Thursday, October 2, 2008

Semmering Railway

The 26-mile-long (41.8-kilometer) Semmering Railway climbs through an altitude of 1,400 feet (439 meters) over the Semmering alpine pass, at an elevation of 2,930 feet (898 meters), between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag in southeastern Austria. Designed in 1843 and built between July 1848 and July 1854, it is still in use. The railway has been described in UNESCO World Heritage List documents as “one of the greatest feats of civil engineering of [the] pioneering phase of railway building.” Moreover, it “represents an outstanding technological solution to a major physical problem.”

The railway was designed by the Austrian engineer Karl von Ghega (1802–1860) as part of a double-track connection between Vienna and Trieste, Italy. In May 1842 the section of line between Vienna and Gloggnitz was opened. Just then, von Ghega, who had been appointed inspector of the Southern State Railway, was undertaking a study tour in England and North America. In August an imperial edict called for the extension of the line over the high Semmering alpine pass, and by the end of the following January von Ghega had prepared three proposals, offering the alternatives of steam locomotive (eventually chosen), cable inclines, and atmospheric railway for the consideration of Ermengildo von Francesconi, Director General of State Railways. Little action was taken on the Semmering Railway, and in October 1844 a section of track between Graz and Mürzzuschlag was completed, still leaving a gap in the line over the mountains. Political vagaries and reservations about a project that had no precedents—no one anywhere had built a railway over mountains—meant that von Ghega’s plans were shelved for four years. Then, prompted or panicked by a revolution in Vienna in spring 1848, the government was moved to urgent action.

Construction of the Gloggnitz-Payerbach and Mürzzuschlag-Spital sections of the line started in summer 1848. Each day, up to 5,000 laborers commuted from Vienna. At the peak of the project about 20,000 men and women were employed. They built sixteen arched masonry viaducts (some of them two stories high) with a total length of a little under 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) and excavated 15 tunnels with a total length of 3 miles (4.8 kilometers). By means of these structures and over 129 bridges, the track climbed along its winding, precipitous path, carved from the faces of the mountains entirely by hand and without the use of explosives. The track was lined with stone station buildings, fifty-five two-story houses for linesmen, and thirty-two timber-framed signal boxes, as well as workshops and engine halls.

Von Ghega had not convinced everyone that a steam locomotive railway would work, and for three years the project proceeded in the face of criticism from his professional peers, who preferred the use of fixed steam engines and cable inclines. They were silenced in September 1851 when a competition was held on the line. Twenty-two years earlier in England, a similar competition had established the suitability of steam locomotive power across flat country. Von Ghega’s conviction that normal vehicles could be used on the Semmering was vindicated when the four participating locomotives easily passed the test of pulling 154 tons (140 tonnes) at 7 mph (11.4 kph) on the steepest gradient. The Austrian engineers Wilhelm Freiherr von Engerth and Fischer von Röslerstamm were charged with developing the first triple-coupled locomotives, and they were built in Germany and Belgium in 1852.

The Semmering Railway was inaugurated in October 1853. The budget had been exceeded by a factor of four. Goods traffic started in May 1854, followed in July by a scheduled passenger service. Of course, a rail trip through mountain country was a totally new experience and many made it simply for the pleasure of watching the grandeur of the landscape. The journey, pulled by any of the twenty-six mountain locomotives in service, took a few minutes over two hours. The entire Vienna-Trieste line was opened at the end of July 1857.

The high elevation of the Semmering main tunnel caused problems because of freezing. Around the turn of the century, attempts were made to heat it with gas burners, and it was actually closed off with doors between trains. Flooding was also a difficulty, and after the particularly bad 1946–1947 winter, several hundred wagon loads of ice had to be excavated from the tunnel. A second tunnel was completed in March 1952 to overcome the difficulty. The Vienna-Gloggnitz line was electrified seven years later, and a four-year program was launched to upgrade tracks and buildings and electrify the Semmering section. The modifications were finished by May 1959. Coupled electric locomotives now transport up to 1,100 tons (1,000 tonnes) over the pass. Journey time, for either freight or passenger trains, is just forty-two minutes. Maximum speeds are limited to 37.5 mph (60 kph) on the north ramp and 44 mph (70 kph) on the south. The Semmering Railway continues to function well in the face of major technological change since it was first built, a testimony to the “detailed and well-founded planning” of von Ghega. However, the increased traffic has called for constant maintenance. The Semmering Railway, preserved in its nearly original form, has come under the Austrian Law of Protection of Monuments since 1923, a status confirmed by the Federal Office of Monuments as recently as March 1997. It was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List a year later.

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