CZ/SK verze

Vienna to Bratislava: The Rise and Fall of Austria-Hungary's Longest Tram Line

Vienna to Bratislava: The Rise and Fall of Austria-Hungary's Longest Tram Line
photo: Public domain/Bratislava region
15 / 05 / 2024

Vienna and Bratislava were to be connected by a tram line! Even though the idea represented an innovative transport solution, the implementation met with many obstacles, especially in the context of the political situation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The line was also popular with the army.

At the end of the 19th century, a unique transport project began to emerge in Presburg, today's Bratislava: a tram line was to connect Vienna and Presburg, and for the first time, the inhabitants of both cities would have the chance to travel quickly and comfortably from center to center without a single change.

The project had its supporters, but also its opponents. It was seen as competition by the First Steamship Company, but also by the Austrian State Railways. The longest tram line in the country was built, but its fate was extinction and oblivion. The author of the so-called "Vienna Tram" was the engineer Josef Tabuer.

The idea of connecting the tram networks of Vienna and Pressburg was conceived in 1898 by Ing. Josef Tauber. Even though they were then cities of one state, i.e., the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the implementation was not at all easy. It was practically a confederation, a federation in which there were two essentially equal parts. The Hungarian part was often subject to slightly different regulations than the Austrian part, and the two parts of the monarchy were actually in competition at times. The transport project that connected the two parts was thus a highly political affair. The whole project thus had its own law on the Austrian side, which authorized the construction of one part of the line, and a concession from the Hungarian Ministry of Trade, which authorized the other part.

The whole project was hotly debated, but in the end, the army lobby won out: the army was more than happy to move troops quickly to Vienna in the event of a threat. The Vienna tramway offered many advantages over steam power. It was faster, and there was no need to build coal dumps or water tanks along the railway to replenish the steam.

The whole idea was based on the concept of a then-novelty across the ocean, the so-called intercity streetcars on the American continent, which were called Interurbans, i.e., one vehicle, one track, and two destinations connected by the same vehicle. The route was proposed from the Vienna Grand Trunk Railway to Gross Schwechat, the border of Vienna, then along the Danube villages of Schwechat, Petronell, Deutsch Altenburg, Hainburg, Wolfsthal, Kopčany, Petržalka, and across the Danube Bridge to the center of Pressburg. However, this system proved to be insufficient in terms of speed and, above all, transport capacity.

It turned out that if the whole line was designed as a tramway, the speed on the section between the two cities would be too low, and on the contrary, nobody wanted to introduce a full-fledged railway line into the city. So, in the end, it was decided that the line in the city would be designed as a tramway, and as soon as it left Vienna, the engine car would be replaced, and the tram would become a commuter train. Then, before Pressburg, it was changed again, and the train became a classic tram again.

In addition to the technical parameters, it was necessary to decide who would operate the line, as it had two owners. The Austrian section, which was 52 km long, was owned by Elektrische Lokalbahn Wien--Landesgrenze nächst Hainburg. This company used the abbreviation L.W.P. on its vehicles. The Hungarian section of the line was owned by P.O.H.E.V. To add to the confusion, none of these companies ever operated the line themselves, and in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the operation was handled by the Lower Austrian Railways.

Regular service began on 5 February 1914. From the very beginning, passengers loved the Vienna Tram. This is evidenced by the ridership figures, with an incredible one million passengers traveling on the line in the first year alone. Unfortunately, it was not only the popularity of the tram that was behind the ridership figures. Less than six months after the start of service, the First World War broke out, and the transport between Pressburg and Vienna began to be used in large numbers by the army and by the population desperate to find scarce food.

During the war, however, the tram ran almost all the time without any significant interruption of service. This came only with the creation of Czechoslovakia. In 1919, when Pressburg was occupied by the army, service over the Franz Josef I Bridge was interrupted. This meant that the long-distance trains of the Vienna Tramway no longer reached the center of Prespurk. At the end of April, the long-distance trains ended at Berg station and did not go to Kopčany.

Eventually, in 1919, the service was mostly restored. After the new national borders were arranged, the first local traffic started to run, and later long-distance trains were added. However, they no longer go to the center of the former Presburg, which now bears the new name Bratislava. Passengers from the long-distance trains had to get off at the station in Kopčany and continue to the city center on one of the local trains.

For a number of years, the Vienna Tram operated in a kind of semi-operational mode. The original intention of a fast and comfortable connection between the centers of the two cities was somewhat lost due to border controls and the need for passengers to change trains. And it should have been even worse. In 1935, the owner and operator of the Slovak part of the line, which was today's Bratislava Transport Company, decided that the gauge of all lines in the city should be unified, and the only line that did not have a meter gauge was the Vienna tramway. Thus, in July 1935, operations ceased and extensive reconstruction of the Slovak part of the line began.

In January 1936, service resumed, but in a strange way. Passengers took the line marked with the letter E to the border, where they had to get off, go through customs and passport control, and this time board an Austrian train. The E line was in operation until October 1938, when, as a precursor to the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had to cede parts of its territory to the Greater German Reich under the Munich Agreement. This also affected Bratislava, Petržalka, and Devín fell to the Greater German Empire. So from October 1938, the tram line E stopped running to the former border with Austria.

During the war, the German Reich Railways again converted the line to Engerau, i.e., Petržalka, to a gauge of 1435 mm, and from January 1941, trains again went a little further than the former Austrian border. At that time, however, these were already classic trains, which had nothing in common with the tram. Just after the war, there was no thought of resuming service. Everybody had other things on their minds. And just when someone might have started thinking about restoring a direct connection between Bratislava and Vienna, 1948 came, and Austria became a capitalist foreign country for decades, which was not even worth a glance for a socialist traveler. So today, the line ends in the last Austrian village before the border with Slovakia. And from the looks of it, it will probably never be restored.