Thermenbahn: A Hidden Gem in Austria’s Rail Network

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Thermenbahn: A Hidden Gem in Austria's Rail Network -StyriaA Quaint Station in Fürstenfeld: A Journey into the Past

In the small town of Fürstenfeld, located in the charming region of Styria, lies a humble train station. Its narrow platforms, measuring barely a meter and a half, lack an underpass, forcing passengers to cross the tracks to reach the train. Fortunately, train frequency is low, minimizing the risks. The station does offer a restroom, adorned with stickers expressing various opinions, reflecting the community’s diversity.

While the Fürstenfeld station may seem frozen in time since the 1980s, a fresh coat of paint in the classic ÖBB colors of red and gray is the only visible update. However, modern amenities such as power outlets for charging phones are noticeably absent from the waiting area. The former ticket counter has been repurposed as a Postbus customer office, making practical use of the space left behind by the discontinued ÖBB service.

A Challenging Route: The Thermenbahn’s Unique Position

The Thermenbahn, situated near Fürstenfeld, operates as a typical secondary railway, albeit an unattractive one. Its limited service on weekends and holidays, when the demand for transportation to nearby spas is highest, contradicts its name. Furthermore, the Thermenbahn lacks a comprehensive marketing strategy, as pointed out by Gunter Mackinger, former CEO of Salzburg AG. Mackinger believes that offering combined tickets for train and spa visits could significantly enhance the Thermenbahn’s appeal. In its current state, the train carries only around ten overnight guests per week, according to the Therme Bad Waltersdorf, and approximately 45 spa visitors, according to the Therme Bad Blumau.

During our visit to the Thermenbahn train, we encountered a young couple who had chosen the train for their journey to Bad Waltersdorf. With the Climate Ticket, their trip incurred no additional cost, making it an attractive option compared to driving. “Why take the car when there’s a train available?” remarked Markus, a 28-year-old student from Vienna. His 25-year-old girlfriend, Michelle, added that they utilized the train ride for playing games and chatting. For them, time flew by in the pleasant company of each other.

Lack of Marketing and Modernization: The Thermenbahn’s Struggles

The Thermenbahn operates like a neglected secondary railway, failing to live up to its potential. Without a professional marketing concept, the ÖBB misses opportunities to promote the train and offer attractive packages that include both rail and spa experiences. This lack of marketing, coupled with limited service, results in low passenger numbers. However, the tide may be turning, with ÖBB CEO Andreas Matthä recognizing the importance of secondary railways in the context of climate change and the necessary shift towards sustainable mobility.

Gunter Mackinger, experienced in overseeing the transition of local railways, highlights the challenges faced by centralized organizations like the ÖBB. The decision-making process often struggles to involve local stakeholders, hindering regional development. In contrast, successful cases, such as the Pinzgaubahn in Salzburg, have shown that including local politicians, passenger representatives, and tourism experts in decision-making processes can lead to significant growth in passenger numbers.

Passenger Perspectives: Idealists on the Thermenbahn

Passengers like Markus and Michelle view the Thermenbahn as a viable alternative for their trips. Despite the train’s outdated infrastructure, they appreciate the opportunity to relax, play games, and enjoy each other’s company during the journey. Simone, a 25-year-old political science student from Vienna, suggests that the Thermenbahn could attract more passengers if it offered direct connections to the capital. While the demand for the Thermenbahn might be low currently, the Ministry of Transport has stated that there are no plans to discontinue service on the Hartberg-Fehring section.

A Historical Perspective: The ÖBB’s Eventful Century

The ÖBB, celebrating its centenary, has played a vital role in Austria’s history. Founded as the Österreichischen Bundesbahnen (BBÖ) in 1923, the state railway contributed significantly to the country’s tourism industry during the interwar period. However, darker times followed with the annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938. The ÖBB became part of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, and Jewish employees were forced out. The railway infrastructure played a crucial role in Nazi logistics, including mass deportations to concentration camps.

The end of World War II marked a turning point for the ÖBB. It resumed operations in 1945 as the Österreichische Staatsbahnen (ÖSTB) with a focus on denazification and reconstruction. The abbreviation ÖBB was adopted in 1947, becoming synonymous with the Austrian railway.

Investments and Change: The Future of Nebenbahnen

As concerns about climate change grow, the ÖBB aims to expand its role beyond major routes and become a key player in regional rail travel. The ministry, led by Leonore Gewessler, has increased investment in secondary railways. The comprehensive ÖBB framework plan for 2023-2028 allocates around €1.8 billion to the expansion and modernization of regional railways. Approximately €50 million will be invested in the Thermenbahn, primarily focusing on improving existing infrastructure. However, electrification of the line is not currently planned.

While some secondary railways have been discontinued in recent years, such as the Weinviertel line in Lower Austria, efforts are being made to preserve and enhance these routes. As the shift towards sustainable transportation gains momentum, the ÖBB recognizes the potential of regional train travel. By 2026, the ÖBB plans to nearly double its Nightjet service, offering more alternatives to cars and airplanes.

Conclusion: The Thermenbahn’s Potential and Challenges

The Thermenbahn stands as a testament to Austria’s diverse rail network. Despite its current limitations, the ÖBB acknowledges the importance of regional railways and their potential for growth. While the Thermenbahn faces challenges related to marketing, modernization, and limited services, recent investments and changing perspectives offer hope for its future. As the railway system evolves to meet the demands of a changing world, the Thermenbahn could emerge as a compelling alternative for both locals and tourists seeking sustainable and relaxing journeys through Austria’s picturesque landscapes.

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