the towns along this route are so small that you can check out their sights with half an hour or less of walking at a moderate pace. Each features small inns and restaurants, usually with views of the Danube. Many also provide an opportunity to change to a Danube steamer. (In this case, keep in mind that upstream travel — going west — is much slower than travel with the current headed east.)

There are few bridges that span the Danube, but many towns have ferries that connect with the opposite shore. These ferries may be worth a round trip, if only to see a different perspective of the terrain you’ve been traveling through.

Along the route

What’s along this line? If you travel from east to west, beginning at Krems, these are highlights you will encounter:

Krems is a railroad junction where secondary lines from four directions come together in the center of town.

Though its historic section includes an ornate parish church and other structures dating back to the 13th century, Krems, the eastern anchor of the wine-growing Wachau region, is best known among Austrians because of a strange pun which includes the names of its two adjoining towns — Stein and Und. “Und” is the German word for and, which results in the saying, “Krems, Und (and) Stein are three towns.”

Dürnstein (7 km west of Krems), where Richard the Lionhearted, King of England, was imprisoned in the castle on his return from the third Crusade (due to an earlier altercation with the Duke of Austria, Leopold V), is the best known town in the region — for both historic and contemporary reasons.

Inns and open-air restaurants featuring local wines abound. The baroque church is an excellent example of 16th century ornamentation. And, with a moderate round-trip hike of less than an hour, you can reach the ruins of the castle, from which you have a spectacular view of the town and Danube valley.

(If you travel by automobile, you won’t see much, as the modern Danube road goes under the town in a tunnel.)

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Vineyards at the town of Weissenkirchen in der Wachau seen from the train as it loops its way around the town dominated by the white church that gives it its name.

Weissenkirchen (13 km west of Krems) offers vineyards climbing nearby hillsides and a large church surrounded by medieval fortifications. Trains provide particularly good views of this town (look out the right or north side after the Weissenkirchen station stop) since the tracks curve around the town in a semi-circle.

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Quaint architecture and and brilliant colors abound along the Danube. This building houses the agency offices of the first Danube steamship company in Spitz.

Spitz (19 km west of Krems) is the termination point for some trains that don’t cover the entire Krems-St. Valentin route. A town of less than 3,000, it also has castle ruins and historic structures.

The Danube shore — lined by inns and restaurants, and featuring a landing stage for Danube steamers (and a ferry to the opposite shore) — is an easy walk from the vine-covered station.

Emmersdorf (36 km west of Krems) is most remarkable for its views of the giant baroque abbey of Melk which dominates the opposite (south) shore of the Danube. A bridge connects Emmersdorf to the town of Melk, where you can board trains on the mainline to Vienna.

Marbach-Maria Taferl (51 km west of Krems) not only provides access to Danube steamers but also a view of one of Austria’s best known churches high on a hillside overlooking the Danube. Marbach clings to the Danube shore; Maria Taferl, with its pilgrimage church, perches on the hilltop and is accessible by either a winding path that climbs the slope (about 2 km) or an equally winding road with local bus service.

Grein-Bad Kreuzen (81 km west of Krems) is a popular excursion destination from Vienna. Historic steam trains, when they operate on this line, terminate here since the station has more tracks than those of other nearby towns, allowing switching maneuvers and providing a place for the train to be serviced without impeding through trains.

Grein also has castle ruins and the usual complement of Danube-view restaurants and inns. West of Grein, the terrain becomes less hilly.

Mauthausen (112 km west of Krems), the last major town before the rail line crosses the Danube and rejoins the east-west main line, reflects the darker past of the region. It is the site of a World War II concentration camp, the remains of which can be toured during most of the year.

Trains from rail route 81 terminate at St. Valentin (120 km west of Krems), from where you can take express trains to Vienna or Salzburg, each about one and a half hours away.

Tourist friendly

With the exception of Krems and St. Valentin, most of the towns in between have populations under 3,000. They are tourist-friendly with reasonable — if not necessarily luxurious — accommodations available.

With most trains stopping at virtually every small town, and towns only three kilometers apart, you can easily hike the Danube shore from one town to the next. If wider vistas appeal more, hike up one of the many paths on nearby hillsides. Bicycle rentals are available in some towns.

Or, if you are content to let the train do the work, just watch the scenery and Danube flow past. I’ve been going to the region since my parents first took me there as a small child, and on each trip, I still discover new sights.

When my travels take me back to Austria, I’ll again make a side trip to the Wachau region on the north shore of the Danube — if only to slow down and catch my breath for a day.

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Postscript

Much has changed — at least in relation to railroads — in this region since the article was written.

The line described above has now been largely privatized and is operated with second-hand diesel multiple unit (DMU) cars that the new owner bought from Germany.

(Important note: “Private” railroads in Austria — and some other European countries — are actually primarily owned and operated by local and regional governments, as is the case here.)

While the current operations still serve commuters and school children, much of the traffic is seasonal, with more trains operated during the summer.  And, the towns are still quaint and off the main tourist path.

Modeling

This with its small closely spaced stations, this branch line is ideal for modeling purposes, regardless of what era you model. In the steam era, it was worked by smaller tank engines, though diesel railcars provided most passenger service by the post-WW II era.

In the early 1990s, this line was one of the last holdouts of the Austrian class 2045 diesel, a post-WW II road switcher that was based largely on an American WW II military diesel locomotive. Roco has offered various HO versions of the 2045 for either Era 3 or 4 — and, as of 2016, offered a digital start set with one of these diesels. These locomotives were built between 1952 and 1955 as Austria’s first postwar diesel. They were retired in 1993, though seven of the 20 locomotives in this series are preserved, with most of those in operable condition. (So, one of these diesels would still be appropriate to a modern museum or nostalgia operation.)

After the retirement of the class 2045 and until privatization in the 21st century, a variety of other Austrian diesels worked on this line. Freight traffic was minimal during most of the line’s history, with the primary commodity being harvested timber being hauled to other parts of Austria. On a few occasions, the line saw substantial detour traffic, when other lines in the area were impacted by natural disasters.

The 5047 railcar (and its cousin, the 5147) has been produced by various European manufacturers in both HO and N scales, in several paint schemes. I own a version by Kleinbahn in HO. Unfortunately it was produced during a time when Kleinbahn had problems with the zinc alloy used for its metal castings, and the frame is broken, making the model inoperable. I will likely invest in a new version of the 5047 for passenger service on the branchline of my layout, though I haven’t decided yet which paint scheme to select.

A full 100 copies of the prototype 5047 railcars were built between 1987 and 1995, with some other railroads also buying this Austrian design. Though replaced on some lines with newer DMU trains with higher capacities, most of the Austrian 5047 railcars are still in service in the early 21st century. So, these models would still fit a contemporary layout.

The class 5147 consisted of two single-ended 5047 cars semi-permanently coupled together. Austria bought ten of these but has since sold them to private railways. A problem with one half of a 5147 set normally meant that both had to be taken out of service. On the other hand, if there was sufficient demand, two 5047 cars could always be coupled together and run by a single operator — just with no ability of passenger to go from one car to another while the train is moving.

While the 5047 (and 5147) was theoretically capable of hauling either a standard passenger car or freight car, as it has standard UIC couplers, this rarely happened, mostly in some early tests. The reasons for this were that, with another car attached, this negated the ability of the railcar to quickly change directions at the end of its run — and due to union and safety regulations. When the car hauled a trailer, a switchman had to be on duty in the destination station to uncouple and, if necessary, recouple the trailing car. The most common trailer for the 5047 was a boxcar configured as a bicycle transport car. This typically happened when a large bicycle group chartered a train with a 5047 to a particular destination, such as one of the towns along the Danube.

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