The Schafbergbahn


In Austria’s Salzkammergut, lies the picturesque town of St. Wolfgang, long known as a place of Christian pilgrimage; it nestles against one of the most famous backdrops in Europe. Its fame has spread even wider as this attractive region of Austria, so popular with tourists, has formed the focus of an operetta and one of the world’s most popular musical films.

The renowned White Horse hotel was made famous in the Benatzky operetta “White Horse Inn”, and in the cinema by Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in the Sound of Music. Apart from its musical, and religious significance, the hills that were alive to the sound of music are also alive to the sound of steam trains.

st-wolfgang-white-horse-hotelDominating the area above the Wolfgangsee (Lake Wolfgang), is the Schafberg, from the summit of which it is possible to see some five lakes of Austria’s Lake District, and on a clear day, to Salzburg. At the top of this mountain a climber’s hut had been in place since 1839, and just over a decade after the railway was opened, a hotel was built in 1906, to provide even more facilities for the visitor. After the end of the Second World War, Austrian State Railways renovated and extended the hotel and restaurant facilities, and it is still a popular stop to this day.

st-wolfgang-schafbergbahn-1992Back down at ‘base camp’, almost opposite the pier where the lake steamers arrive at regular intervals, is the base station for the rack railway to the summit of this most picturesque of Austrian mountains. The line is the oldest steam worked rack railway in Austria and, recognizing the merit of steam traction to the tourist industry, and in 1996 the railway took delivery of brand new steam engines, built by SLM in Winterthur, Switzerland.

So, for visitors to St Wolfgang since then, it is possible to ride behind some of the oldest, and very latest steam motive power – I wonder how long it has been since that was possible on a European railway!

The line officially celebrated the 100th anniversary of its opening in 1993, although construction of the line had begun in April 1892, and it is still worked to this day by the three of the original locomotives, and these too are now centenarians! Not surprisingly, some repairs, overhauls and maintenance have been carried out on them since  1894, when the last of the first locomotive orders were completed.

In 2008, the line went on to celebrate its 115th anniversary, and for the occasion, the first locomotive to come out of the Krauss workshops in Linz in 1893 – No. Z1 “Schneeberg” – was refurbished and returned to the original state with old Austrian livery of matt black and with the motion finished bright metal. The refurbishing was part funded by the state government of Upper Austria.

Of the original locomotives Z4 “Bergprimel” and Z6 “Berganemone” are still used in scheduled services – for a taste of Victorian nostalgia, Austrian style.


The original – Z1 “Schneeberg” – now over 120 years of age!!

How many other railway lines around the world can claim to be ordering, building and operating steam locomotives more than a century after the line was built. Building the mountain railway was in essence part of a tourist scheme, rather like the old Furness Railway’s operations in the English Lake District, providing combined rail and lake steamer trips.

The idea was advocated and developed by Bertholt Curant, who’s entrepreneurial ambitions for the Wolfgangsee had already seen the operation of paddle steamers from May 1873. The first of these, the “Kaiser-Franz-Josef 1” began operations on 20th May 1873, and was joined in 1888, by the second steamer, the “Kaiserin Elisabeth”. Joint lake and rail trips were planned, and became possible after 1893, although the summit of the line was not so well served with passenger amenities until after the turn of the century.

The railway was built by a workforce of 350 Italian workers, and just a year after the work was started in April 1892, construction was completed and the line opened. The new rack railway, built to metre gauge, and adopting the “Abt” principle of operation was able to transport tourists to the summit of the Schafberg, and one of the finest mountain views in this Austria.

The track, laid to the metre gauge, has a maximum gradient of260 % (this is 260 metres per 1,000 metres), and a minimum of44% (this is 44 metres per 1,000 metres, or “pro mille”) on route. The “Abt” drive is by means of a toothed gear wheel meshing with a rack laid between the two running rails. The German wordfor a rack railway is “Zahnradbahn”, which has an interesting literal translation of “tooth wheel railway”, which is perhaps more precise than “rack railway”. In a single journey of 5.85km (3.65 miles), the railway climbs through a difference in altitude of 1,220 metres (4,024 ft), from the lakeside station at St Wolfgang Schafbergbahnhof, 514 metres (1,696 ft) above sea level, to the station at the summit, Schafbergspitze, some 1734 metres (5,720ft) above sea level. The intermediate station, Schafbergalpe, is a modest 1,363 metres (4,497 ft) above sea level. Imagine the same conditions applied to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite railway, an almost identical distance (3.5 miles), with its intermediate stop at Newby Bridge – quite an impressive piece of civil engineering.

More than 6000 mule loads were needed to transport all material, tools, and food used in the construction work to the working sites, and this work continued throughout the winter of 1892/93. Only in the severest winter weather were the gangs called off, and activity stopped, so that, at worst, the railway could be opened in a year.   Not surprisingly, carving out the trackbed was arduous and difficult work, and just like conventional lines, included cuttings, culverts, and bridges. In fact, the primary civil engineering features of the line include a 24 metre long viaduct, a number of arched stone bridges, rock cuttings, and two tunnels – one91 metres in length, and one 26 metres long.


This is Z5 – but carries the number 999.105, and seen here approaching the summit station in the summer of 1992

From its opening, the operation of the railway has been in the hands of five steam locomotives, which today are more than 100years old, and have given long and faithful service, and were supplied by Kraus & Co AG, of Linz, between 1892 and 1894. In1995, three new 0-4-2 tank locomotives were ordered from the Swiss Locomotive & Machine works (Schweizerische Locomotiv & Maschinenfabrik) at Winterthur in Switzerland, and now provide the extra motive power to handle the increased traffic. Turned out in a darker shade of green livery – at least one of the Schafberg’s 0-4-2T’s has been painted blue in recent years – the new engines are fitted with Giesel blastpipes, and in common with the existing engines, the cylinders are carried at the rear of the engine. The new designs were produced after a four year trial with three prototypes, on the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn in Switzerland, and they are designed to burn light oil, instead of heavy diesel oil, and are for one-man operation.


One of the 1996 new build steam locomotives from SLM.

The first of the new locomotives was delivered to St Wolfgang in January 1996, in good time for the hectic summer season. All of the Schafberg engines – old and new – are ‘kneeling cow’, outside framed, with the distinctive balance weights standing out against the red paint of the frames. The ‘locomotive yard’ at the lakeside station slopes down towards the lake shore, and the maintenance roads, and fuelling roads are raised aboveground level, and horizontal. The result of this layout is an opportunity to see underneath the locomotives – an unusual view for the visitor, but obviously useful for maintenance.

Steam though is not the only new traction on the line – although it is the newest – ‘modernisation’ came to the Schafberg back in the 1960s, with some new fangled diesel power. In 1963/64 Simmering-Graz-Pauker of Vienna built and supplied a pair of diesel-hydraulic railcars, providing additional services over this scenic mountain railway. They obviously provide a more rapid, and perhaps operationally, more convenient service, but cannot match the attraction of steam power.


Services provided on the line are operated by OBB (Austrian State Railways), who also own and operate the mountain top hotel and restaurants, along with the lake steamers. The journey time for the trip to the summit station by steam train is 59 minutes, and39 minutes by diesel railcar. Steam hauled sets, with wooden bodied coaches can carry 60 people, and each of the diesel railcars transports 74 people up the mountain.

Services provided on the line are operated by OBB (Austrian State Railways), who also own and operate the mountain top hotel and restaurants, along with the lake steamers. The journey time for the trip to the summit station by steam train is 59 minutes, and39 minutes by diesel railcar. Steam hauled sets, with wooden bodied coaches can carry 60 people, and each of the diesel railcars transports 74 people up the mountain.

A century after the introduction of rail and steamer trips on Lake Wolfgang, the combined lake and rail trips are still possible, under the ownership and management of OBB. The two paddle steamers of Bertholt Curant’s day have long been replaced, since the end of the Second World War by four railway owned vessels, the largest of which, the “Osterreich”, with a capacity for 365 passengers, is OBB’s flagship on Lake Wolfgang. The 1996 timetable for the Schafbergbahn shows 12 trains in each direction daily, between4th May and 13th October, with a variety of ticket prices, group bookings and other options available, and not surprisingly, the trains connect with the lake steamers. Intriguingly, the 1996 timetable shows the upward journey as 39 minuted, with a 3-minute stop at the intermediate station of Schafberalpe, an indication perhaps that some speeding up of timings has been made. The author recalls a trip on the line a few years ago, when the journey did take about an hour – a leisurely but enjoyable pace! A combination of a trip on the lake, and then onwards to the summit of the Schafberg is an experience worth indulging.

Coming right up to date, Stadler Rail have supplied two new diesel locomotives, as traffic on this brilliant little Alpine railway continues to grow.  The first appeared in 2015, and the latest in the Spring of 2016, seen in the image below being delivered.  Unlike the very first locomotives, which were supplied as a set of components and parts to be assembled on site, these locomotives were delivered complete and ready to operate.