For Germans, being stuck in the traffic jam on the Brenner Pass is the time-honored way to kick off the holiday seasons. For Britons, it is probably the long queues at Heathrow airport and, if Boris Johnson gets his way, perhaps at all the other European airports as well. Austrians instead, placed as they at the heart of the continent far from the sea , are opting increasingly for the train – including for summer holiday travel.

In 2018, Austrians made 690,000 summer holiday trips by rail, according to the Mobility Club Austria (VCÖ). That’s a whopping 130,000 train more trips than the year before, an increase of more than 23%. “This year, we expect even higher numbers due to heightened ecological awareness,” said VCÖ expert Markus Gansterer. “For the first time in 35 years, the share of train trips could again exceed 10% of total summer holiday trips.”

The last time that was the case, in 1984, the dialect hit Fürstenfeld, by the Styrian trio S.T.S., topped the Austrian charts.

In the Middle

One major reason for this renewed interest in summer trips by rail is the good connections to major European cities. From Vienna, seven EU capitals can be reached by train in less than eight hours. The top three connections are Vienna-Bratislava (37 trains a day, travel time approximately 1 hour), Budapest (13 trains a day, travel time 2.5 hours) and Prague (11 trains a day, travel time 4 hours). Ljulbljana, Zagreb, Warsaw and Berlin are also reachable within a day, so are other major cities like Munich, Brno and Verona.

The Austrian Railways, the ÖBB, also revived Central Europe’s flagging night train system, as reported even as far afield as The New York Times: “Once Threatened, Europe’s Night Trains Rebound.” Cities that are reachable by night train from Austria are Venice, Firenze, Milan (and Lago di Garda), Krakow, Hamburg, Cologne, Rijeka and Bern, Zurich and Basel.

Go East, not West

Interestingly, the VCÖ sees the main bottlenecks in linking up the northern and western European rail networks. “One of the big cases of neglect by the EU and member states is that they did not upgrade rail links across international borders,” said Gansterer. “The large number of intra-European flights could be significantly reduced with a better integrated rail network.”

Poster for the Orient Express
An 1888 French poster advertises the Orient Express traveling from Paris to Constantinople via Vienna.

Today, there is no direct connection by train from Vienna to either Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Paris. To reach the French capital from the Austrian one, train travelers need to change between three and four times and travel between 16 and 20 hours in total. And yet, more than 130 years ago, when the first Express d’Orient left the Gare de l’Est in Paris on June 5, 1883, Vienna was its first and, for a while, also its final destination.

Times Gone By & Times Revived

In 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower was opened, the Orient Express traveled for the first time directly from Paris to Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, in less than 66 hours – stopping in Vienna for 20-30 minutes, after 11 hours travel time. World Wars, economic crises and the Iron Curtain disrupted the Orient Express, which was forced to change route and stops repeatedly thereafter. Still, it held out until 1977, when it stopped serving Istanbul, and 2007, when a very-much-shortened Express ran the last time from Strasbourg to Vienna, before the rise of individual mobility and cheap holiday flights killed it off.

Now, things may be changing once again. “Ever more people see the trip as a part of their holiday. We are seeing a rediscovery of traveling as an experience in itself,” noted VCÖ’s Gansterer. “That stands in stark contrast to the last 25 years, where it was all about getting to your holiday destination as quickly as possible.”

As things are going, Austria’s railways going east and west will once again knit the continent together.

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