From Südbahnhof To Hauptbahnhof

How the old train station is to become the most central, modern and important one in Austria

A construction worker observes the destruction of the old Südbahnhof | Photo: Thomas Faria

It was a cold winter day as I stepped through the partial ruins of what was one of the oldest Viennese train stations, the Südbahnhof/Ostbahnhof. What existed in front of me were only men operating clawed machine monsters, ripping apart the concrete and paving the way for something new: the Vienna Hauptbahnhof.

I was with several others being guided through the broken remains of the Viennese station by Karl-Johann Hartig, the project manager of the construction being done by the Austrian railway company, the ÖBB. Memories of the moments I had spent with my friends at the station suddenly came to life in the midst of the ruins.

As we walked through the remnants, I found a common ground with Viennese journalist Michael Freund as he recalled his moments of boyhood spent in the train station. Nostalgia kicked in for me as well, as I remembered this being the first place that I ever took a train.

After centuries with its old railway system (based on Imperial Austria’s Eurocentric position), it has become a necessity for the city of Vienna to change the structure. The monarchic times of terminal stations are over and the city will no longer be the endpoint to all lines.

Now, the objective is to construct a system in which people traveling from distant cities can go directly through Vienna without having to change trains.

While it has been nearly 100 years since the end of the monarchy, the project for a central station has been too expensive until recently, according to Hartig.

As I stepped through the ruins of the building, the old structure was still visible through parts of the demolished walls. Some of the signs were half destroyed and you could still see the respective entrances to the station. Three years from now, only the trains and tracks themselves will have a connection to what was once there.

The old kebab stand, something common to all corners of the Vienna’s cityscape and my favorite place to eat before I’d embark on another journey, was completely gone. The escalators were ripped out with only their insides exposed and the whole affair seemed like a skeletal anatomy lesson of the building.

Interestingly enough is that the project itself is much more than just a train station. Hartig continued to show us around; we visited the new ÖBB Production Network and maintenance center, where trains are repaired and mounted according to their functions. This was just one of the completed facilities linked to the Hauptbahnhof, with the exception of the S-Bahn that is already finished. The rest of the construction still awaits the total destruction of the old station.

Later in a meeting at Hartig’s office, not too far from where we initially started, the most precise details of the project were revealed.

The new station is intended to be part of a more European approach to the railway system, with trains coming from Paris to Bratislava, Dresden to Athens, Danzig to Bologna. Previously, passengers needed not only to change trains, but to go to an entirely different station to do so. Now all will be simplified.

These were just some of the completed plans, with others in consideration that could even link the Russian Federation or Ukraine to the Viennese capital.

With so much space, 60 acres in total, the 935 million euro project is expected to include a shopping mall, hotel, offices for the railway company, university dormitories and campus locations for the Technische Universität, and an integration of other major modes of transportation such as the U1 Metro with the S-Bahn.

The extension of the U2 and easier access to the airport from the station are also planned. A parking garage will be provided for easier access to the trains.

When asked about the budget, Hartig assured us that the project was completely stable, unlike the Vienna airport Skylink expansion where many technical changes affecting the budget led to a loss of control and interruption of the project. Hartig told us that the construction of the central station was thoroughly planned and that no changes would be made subsequently. Funds for the project have come mostly from the ÖBB and the City of Vienna.

Probably unknown to most people, Hartig explained the different impacts of such a big project, and the concerns that go along with it. The change in urban scenery must be completed with careful environmental and urban impact control. For instance, several bats that inhabit the abandoned warehouses will have to be relocated.

Concerning urban impact, the creation of an eight kilometer sound barrier and installation of 15,000 sound proof windows in nearby buildings will be a direct consequence of the increase in traffic from the station area. And for those who think there aren’t enough parks in Vienna, an eight acre green area will be incorporated.

The station also won’t affect the views of those who worry about or worship the classic Viennese buildings. Unfortunately for those wishing to construct high buildings as a part of the train station, the historic center of Vienna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Belvedere Palace a part of it. This means that any construction that disturbs the scenery (including the empty sky over it) would lose its status and, more importantly, worldwide funding from UNESCO.

As for transportation while the station is being built, Südbahnhof trains have been diverted to the Wien Meidling train station until 2012. After that the Hauptbahnhof will be partially open, but it won’t be fully completed until 2015. The other train stations in Vienna will eventually take on less important roles, as the Hauptbahnhof will become the primary station in the city.

As I bid goodbye to the Südbahnhof/Ostbahnhof, remembering the times I returned from the east, thankful to see German signs again, I hope to construct more memories involving the future Hauptbahnhof. Surely with all the fancy new inclusions, it will prove to amaze just as much as the old station did for its generation.

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