Dear fellow travellers
Shortly after ten o’clock this morning a priest stepped forward to the podium and blessed Vienna’s new railway station. There were speeches aplenty with the statutory votes of thanks to those who have presided over planning committees and management boards. And there was music too: ‘Mamma Mia’ filled the concourse, because everyone likes ABBA.
The transformation over the last five years of Vienna's old Südbahnhof (South Station) into a glitzy new Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) has been one of the great railway infrastructure projects of the new millennium. Some might suggest that it was also a gift to property developers who had a greater interest in shopping than in trains.
A European rail hub
This is a day of celebrations in Vienna. But travellers will still have to wait a few weeks to get a fuller sense of how this new station is a European hub. From Sunday 14 December, when new timetables kick in across the continent, trains from Hauptbahnhof will fan out across Europe. Budapest, Zagreb, Prague, Berlin and Venice will all feature on the departure boards. From late next year, trains approaching Vienna from the west will also be routed into the new station.
There was a time, during the planning phase, when it looked as though the station might be named Wien Europa Mitte (Vienna Europe Central). It is of course well known that the Viennese deem their city to be in the very middle of Europe, even if geography tells another tale, placing the real centre of the continent much further east than Vienna. But we can humour the Viennese on this point, for the city has long been at the hub of a dense network of rail routes fanning out across Europe.
Cast back to the first decade of the last century and Vienna boasted greater rail connectivity than any other European city — and that is still true today if one looks at the sheer number of international trains leaving Vienna each day. Though we might note that the European capital which in 2014 has had direct rail links to more countries than any other is not Vienna but Moscow. But many of those trains from Moscow are infrequent — a weekly train from Moscow to Monaco or occasional summer season trains to Croatia are limited offerings which cannot match Vienna's frequent departures to cities across Europe.
Shaping the metropolis
Vienna's relationship with its railways has often been ambiguous. In 1897, when new rail lines were being cut through the city, the journalist and satirist Karl Kraus remarked: “Vienna is being demolished into a metropolis. Together with the old houses, the last pillars of our memories are falling.”
Kraus makes an interesting point. We experience the metropolis through the immediacy of its modern architecture — and Vienna’s new Hauptbahnhof is certainly a bold addition to the cityscape. But we also engage with a metropolis through its history. The Hauptbahnhof which is today and this weekend the focus of so much attention in Vienna is also a stimulus to nostalgia. It was to the old South Station, for example, that in 1914 the bodies of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were transported by special train from Trieste after their assassination in Sarajevo.
We have our own memories of Südbahnhof — which seemed rather unloved in the last years before its eventual closure in 2009. There was a sculpture of an ungainly lion on the concourse, stranded on a sea of fussy 1950s tiling. Let’s hope someone thought to salvage it before the bulldozers moved in.
Ultimately the Südbahnhof was first and foremost a railway station. We'll surely visit the new Hauptbahnhof before long. We hope it's still a railway station, and not merely a huge shopping centre at which trains happen to stop.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)