A love letter to the Straßenbahn, Vienna’s Transport Museum offers insight into commuter habits.

Vienna has an ongoing love affair with its Straßenbahn (tramway), this red-and-white (or in its latest iteration, red-and-silver streetcar) that glides through the streets at reassuring intervals. Affectionately nicknamed Bim after the sound of its warning bells, it’s ubiquitous, and unlike the cable cars of San Francisco, still very functional, transporting more than 300 million passengers per year. The Fiaker may be more popular with tourists, but the Straßenbahn rules Vienna’s streets.

Nowhere is that affection more obvious than at the Remise, a retired train depot built in 1901 that’s so picturesque it would be the pride of any model train set. Now home to Vienna’s Transport Museum, its three tall brick garages are filled with nearly two centuries’ worth of historic streetcars, buses and even a subway. Timetables, video clips and a multilingual audio guide show how the logistics of Vienna’s streets changed and affected people’s lives in the city.

The museum also features a subway simulator as well as a small play area where children can build their own wooden Bim. In addition, 30 historic cars remain functional and can be rented, with full access to Vienna’s vast 225 km of urban railway network.

Operated by the Wiener Linien (Vienna’s public transit authority), the Remise was originally the Vienna Tramway Museum, which still exists and owns 83% of the exhibits. Founder Helmut Portele and designer Dr. Christian Rapp conceived 17 topical booths that give a chronology of Viennese public transport. Sure enough, the first half is dedicated entirely to the Straßenbahn.

There’s a stately 19th-century open horse tram and a bulky black Krauss steam tramway, followed by a breathtaking collection of the first electric streetcars, such as the 1900 Type D, also called Der Spätzünder (The Late Bloomer). Its aesthetic beauty and intricate exterior make it seem more like fin de siècle artwork than a mass transit vehicle.

Defining the Cityscape

“Back in the day, they didn’t build these things for utility,” Portele said, pointing at the stunning Jugendstil carpentry of a 1927 Type M streetcar. “This was all designed by one man, Otto Wagner, and it was built for eternity.” Although not quite that enduring, the Type M would remain in service for half a century until 1979.

Trams defined Vienna for so long, because they had little competition: It wasn’t until the postwar period that an increasing number of buses, such as the legendary Type DD2 FU double decker, replaced many streetcars. In addition, the Stadtbahn, a forerunner of the U6 and Schnellbahn light rail, got revamped in the 1960s before a purpose-built subway system, which is still expanding today, finally began operating in 1978. The U-Bahn may be faster and buses more versatile, but the Bim remained steadfast in Viennese hearts.

“These exhibits document technical know-how” Elisabeth Portele, wife of Helmut and the Tramway Museum’s chief financial officer, said. “They tell history, too. But what I think people should know is that the Viennese share a strong emotional bond with their streetcars.” Indeed, legendary singer-songwriter Wolfgang Ambros landed a hit with his 1978 song Schaffnerlos (conductor-less), lamenting the decision to replace tramway conductors with ticket vending machines. The human cost of automation is always grim, but it struck a particular chord with the Viennese when it affected their trams.

Then again, love isn’t explainable. “Riding a streetcar is a feeling” Reinhard Hirczy, a Tramway Museum volunteer and conductor in training, said. “It’s hard to put into words. Streetcars are the pulse of Vienna.”

3., Ludwig-Koeßler-Platz. Wed 9:00-18:00, Sat & Sun 10:00-18:00. remise.wien

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