Tramtastic Vienna

Boston Globe

It’s 15 minutes after touchdown at Vienna International Airport. But instead of searching for a pricey taxi or wedging my bag onto a crowded bus, I’m gazing at the unfolding cityscape from a comfortable seat on what may be the smoothest train ride I’ve ever experienced.

 

City Airport Train (or the CAT as everyone calls it) takes 16 minutes to zip nonstop to central Wien and it’s an ideal, stress-free way to slide into town. It’s also an indication that the Austrian capital – like many European cities – takes its transportation very seriously.

 

But that’s been the case in this historic metropolis for decades – as I discover the next morning.

 

Colonizing a redbrick former tram depot built in 1901, Vienna’s new Transport Museum opened in mid-September. Replacing a smaller attraction focused only on trams, the new site adds buses and subway trains to its 54-strong collection of local transit vehicles – plus some intriguing background stories.

 

I spend two giddy hours – yes, I was a childhood Thomas the Tank Engine fan – weaving between the perfectly-preserved vehicles, most painted in the shiny red livery of the city’s Wiener Linien transit authority. The collection, stretching back to the mid-19th-century, reflects Vienna’s tumultuous past.

 

There’s a rickety 1868 horse-drawn tram – the earliest iteration of public transit here – plus a hulking, next-generation steam-powered tram that was noisy, dangerous and showered locals with smoke. But it wasn’t until electrification at the end of the 1800s that Vienna’s modern-day system began taking shape.

 

Electrified trams – there are dozens displayed here – were soon the backbone of a multi-tentacled network that included buses and trains. I pull myself up the steps of one 1920s example, finding a sparse, wooden-bench interior that elevated functionality way beyond comfort. Then I spot a larger, streamlined vehicle nearby that seems oddly familiar.

 

A sleek, 1940s New York streetcar, it’s one of dozens that were imported to rebuild Vienna’s broken transit system under the post-WWII Marshall Plan. Peering through its windows, I find an interior of wide, thickly-padded seats that must have appeared incredibly decadent to Viennese transit users of the time.

 

War, of course, impacted the city’s transit system more than anything.

 

Via videos and English information panels, I learn that the Nazis shrouded local trams and train stations with propaganda hoardings and planners had to start from scratch after WWII reduced the network to just nine buses. It wasn’t until 1978 – decades behind other capitals – that Vienna finally launched an underground subway system.

 

This five-line U-Bahn network is still being expanded today. After perusing the museum’s lone 1960s double-decker bus – they were quickly retired after locals rejected them – I board a mothballed U-Bahn carriage exhibit. These silberpfeil (silver arrow) subway trains have changed little since 1978 and this one only recently retired.

After testing my train driving skills in a nearby simulator – let’s just say I’m not a natural – I’m suddenly ready for the real thing. Departing the museum, I head to the nearest U-Bahn station, validating my transit day pass via a ticket punch machine at the entrance. Hopping the U3 line – Vienna’s subway is color-coded and easy to follow – I’m soon in the city’s historic heart.

A circular boulevard of baroque palaces and grand museums, visitors to the Ringstrasse often circumnavigate it on the dedicated, yellow-painted tourist trams. But since the 30-minute narrated ride is a pricey 8 euros ($10), I deploy my transit pass instead, hopping on and off some regular trams with the locals. Tram services 1, 2 and D come and go frequently around the circuit and within an hour I’ve completed the loop.

It’s time to trundle further. Most trams run in each direction along the same roads, so exploring the network is easy: if you’ve gone far enough, just hop off, cross the road and board the next tram heading back to your starting point.

Randomly selecting the number 41, I’m soon rattling past antique apartment buildings, pedestrians buzzing between appointments and a couple of busy Spar supermarkets. My fellow passengers are mostly phone-hunched students and well-coiffed elderly ladies heading home from lunch – not a tourist in sight.

I hop off when I see the lion, though. Now part of the U-Bahn subway system, Wahringer-Strasse station was built when pre-WWI Vienna had grandiose plans for a huge new city train system. Only a few elegant stations were built – think leonine statues, marble floors and vaulted ceiling – and now they’re just faded reminders of what might have been.

 

Hopping the next tram back to where I started, I’m soon wandering along the Ringstrasse again before a sudden rainfall pushes me down a sidewalk stairway into the nearest U-Bahn subway station. Rush hour is approaching and the train is already crammed with weary-eyed Viennese.

 

This silver arrow looks just like its museum counterpart: orange-painted interior, seats upholstered in carpet-like blue material and old-fashioned stickers indicating seats for disabled or elderly passengers: the senior in one sticker looks exactly like a pension-age Sigmund Freud, one of Vienna’s most illustrious former residents.

 

But there are no empty seats on this train, whether or not I look like Freud. In fact, although I try to blend in with the locals – I can avoid eye contact better than anyone – it’s not long before I betray my out-of-town ignorance.

 

Older U-Bahn trains have clunky door handles that must be jerked sharply before they’ll open. Fumbling the operation at my intended stop and then glancing around like a trapped rabbit, a fellow passenger quickly steps forward and wordlessly flicks open the door so I can escape. The train has already departed before I can mumble my thanks.

 

Back outside – the rain now replaced by a watery sunset that illuminates the city’s breathtaking antique buildings – I find myself standing in front of the multicolumned Austrian Parliament. A convoy of trams trundle past taking locals home to the suburbs, but there’s also an unusual transit vehicle parked here that I haven’t seen before.

 

Flanked by flyer-wielding transit staff, these compact, zero emission ElectriCity Buses are slowly being introduced to Vienna, with several already in service. It’s the next generation of a thriving public transportation system that’s managed – despite adversity – to keep on moving for more than 150 years. I can only hope its doors are easier to open.

 

If you go:

City Airport Train (www.cityairporttrain.com) costs 19 euros ($24) return. Transit passes in 24, 48 and 72-hour versions – from 7.60 euros ($9.50) – are available online at www.wienerlinien.at, where you’ll also find transit network information. The Transport Museum (www.remise.wien) is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; adult admission is 6 euros ($7.60). The popular Vienna Card – which also offers museum and attraction discounts – costs just a few dollars more than a transit pass but also includes free transit: for details, navigate to the Vienna Pass page at www.wien.info.

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