You are on your way from Salzburg to Vienna by train. As luck would have it, just after buying your ticket, there was a nice new white and blue train setting off for Vienna.
"Not vellid on dis train", the girl in the blue peaked cap says, without emotion.
You sweat panic sweat.
"How can it not be valid? I just bought this ticket!"
"You heff ÖBB ticket. You take ÖBB train".
The smell of your panic sweat reaches your nose.
"You pay. Or you get off et Vöcklabruck".
You get off at Vöcklabruck.
Didn't see that coming? Welcome to the world of deregulated European railways. In some EU countries, there is now more than one operator running trains on the same line. They all sell their own tickets, and only their own tickets do they accept
You had a standard ÖBB ticket from Salzburg to Vienna and got on the first train towards Vienna. Unfortunately the first train towards Vienna was a Westbahn train.
The Westbahn is a private train company that runs fast trains between Vienna and Salzburg.
In 2011 it took up an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof and Salzburg, using smart double-deck trains. Its tickets were about half the price of what the national rail operator ÖBB charged, and the trains had free WiFi - something unheard of in those days. At least on trains.
Here is a map with the current Westbahn stops. The Westbahn train calls at larger stations on the mainline between Vienna and Salzburg.
Westbahn trains are electric multiple units formed of six (or four) double deck coaches. They run at up to 200 km/h (125 mph) between Vienna and Salzburg. Similar trains run in Swiss regional services, but also in Luxembourg, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Good trains. I like them. Here is an interactive tour.
Coach numbers are 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600. Theoretically, on this train coach 100 is always facing Salzburg and coach 600 always facing Vienna.
Westbahn has two classes, but it doesn't call it that. Westbahn say that all their seats are first class.
However, here is what you can expect on the other Vienna-Salzburg train:
Westbahn standard class has
This is much nicer than Economy on the ÖBB Railjet, with its frozen-spinach green seats and drab linoleum flooring.
However, there is also Westbahn Plus, in coach 600. You pay a surcharge to sit here, depending on how far you are going.
What do you get for it? Everything already mentioned, plus:
Currently, the Westbahn Plus upgrade costs between €9.90 for the shortest hop and €22.90 for the full distance from Vienna to Salzburg, in addition to your Westbahn standard class ticket.
You can buy the Westbahn Plus upgrade in advance, or you can wait until you are on the train, sniff the air and upgrade only if you feel the need. Just sit down in coach 600 and pay the surcharge when the steward rolls up. On a full Vienna to Salzburg train it is definitely worth the extra expense.
The advantage of buying in advance is that you know you've got your seat.
I've been on the Westbahn several times. When travelling between Salzburg and Vienna by train I have always made an effort to use them.
My first trip was in 2012. As I still worked for a state railway operator, I first resisted the idea of going on a privately run train. But for scientific research purposes (as the Japanese whalers say) I went on the Westbahn anyway.
And I loved it. Getting the ticket was so easy, and in 2012 everything was so new and the staff were all so eager. After that I went out of my way to go on the Westbahn. Between Vienna and Salzburg it is my preferred operator.
It all starts with a sigh, as the breaks release. Then the train silently glides out of the gorgeously refurbished Salzburg station.
I digress again: after the 2008 financial crash, Germany subsidised every new car with €2500 and called it an environmental bonus. Talk about doublethink. Meanwhile, Austria started a huge programme in which almost every railway station was completely refurbished. Salzburg Hbf was transformed from a labyrinthine open sewer into a jewel of a station.
If you are on the top deck, it is quite jerky as the train picks its way over the points on its way out. Then a futuristic electric whirring sets in as the KISS gathers speed. For the first half hour or so you can see the mountains. Then they recede. After Vöcklabruck you are in the plain of the Danube, though you rarely see the river on the upgraded line.
Even at the top deck there are no more jerks as you whizz towards Vienna at 200 km/h.
If you are on the top deck, you can see over the sound-barriers installed along vast swathes of the Salzburg-Vienna line.
As a trained railway worker I was doubtful about the Westbahn.
The driver does all the safety stuff, like reading the signals and closing the doors, while the Westbahn stewards only do tickets and service. Like on a plane.
I thought the role of the WESTsteward had the hallmarks of a McJob. I thought you need properly trained guards looking after passengers, not clueless students who can't read signals. Their jeans and casual uniform didn't inspire confidence.
But honestly? I think it is great that the threshold for working on trains has been lowered and more people can do these great jobs. I've asked around, and the Westbahn stewards make decent wages. What's more, they have full Austrian railway emergency training, so you are in capable hands.
On every single trip I've had the stewards have been wonderful. Cheerful, polite and helpful. They do a great job.
Every Westbahn train has a section with a coffee machine, a cold drinks machine and a snack machine. There are also some bar tables. It is a nice, cosy section where you can meet other travellers or reflect on things in silence.
I'm going to come out with it. On a 2017 trip that took me from Munich all the way to Eastern Poland, the worst coffee I had was the Westbahn cappuccino. It was sour, watery and scalding hot.
However the espresso was fine. Less can go wrong with it.
Both at Salzburg and at Vienna the snack machine is refilled with freshly made sandwiches.
For the 2 1/2 hour journey between Vienna and Salzburg, this is adequate. It's not much, and I love real dining cars, but it is much better than nothing at all.
Your Westbahn bank (see below for what that is) gets you money off your coffee. If you want to use your Westbahn bank to buy coffee or food, you have to get hold of one of the West stewards. They dock the money from your Westbahn bank by scanning it, then they override the money slot on the machine to retrieve your desired drink or light refreshment.
What are "light refreshments anyway"? Why do you only get them on trains and planes? I see myself eating a lemon-flavoured wet wipe.
What surprised me was that there are no rubbish bins. At all.
At the mid-level sections between the upper and lower decks there are dispensers with small plastic rubbish bags. These you take with you for your waste.
When you want it taken away, either give it to a steward, or go to where the dispensers are and hang your bag of waste on a hook that is there specially.
To begin with, the Westbahn ticket system was wonderfully easy. Refreshingly simple it was. God, I loved it. No train you HAD to be on. None of this new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. Just honest-to-God from here to there costs this and this much.
As the realities of running trains at a profit have bitten, Westbahn have refined their ticketing system and it has become more complex. The good news is, there are much more special deals. You just have to know about them.
Here we go.
The simplest tickets are Westbahn's normal tickets. They go at the walk-up ticket price. You can simply buy them on the train (for €1 extra), or online, or from tobacconists.
A WESTstandard ticket is good for any Westbahn train for one year from the day of purchase.
Even if your ticket says "WIEN-SALZBURG" or "WIEN-LINZ" you can use it in either direction.
Vienna-Salzburg at this rate is €33.50.
There are all sorts of boring and irrelevant Austrian membership and loyalty schemes that get you some money off the standard Westbahn ticket. I can't go into them here. I don't know what most of them are. I don't even want to know. Some sound scary.
What is interesting is that Westbahn give you a significant reduction if you have any European railway discount card. Thus Vienna-Salzburg is €25.50 as opposed to €33.50.
You can use your British Railcard to get money off your Westbahn ticket in Austria. Now that is cool.
Westbahn have a special off-peak offer for people over 60. You don't have to be a pensioner. Just over 60. A WESTaktiv ticket is valid for one year from the date you bought it.
You can use it on any Westbahn train from Monday to Thursday.
Vienna - Salzburg with a WESTaktiv ticket costs €19.99.
An interesting hybrid between open and obligatory train tickets. WESTspartage are tickets that are valid on certain off-peak days or parts of a day. When you buy, you have to say which day,
Look at the calendars below. Blue days you can use a WESTspartage ticket between 9 am and 3 pm. Green days at any time before 12 pm and grey days any time after 12 pm. Simple. So you do have some wriggle-room on the day you travel.
Vienna-Salzburg at the current WESTspartage rate is €25.99.
Sadly, you can't combine the promotional rate with a railcard.
If you use a WESTspartage ticket on a different day than specified, you have to pay the difference between the promo ticket and the standard fare.
Eventually Westbahn succumbed to the new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. If you travel at 5 AM of a Tuesday morning, your ticket is cheaper than if you go on Friday afternoon.
About yield management: It makes sense to spread people across as many trains as possible, so let's not grudge them. Some people have more time, some people have more money. Yield-management provides transport for both. It prevents empty trains and discourages full ones. This is good.
WESTsuperpreis tickets are valid for a particular train on a particular day. They come on sale 30 days in advance and are available up to one minute before departure.
However, the nice thing about them is this: if you change your plans, you can return your ticket. You get all your money back in the form of a Westbahn bank (see below) and can use it to buy other Westbahn tickets. These are MUCH better terms than offered for any other promo tickets by any other company.
Furthermore, the tickets are not personalised, so anyone can use them.
If you use a different train on the same day, you simply have to pay the difference between your cheap deal and the standard price.
Westbahn doesn't punish you for using a different train or day. They simply charge you the difference. I think that is fair.
The Westbahn bank is a great thing. I love it. When I last had one I would get it out from time to time and look at it and think of my next trip to Vienna.
Westbahn banks are pay-as-you go credit. You pay Westbahn €135 and get €150 of credit that you can blow on tickets, upgrades or food and drink. Pay €400 and you get €450 of credit.
Effectively that is 10-12% off anything you buy from Westbahn.
Your Westbahn Bank is issued as an A4 PDF with a barcode. You can print it out or just keep it on your phone or tablet. You can use it online or on the train to pay for anything you buy.
Westbahn banks are valid for 30 years. I love that optimism.
If you are a passing visitor, I don't see what you would do with the big Westbahn Bank, but the little one is worth getting as soon as there are two of you going from Vienna to Salzburg, or even Munich.
Munich? You heard me. Read on...
Westbahn quickly learned that the only way for it to survive long term is to cooperate with anything that moves. Anything that moves people, at least. Thus they have all sorts of deals going.
Westbahn and Meridian have been cooperating for quite some time. Their trains usually arrive at Salzburg on the same platform so you can change easily. Their timetables are also adapted to each other so that you don't have to wait too long.
Westbahn and Meridian have two tickets on offer that get you from Vienna to Munich or vice versa.
This combines Meridian's Guten Tag Ticket with a Westbahn ticket. The Guten Tag Ticket gets you onto all of Meridian's trains, plus the Bayerische Oberland-Bahn and Bayerische Regio-Bahn in the whole of Bavaria.
This just in. Westbahn now offer a standard ticket for the whole distance between Munich and Vienna. It hasn't got one of their wizzy WESTnames yet, but I'm sure they'll come up with something.
In the fullness of time, it may be integrated into their promo deals as well. As it stands,
Vienna-Munich costs €67.40. Or €54.30 with any European railcard. Anytime.
For a fully flexible ticket that cannot sell out, this is a great price.
Czech operator RegioJet have started running trains from Prague via Brno to Vienna. It is now possible to buy combined tickets for Westbahn and RegioJet from RegioJet. This is seriously cool cooperation. I love it. It is the only way forward.
You can get yourself a ticket from Salzburg to Prague or Brno via Vienna. RegioJet is a beast of its own which I am going to have to review soon.
What I can say here is that RegioJet have nice refurbished Austrian and Swiss coaches, plus some new ones built by Astra Vagoane in Romania - much like the seated coaches in my review of Astra Trans Carpatic. Though nominally first and second class coaches, RegioJet operate a four-class system, from basic to business. But even in basic you get free water.
Click here to investigate these combined tickets.
I usually buy my Westbahn tickets directly online.
The website is brilliant and intuitive. I remember the first time I used it how relieving it was after navigating the big websites of DB and ÖBB. To be fair, it is simple because Westbahn is a small train company that sells tickets only for itself.
However, you can also get any Westbahn ticket from a tobacconist (look out for the ubiquitous sign saying "Tabak Trafik"). In addition, Westbahn have their own WESTshops at major stations they serve. Here you can pay in cash and remain nameless, if anonymity matters to you.
Westbahn started in 2011 and have been at it for 8 years now. After much growing pains, they have broken even, and I hope they shall be with us for a long time yet.
It was Westbahn who first ran trains in Austria with WiFi. Until then, the Austrian Railway state operator ÖBB had been banging on about how difficult it was to install WiFi and they couldn't do it, etc. etc.
As soon as Westbahn rolled up with WiFi, ÖBB suddenly discovered that they could have WiFi after all. ÖBB also offered more special deals and even more frequent trains between Salzburg and Vienna.
Thus even people who never used Westbahn benefitted from Westbahn's entry on the Salzburg-Vienna line.
Westbahn's greatest advantage is that they give you flexible travel at a reasonable price. For spontaneous train trips between Salzburg and Vienna, you're most likely to get a better deal on Westbahn.
If you have a pram or a wheelchair with you, the wide doors and low entrances are also more convenient than the high floor on, say, ÖBB's Railjet. The Railjet is the most hostile train I can think of for people with prams due to its high floors and restricted pram space. Want to go first class on the Railjet with your pram? You're out of luck. Pram space is at the other end of the train, deep inside the second class.
The second class on the Westbahn is much nicer than the second class on the Railjet. On the Westbahn you get leather seats and carpeted floors, on the Railjet you have drab linoleum and depressing frozen-spinach green seats.
The Westbahn in Austria is an example of competition making rail services better - better meaning more trains, better service, lower prices.
The downside is that we, the customers, have to do more thinking, researching and deciding. We also have to get onto the right train. No more sleepwalking.
I spent six months in Belarus, where there was only one state operator for everything except mobiles, where there were two. I loved how my life was devoid of irrelevant, meaningless decisions I had to make. I could turn my beautiful mind towards things that mattered.
However, we don't live in the red star's white dwarf. And if we don't know about the special deals out there from competing companies, we end up paying too much for bad service. And perhaps paying too much and ending up on the wrong train.
With this post, I hope I have helped you understand your options between Salzburg and Vienna by train, as well as beyond the two cities.
I heartily recommend giving Westbahn a try. I loved every single journey. Between Vienna and Salzburg it is my preferred train.
All the pictures were taken by my brother Hector, who is studying Art at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. You are most welcome. Check out his Instagram profile: @ettoreschofield
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