Austria is an interesting mountainous country wedged between the Western European countries of Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. It also borders on the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia.
Mountainous territories offer lots of technical challenges to railroad designers, as well as a high degree of danger to those who work on rail routes. Of course, it is this difficult landscape that produces the most awe-inspiring views from the window of a train car.
The three scenic rail routes described here were first built in the mid-1800s, a pioneering phase of railroad construction, and represent some of the greatest feats of civil engineering of their time.
Two of the scenic routes, the Semmering and the narrow gauge Mariazellerbahn are in eastern Austria near Vienna, the third, Arlberg, is found in western Austria near Innsbruck. The routes offer fine opportunities for hiking in the summer and skiing in the Winter.
How to Buy Tickets
Most Austrian trains are run by the state-operated Österreichische Bundesbahnen (Austrian Federal Railroad or ÖBB). There are nineteen small privately owned railroads operating primarily narrow-gauge lines.
You can buy point-to-point rail tickets and see schedules on Rail Europe. You will also find seasonal specials on rail travel there.
A number of Austria rail passes are available. For the traveler interested in scenic rail journeys, the combined Eurail Austria-Switzerland Pass is probably the most interesting, because Switzerland contains some great scenic railways, including the Bernina Express, the Centovalli Railway, the Glacier Express, and the Wilhelm Tell Express.
Austria is also included in the European East Pass, which includes the Czech Republic and Hungary, as well as the Eurail Germany/Austria Pass.
The Semmering Railroad
The Semmering Railroad, running between Gloggnitz and the winter resort town of Semmering, passes through some extraordinary Austrian mountain scenery. Built between 1848 and 1854, the Semmering is considered to be one of the greatest feats of civil engineering from this pioneering phase of railway building and was acknowledged by UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1998.
The Semmering railway line is part of the Südbahn railway that runs between Vienna and Graz, continuing on to Maribor, Ljubljana and eventually to Trieste.
Built by the Carl Ritter von Ghega between 1848 and 1854, the scenic Semmering route was quite daring for the time; it had a maximum gradient five times that of previous railways.
What You’ll See Along the Semmering Scenic Route:
16 viaducts supported by several arches
The main tunnel, 1,430 meters long, at the time, considered the most famous construction of its kind.
The Semmering railway was listed as a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1998.
Rail World Photography offers a fine Photo Tour of the Semmering Scenic Route.
Semmering has long been a mountain health resort, known for its clean air. Winter sports and Summer hiking are the top draws for the town.
The Semmering Railway site: Die Semmeringbahn.
Arlberg Scenic Train Ride
After the Semmering route was finished, engineers considered a route through the Arlberg range as part of an England to Egypt route. Construction was started in 1880 and the route finished in 1884–if you had the money, you could now take the Arlberg Orient Express from London to all the way to Bucharest.
The scenic train ride seen on the map above takes you between Innsbruck and the Lake Constance area of Switzerland.
What to Do Along the Arlberg Scenic Train Route
Arlberg is the birthplace of modern Alpine Skiing, so winter sports will top the list. But scenic routes mean the train ride is your primary entertainment.
The Mariazell Railway: Narrow Guage Scenic Route in Eastern Austria
The Mariazell Railway is a narrow-gauge track rail route running between the towns of St. Poelten and Mariazell. See this spectacular virtual tour, the Mariazell Railway.
A detailed route description of the Mariazellerbahn Scenic Route, including a detailed route map, is found on Wikipedia.