The Underground Tram

The prosperity of the Wirtschaftswunder years of the 1950s created one major problem in Vienna, as in most other cities: traffic. More and more cars demanded more space. Especially the tramway was regarded as an 'obstacle' that had to be removed to make way for the faster cars. From 1958 onwards a number of tram lines were converted to bus lines; thankfully this conversion stopped quickly after it was discovered that buses are just as useless if they are stuck in the traffic jams, so that Vienna still has one of the largest tramway networks in the world.

At that time the majority in the city council still opposed a full-scale metro; instead, following the example of Brussels and a number of German cities, it was decided that some sections of the tram network should be put into tunnel. These could then be converted to a metro at a later date. The official term for these tracks was Unterpflasterstraßenbahn or U-Straba. In Brussels, where this method of building a metro system originated, it was called prémetro, and this term is now used most frequently when talking about this kind of system.

Foto (C)1992 Leif Spangberg
Tramway at Kliebergasse premetro station (Leif Spångberg)

Three premetro lines were built, two of which have in the meantime been converted to full metro: the Zweierlinie tunnel, the tunnel along the southern Gürtel and the express tram to Siebenhirten. Future plans for more express trams are rather tentative.

The Zweierlinie

The street that forms the boundary of the first district was originally built at the same time as the Ringstrasse (i.e. c.1865) to keep away goods traffic from the nobler boulevard; hence it was called Lastenstrasse ('goods road'). The tram lines along this street all had the index '2' in their line designations, so very soon the street became known as the Zweierlinie ('line 2 road').

The Zweierlinie is a prime example for the complete lack of any concept as far as Vienna's public transport policy is concerned; in retrospect it is fairly safe to say that the tram tunnel and the subsequent full metro are about the worst planning mistakes and the greatest failures in Vienna's public transport network.

In the 1950s, first plans were to put parts of the car traffic into tunnel, but for some reason the tramway ended up down there. Officially, this was referred to as a 'tramway acceleration' programme; however, the tramway had been on separate track over the whole section where the tunnel was built, so the impact on travel time was minimal. On the contrary, due to the longer ways to the platforms travel times increased for most people.

Construction of the tram tunnel started in 1963. Originally, only a short tunnel with just one station at Mariahilfer Strasse had been planned, but work was prolonged as several times during construction decisions were made to extend the tunnel further north. When the premetro was opened on 8 October 1966, it was 1.8 km long and consisted of the following stations and lines:

Premetro - Zweierlinie

The lack of any concept behind the premetro was obvious: not only had a section of minor importance, which had perviously been operated on separate track, been put into a tunnel -- at both ends the tunnel ended before, not after, very busy intersections, so that any time gained in the tunnel was quickly lost at either end. And although much effort had been put into developing articulated trams for use on the premetro sections, two-axled L4/l3 and L/l stock was mostly used instead. These were noisy and not suitable for high speeds, making the whole effort somewhat questionable.

Tram tunnel
Mariahilfer Strasse station (WVB)
Tram tunnel
During conversion to metro at Lerchenfelder Strasse. (Karl Holzinger).

However, the story does not end there. Despite being of subordinate importance in the whole network, the three lines serving the tunnel, E2, G2 and H2, were important cross-city connections providing a direct link between Viennas 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 17th, 18th and 19th districts. The decision to convert the tram tunnel to full metro can thus only be seen as the greatest mistake ever made in Vienna's public transport network. The tunnel was extended to Karlsplatz at one end, and to Schottenring at the other; all links to the tramway network were cut off, and the tunnel is now only served by line U2. At their northern ends, lines E2, G2 and H2 were replaced by lines 40, 37 and 43 respectively; at their sounthern ends, some of the track is now served by lines leading to entirely different parts of the city (lines N and O), while some of the track was simply closed and converted to parking spaces for cars. Where there had been a direct connection before, passengers now have to change up to four(!) times.*) This not only greatly increased travel times,**) it also effectively isolated the 3rd district from the rest of the city, resulting in the closure of many shops in the area.

*) Line E2: today use line 40 to Schottentor, U2 to Karlsplatz, U4 to Landstrasse, O to Praterstern; Line G2: today use line 37 to Schottentor, U2 to Karlsplatz, U4 to Landstrasse, O to Radetzkystrasse; Line H2: today use line 43 to Schottentor, U2 to Karlsplatz, U4 to Landstrasse, O to Radetzkyplatz, N to Prater Hauptallee (alternatively via a different route: 43 to Schottentor, 1 to Schwedenplatz, N to Prater Hauptallee).

**) If changing trains once is optimistically estimated at 7 minutes (4 to get to the platform, 3 to wait for the connecting train), more than 20 minutes are lost for changing trains alone! Thus the 'acceleration' caused by the metro means that a journey along former lines E2, G2 and H2 can take up to twice as long today than it took before the metro was opened in 1980.

Add to this that speed limitations due to the tram tunnel specifications make line U2 the slowest, and the need to constantly change trains the least attractive metro line of the network. Since line U3 was extended to Westbahnhof in 1993, line U2 has constantly been losing passengers. When construction work on the line necessitated the closure of the line over several weekends in summer, 2000, the tramway lines 1 and 2 could easily cater for the few extra passengers they had to take over from line U2.

If that were not enough, the next two planning mistakes are already in the construction stage: the first is the extension of the existing line's platforms to accommodate long (105 m) trains. While the effort is in itself questionable -- the presently used short trains (70 m) have plenty of empty seats any time of the day -- this means that the stations are now being completely rebuilt for the third time within 40 years.

Second, line U2 is being extended via Praterstern to Stadlau over the next few years. Whether this is a desperate attempt to make the line slightly more attractive or whether it is simply the result of heavy lobbying on part of construction companies remains unclear; what is obvious is that there is no economically justifiable need for this extension, as the line will mainly lead through gardens and fields to a very thinly populated area on the other side of the Danube. To operate the line without excessive losses it is necessary that the population in the area along the line at least double; however, even if large residential areas were under development there (which they are not), this would not be possible in the foreseeable future. Estimated passenger numbers for the line are so low that the area could easily be served with buses or trams.

The southern Gürtel

The Gürtel ('belt') is the outer ring road in Vienna -- and, according to recent calculations, the busiest road in Europe. The western part of the Gürtel has been served by the metro since 1898, the southern part only by a number of tram lines. Vienna's first tram tunnel was opened here in 1959, to alleviate traffic congestion at Südtiroler Platz; this was then extended west in the mid-1960s. The whole tunnel with six stations was opened in 1969. At the present time, it is used by four tram lines:

Premetro - Guertel

The tram stock used on these lines is highly varied: line 6 uses E2/c5 and B stock, line 18 uses E1/c3, E1/c4 and E2/c5 stock, line 62 is operated with E and E1 stock, and line 65 is operated with A (and occasionally E2) stock. The WLB (express tram to Baden) also uses this tunnel.

This is the only premetro section in Vienna since the conversion of line 64 (see below) to full metro. The Gürtel premetro is not very popular. Although it is clean, the dim lighting, 1960s-style tiling and long, cold, Kafkaesque corridors do not exactly create a cosy atmosphere. It would be necessary to restore the station at Südtiroler Platz, a masterpiece of 1950s architecture, to its former grandeur, and to radically refurbish the remainder of the stations to meet metro standards. Such a refurbishment was announced in early 2000, but it is unclear if and when it might be implemented.

More about the Gürtel premetro

The express tram to Siebenhirten

When the city built a large number of housing schemes in the Schöpfwerk, Alterlaa and Siebenhirten areas, it was clear that these would need high-capacity public transportation. It was decided to build an express tram (operated as line 64) and to see to it that a conversion to metro was possible at a later date. The line was opened in 1979 with the following stations:

Premetro - line 64

From the start the line was operated with the most modern tram stock available, i.e. E2/c5 stock, which was first built by Rotax (based on Duewag designs) in 1978.

There are no tunnels on this line, but apart from a number of level crossings the whole line was operated on separate track, including some 800 m of elevated track between Am Schöpfwerk and Rösslergasse.

Am Schoepfwerk
During the conversion to full metro line 64 already used the new stations (WVB).
The premetro station at Alterlaa is still being used by the metro (WVB).

Converting the express tram into full metro took longer than expected: permanent re-planning on how to use the existing track most efficiently and at the same time meet full metro standards delayed construction until 1993. In the final plan, only two stations (Tscherttegasse and Alterlaa) were taken over from the premetro. The stations at Wienerbergstrasse, Rösslergasse and Wienerflur were closed, the other four stations were completely rebuilt as elevated stations. Similarly, the track was elevated over the full length of the line, thus avoiding level crossings. A depot was built between Alterlaa and Erlaaer Strasse. Line 64 was in operation at all times during the conversion; over the last few months it already used the new stations and track. Services were taken over by line U6 in April, 1995.

As with previous projects, the conversion to full metro turned out to be a failure. The 120 m long trains serving the area to Alterlaa at 3-5 minute intervals and the area to siebenhirten in 6-10 minute intervals are more or less empty south of Philadelphiabrücke. In this light plans to have every train go to Siebenhirten as of September, 2000 are little more than a complete waste of money on operating 'ghost trains'. The former tram line 64 had provided a substantially more efficent service on the route.

The most remarkable thing about this line is, as it was with the former Stadtbahn, its architecture. The city tried to keep construction costs at a minimum, so they invited architect Johann Georg Gsteu to develop a new concept for these stations. He used aluminum sheets, which he formed into different shapes. Contrary to the other (expensive, but dull) station buildings on the network, Gsteu's futuristic buildings have in no time found their way into every important guide to modern architecture.

Table: underground tram stations

Station Line
Blechturmgasse 18
Eichenstrasse 6, 18, 62, WLB
Erzherzog-Karl-Strasse   25
Kliebergasse 18, 62, 65, WLB
Laurenzgasse 62, 65, WLB
Lerchenfelder Strasse closed
Matzleinsdorfer Platz 6, 18, 62, 65, WLB
Museumsquartier U2 (converted to full metro)
Rathaus U2 (converted to full metro)
Schottentor 37, 38, 40, 41, 42
Südtiroler Platz 18
Volkstheater U2 (converted to full metro)

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