Gaining Speed On Central Europe – Riding The Rails From Vienna To Budapest

I had been in Austria for all of an hour and was already looking to leave. I went to the Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in Vienna looking to purchase tickets for the next train to Budapest. It was 10:15 a.m. I fully expected that within a few minutes I would be on a train moving across the frontiers of eastern Austria towards Hungary. I was wrong. It shocked me to discover that my departure would be delayed because the next train did not depart until 12:02 p.m. I found this highly irritating. Why was there not a train every hour between two of central Europe’s biggest and most important cities? Surely there was enough traffic to warrant such a schedule. After all, it had been tough just getting a seat reservation for the noon train. All I could now was to wait.

OBB Railjet train at Keleti (Eastern) Station in Budapest

OBB Railjet train at Keleti (Eastern) Station in Budapest – these trains carry passengers from Vienna to Budapest and back (Credit: Dezidor)

Laying Tracks – Transforming Travel In Austria & Hungary
Of course I was being self-centered. The main reason for my aggravation, this was the first of two trains I would be taking on my way to eastern Hungary. I had already been awake for 20 hours after three flights, including one that had crossed the Atlantic. The sooner I departed the better. It would only dawn on me later that the train journey between Vienna and Budapest at just two and a half hours was likely the fastest in this route’s history. The fact that I have made this journey several times over the past few years caused me to take it for granted. To view the time it takes to travel between the cities as excessively lengthy is myopic in the extreme. The longer perspective of history tells a much different story that made my journey much more fascinating.

Historically the land journey between the two cities was long and arduous. People in the early modern age – starting in the late 18th century – would have found it impossible to conceive that there would come a day when a person could travel roundtrip between the two cities in a single afternoon. Likewise, people today have no way of imagining what it must have been like to travel between Vienna and Budapest a couple hundred years ago. The revolution in transport has been so dramatic and successful in compressing distance and shrinking travel time that the old days of delay and danger have been completely forgotten.

Train traveling in lower Austria at the turn of the 20th century

The way it was – a train traveling in lower Austria at the turn of the 20th century

Prior to the industrial age in Hungary (first half of the 18th century) the country’s road system was poor. Any extended period of rain transformed the countryside into a bog ridden swamp with roads becoming little more than morasses. Wagon carts would become bogged down, sometimes able to travel only two miles (three kilometers) in a day. Road trips from Buda to Vienna and back could take, at best, over two days in a wagon cart, at worst, several weeks. Even the express mail carts took 30 hours. This may not sound too bad until one considers that travel conditions were less than ideal. There was always the constant threat robbery by highwaymen and exposure to the elements. The idea of comfort was anathema during this period. Lodgings were down at the heel or non-existent.

There was no concept of tourism, which still lay decades into the future. This was the state of travel between the two cities for the first nine hundred years of Hungarian history. All this changed with the arrival of steam locomotives and the railroad. Steam locomotive trains in Austria began running in 1838. Less than a decade later the first line opened in Hungary, traveling from Pest north to Vac during the summer of 1846. The first lines that would eventually extend from Vienna to Budapest were being laid by 1848. Following a period of disruption due to the Hungarian Revolution which started that same year, the two cities were finally connected by rail. This marks the onset of modernization, especially for Hungary through which must of the line ran.

Old watchtower from the Iron Curtain at Hegyeshalom on the Austria-Hungary border

Old watchtower from the Iron Curtain at Hegyeshalom on the Austria-Hungary border

Border Control – The Limits Of Progress
I rode an Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen) train to Budapest. It was clean, efficient, punctual and much faster than the first trains to travel this same route a century and a half ago. When the line first opened it took a direct train about six hours to cover the route. By 1900 that had had fallen by a quarter to four and a half hours. The greatest advancements in decreasing travel time were made when Hungary started electrifying the railway line in the 1930’s. The decrease in travel time realized from this upgrade was slow to take full effect until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Before that waiting times while crossing the border could vary dramatically depending on the geopolitical situation and the whim of border officials on both sides.

Crossing the border from Austria into Hungary on this line was most noticeable to me because of two things. The train stops at Hegyeshalom, the first town on the line in Hungary when traveling eastbound. This is done so officials of Hungarian State Railways can board the train. They then proceed to recheck tickets once the train has started down the line again. Second, the level of prosperity in Hungary still noticeably lags behind that of Austria. The well-ordered Austrian villages with their freshly painted houses give way to rambling Magyar homes with faded facades and blocks of functionalist style, communist era flats.

Worth the journey - trains traveling from Vienna to Budapest arrive at Keleti (Eastern) Station

Worth the journey – trains traveling from Vienna to Budapest arrive at Keleti (Eastern) Station

Changing Times – Catching Up To The Present

The most memorable change for me between the countries became apparent when I saw the remains of the old border post station replete with a battered guard tower. This residue of past repression took up only a small part of a railroad siding, but across four decades it had cost travelers countless hours of time and some even their lives. Just thirty years before, a time when I was still in high school, this border post was still in operation, now I could cross the border with barely a thought. This was due to both political and technological transformations. Times had changed and so had travel times, this part of the world had now sped up or more to the point, caught up with the rest of Central Europe.

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