Austria’s national railway system, like those of most other Western European nations, is modern and efficient, and it blankets almost all of the country. Two main corridors stretch from Vienna:
- West to Salzburg, and on to some combination of Innsbruck, Bregenz and Munich
- Southwest to Villach and Klagenfurt, with a short branch to Graz
Express-train service on both trunk routes operates hourly, along with local services. And international routes to Munich, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest round out the system’s highlights.
Austria’s railway, the OBB, calls its top trains “RailJets.” They routinely run at up to 230 kph (144 mph), just a hair under the nominal 240 kph that defines the bottom of the official UIC “high speed” category. OBB has only a short segment of dedicated high-speed track, for about 30 miles eastward from Vienna on the West trunk line, but the RailJets can sustain 230 kph on well-maintained legacy track as well. RailJets are basically locomotive-hauled seven-car trainsets, with reverse-direction controls in the last car. Seating standards are typical of European ling-haul trains: Second class seating is 2-2, with reasonable seat pitch; first class is 2-1, with lots of legroom.
OBB provides plenty of options for scenic rail trips. The European Rail Timetable lists 11 scenic trips within Austria or between Austria and Germany, Italy or Switzerland. I made a day trip from Vienna to Graz, partly to go over the Semmering Pass, considered the world’s first standard-gauge mountain railway and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. As with so many European mountain railways, the Semmering route offers glimpses of “where you were” far below your current position. Due to grades and curves, the 230-kph RailJet has to slow down to 40 kph at some points.
Fares and Tickets
The best way to book a ticket on an OBB train is through the official English-language site (http://www.oebb.at/en/index.jsp). The search engine is clear and intuitive. If you book in advance, you find some fares restricted to an individual train that are a lot less than standard fares. For example, a trip from Vienna to Graz in mid-February, booked now, is available on some trains for 9 euros in second class or 19 euros in first class, compared with “standard” fares of 37 euros and 65 euros, respectively. You can buy by U.S. credit or debit card and download your ticket in PDF format. You can also reserve a seat in advance, using a seating chart on some trains.
If you’re considering an extended stay in Austria, OBB offers several Vorteilscard programs that provide 50 percent discounts off otherwise-nondiscounted rates at ticket machines, 45 percent discounts at ticket counters and travel agencies, and 25 percent discounts on cross-border trains:
- Classic cards, available to anyone, for 99 euros per year.
- Family cards, proving free travel for up to four children below age 15 accompanying an adult, for 19 euros per year.
- Jugend cards for anyone below age 26 for 19 euros a year.
- Senior cards for anyone over age 62 for 29 euros a year.
These cards are available as apps for Apple and Android.
Online ordering, payment, and ticket generation are easy and efficient. By contrast, U.S.-based online rail agencies generally do not display OBB’s advance-purchase fares or handle Vorteilscards, and they typically provide only paper tickets requiring entailing and postage charges.
Most long-distance trains in and out of Vienna now use the recently updated hauptbahnhof, south of the city center and easily reached by public transit. Some local trains, however, use one of several different stations.
Along with other European countries, Austria’s OBB tracks are available to “open access” private railway competition. Austria’s main private operator is Westbahn (https://westbahn.at/) which operates hourly double-deck trains along the Vienna-Salzburg trunk line to/from Vienna’s westbahnhof rather than the main station. Last-minute tickets can be much less expensive than on OBB trains.
Vienna City Transit
Vienna’s unified transit system includes buses, trams, subways (U-Bahn), and suburban trains (S-Bahn), and tickets cover the entire system. The basic single-trip fare is 2.20 euros for travel on any system within the central zone, which includes just about anywhere you want to go other than the airport. A single-trip ticket covers changes as long as you make a continuous journey without stopovers. Discounted tickets for children (and dogs) is 1.10 euros and two-trip tickets for seniors age 60 or over are 2.80 euros. In addition, the system offers a bunch of various all day and multiday tickets and passes. Buy tickets with cash or plastic from machines at all U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, including English versions. All of the stations I visited provide some combination of street-to-platform elevators or escalators. For details, check (http://www.wienerlinien.at/eportal3/ep/tab.do?tabId=0).
Vienna’s airport offers three different rail alternatives, each of which operates every 30 minutes, and all of which use the same station, but different platforms:
- City Airport Train is a deluxe, nonstop dedicated airport train with lots of baggage space from the airport to centrally located Wien-Mitte station. The fare is 12 euros one-way, 19 euros round-trip.
- Long-haul intercity trains, mostly RailJets, operate nonstop from the airport to the hauptbahnhof, with conventional long-haul rail facilities. Airport trains go onwards to other destinations, most often on the western trunk to Salzburg and Innsbruck. Fares vary from 4.20 euros to 8.00 euros
- S-Bahn line S7 local trains that make stops and do not have baggage facilities run to Wien Mitte and on to Praterstern and Floridadorf, with connections to other lines. The fare is 4.20 euros.
Although the City Airport Train and long-haul trains are the most comfortable, you should really choose your route based on where in the city you want to go.
— Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel