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The Semmering Railway and the Habsburg Empire

23 October 2015

Completed in 1854, after 6 years of construction efforts by 20,000 workers, the Semmering Railway was the first European mountain railway to use a standard-gauge track. Often considered the world's first "true" mountain railway, the line passes over steep terrain, with 60% of the track on a gradient of 2-2.5%, as it ascends an altitudinal difference of 460m from its lowest point to its peak. Built towards the end of the Habsburg rule of Austria and much of Europe, the Semmering Railway connects the Imperial capital of Vienna with Trieste, a port of some significance within the Empire.

Although it has since been electrified, the Semmering Railway was a considerable achievement for its time, especially in its ability to confront and surmount the steep mountains of the Semmering Pass.  As such a steep climb had not yet been attempted on European railroads, a competition was held to design a locomotive capable of hauling carriages and cargo up the incline. Four designs were proposed, by various prominent engineers, but whilst each held to the specifications of the competition, none proved reliable in practice. The trials for a suitable locomotive led to a number of developments in this field of engineering, and in the end resulted in the invention of the Engerth locomotive.

Today, the Semmering Railway has been recognised for its extraordinary value by the heritage body UNESCO. Citing the incredible technological solution to the problem posed by navigating the Austrian Alps by rail, as well as the greater access created by the route to the outstanding natural landscape of the area, the Semmering Railway was granted World Heritage status in 1998.   

Television appearances

In the most recent series of Michael Portillo's BBC programme, Great Continental Railway Journeys, our host traverses the Habsburg imperial line, travelling from Vienna to Trieste on the Semmering Railway. Pausing at Semmering's winter resort for a spot of tobogganing, the episode also sees Michael meet a pre-Cold War spy, take in a concert that caused a Viennese riot in 1913, and sample the delicious Italian coffee the Habsburgs imported into Vienna, using the Semmering Railway between the capital and Trieste.

With stunning views of the glorious Semmering Pass available through the windows of Michael Portillo's scenic carriage, the BBC 2 show certainly gives an excellent opportunity to experience the breathtaking beauty of this wonderful region.

Whilst the programme provides a fascinating insight into this beautiful railway, it is of course better experienced in person. On our incredible tour of Vienna, Salzburg and the Danube, our journey on the Semmering Railway is one of many highlights that truly showcase the beauty of Austria. Travelling on the Semmering Railway for its scenic mountain views, we take a slightly different route to Michael Portillo, changing at Leoben and continuing northwards to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart. Follow the tracks of this pioneering railroad, and take in the classic sights of Austria on a magical 10-day tour, for your chance to take a great continental railway journey of your own.