Visit: 4th/5th April 2017
The Semmering Railway is one of a handful of railways listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first one I have had the pleasure to ride upon. Travelling between the Austrian cities of Vienna and Graz we felt like Michael Portillo on a Great Continental Railway Journey.
The railway made it on to the list because it is regarded as one of the greatest feats of engineering from the early days of steam. Built over a six year period in the mid-19th century, it is a mountain railway whose purpose was to cross the Austrian foothills of the Alps.
The Semmering Railway winds for 41km across 145 bridges and through 14 tunnels. This was of course a time before tunnel-boring machines, so each of them had to be excavated with picks and explosives – sometimes at great cost in terms of lives.
It isn’t cheap to travel on. We paid something like €120 for two return tickets, which was far more than I had been quoted online. So this is probably the most expensive WHS I have ever visited, though to be fair the journey did take two hours each way, in total.
There are 57 railwaymen’s houses at intervals beside the track, formerly inhabited by signallers. These have been preserved in order to keep some of the original character of the railway. The trains, however, are not original – the Semmering is a mainline route served by modern rolling stock. Since there is little signage and no passenger announcements, most people would be oblivious to the fact that they are travelling along a WHS.
In terms of similarities, this WHS can be viewed as an symbolising an evolution from the transportation method represented by Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales – built prior to the introduction of the railway, in 1805, when canals were at the cutting edge method of cargo distribution. Since railways can handle a moderate incline they were far more practical for getting around in hilly terrain, and the Austro-Hungarian economy was able to benefit as a result.