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Railway Giants: Olomouc Graduate Rihosek Saved the Austrian Railway from Decadence

Railway Giants: Olomouc Graduate Rihosek Saved the Austrian Railway from Decadence
photo: unbekannt - eigene Sammlung / PD-alt-100 / Wikimedia commons/Johann Rihosek
19 / 02 / 2024

He was born in Poland, studied in Olomouc, and died in Vienna. Thus, the story of Johann Rihosek could be briefly summarized. The tale of this forgotten railway giant is unveiled in the latest installment of our series.

Young Railway Worker

The year is 1869, and we are in Maków Podhalański, south of the Galician city of Krakow. This part of the former Polish state became part of Austria after the division of Poland between Prussia, Austria, and Russia, i.e., Austria-Hungary, to be precise, since 1867. It is here that a boy is born who will bear the name Johann Rihosek. He receives his basic education in his hometown. To acquire further knowledge, young Johann has to move to nearby Olomouc, where, in 1889, he successfully passes the matriculation exam with distinction.

For his excellent performance, Johann also receives a scholarship from Emperor Franz Joseph, who has ruled Austria-Hungary since 1849. This scholarship enables him to study mechanical engineering at the Vienna Polytechnic, a choice made primarily because he was fascinated with the burgeoning field of railways. He completes his studies in 1893, with a very good grade, befitting a young future railway engineer.

Herbert Ortner / Wikimedia commons

It is no surprise that in the same year, he takes up the position of designer at the locomotive factory in Floridsdorf, northeast of Vienna. Here, he begins to gain his first professional experience. Not long after, he outgrows his position, so it is only logical that in 1897 he joins the Imperial-Royal Ministry of Railways, specifically the department for the construction of locomotives and wagons. This department is led by the renowned railway designer Karl Gölsdorf, whose locomotive designs are widely regarded as the pinnacle of the Austrian locomotive school.

Johann excels in his new role, gradually being promoted, and when Karl Gölsdorf dies in 1916, Johann is chosen as the new head of the department for the construction of locomotives and wagons. However, this position presents no easy task. The young designer must navigate the Austrian railway through perhaps the most difficult period in its history. In addition to facing a severe lack of resources during the war, the worst is yet to come after the war itself. The former Austria-Hungary is fragmented into several small states after the war, leaving the successor state of Austria entering the interwar period weakened by the consequences of the lost war and the disintegration of the monarchy that had functioned well for many centuries.

Engineer of the Předlitavska Railway

Few people could handle this daunting task during a period of uncertainty and limited funds. First, it is necessary to replenish the train fleet, which the division of Austria-Hungary has completely fragmented. Trains, like everything else, are distributed according to the treaties among all newly created states. Under Johann's leadership, the ÖBB 156 (BBÖ 270), ÖBB 58 (BBÖ 81), and ÖBB 95 (BBÖ 82) series locomotives are created, still adhering to the classic Gölsdorf design. Beyond reviving the Austrian railways, the extremely active Johann also devotes himself to highly specialized research. For instance, improving the self-acting pressure brake developed over 50 years ago in 1869 by the American George Westinghouse. In brake development, Johann collaborates with the company Gebrüder Hardy A.G., serving on its supervisory board until his death.

Rainerhaufe / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons

In 1924, Johann leaves the ministry having completed his tasks, i.e., bringing the Austrian railway closer to its pre-war status and guiding it through the complicated period Austria experienced at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 20th century. The rest of Johann's professional career is spent in academia, where he was trained for it. He lectures at the Vienna Polytechnic, where he receives an honorary doctorate in 1944, and publishes in several professional magazines.

Loco Steve / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia commons

Johann Rihosek passed away in November 1956 at the blessed age of 87. He is laid to rest in the cemetery in Grinzing. In 1967, Rihosekgasse in Floridsdorf is named in his honor.

This concludes the story of a man born in Galicia, Poland, who, despite this, was one of the main figures in the revival of the Austrian railway after the collapse of Austria-Hungary, even though many might have expected him to return to his homeland. However, he chose to remain loyal to what he always considered his beloved Austria.