On my previous visits to Vienna, I always arrived at the West Station (Westbahnhof) — except for the first time, when I arrived in a folding boat (sort of like a kayak) on the Danube River.
But this time (in 2016) the train from Frankfurt arrived at the new Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), which was built from 2007 to 2015 on the site of the old South Station. This new station brings together four major railway lines, coming into Vienna from four different directions. The new station has twelve tracks for passenger trains, on two different levels. All twelve tracks are through tracks, meaning none of them end here. There are two underground tracks for suburban trains (S-Bahn). The other ten tracks are above ground (one flight up), and are numbered 3 through 12.
Preparation for the new station began in 2007, and the actual construction started in 2010. The station went into full operation in 2015, to the satisfaction of more or less everyone involved.
At the time, there were numerous soul-searching articles in the German press comparing this quick, non-controversial Austrian project with various lengthy and unpopular construction projects in Germany, like the Berlin airport and particularly Stuttgart 21, which is intended to replace Stuttgart’s well-functioning 16-track terminal station with a narrow 8-track underground stopping point. Protesters in Stuttgart have been demonstrating for decades against this project. Their 565th Monday evening demonstration is scheduled for June 7, 2021.
To explain the contrast between decades of protests in Stuttgart and the total lack of protests in Vienna, some German journalists came up with nebulous theories about the supposedly different mentalities of the two cities. But there is a much more convincing explanation, namely that the Vienna Central Station is simply a better project than Stuttgart 21. Some of the main differences are:
- The new station in Vienna has increased the city’s railway capacity and made it quicker and easier for passengers to change trains. Stuttgart 21, if it is ever finished, will reduce that city’s rail capacity by about a third and produce a drastic increase in train-changing times on some connections.
- The new platforms in Vienna are wide enough to accommodate all the passengers getting on or off the trains on both sides of the platform. The new platforms in Stuttgart will be so narrow that only five or six passengers will fit between the two tracks, with hardly any space to move around.
- The new tracks and platforms in Vienna are level, whereas the ones in Stuttgart will be at such a slant that one end of a long ICE train will be six meters higher than the other end, that’s the height of a two-story building. This sort of slanted station is normally against the law, for good reasons: trains can start to roll away, as can wheeled suitcases and baby carriages.
- The new station in Vienna was completed on schedule without any drastic cost overruns. Stuttgart 21 is more than thirteen years behind schedule, and has already cost many times more than its original budget.
The train I took to Vienna was a direct InterCityExpress (ICE) from Frankfurt by way of Würzburg, Nürnberg, Regensburg, Passau, Wels, Linz and St. Polten. Currently (as of 2021) there are five of these direct trains per day in each direction.
These trains take about seven hours to cover the distance of just over 600 km. This is not fast, by European standards, because the route consists mainly of conventional tracks, not high-speed tracks like those from Frankfurt to Cologne or Paris. But the trains are comfortable and they do have restaurant cars, so I am always happy to travel this way.
My photos in this post are from 2016. I revised the text in 2021.