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The Erzberg and the Erzbergbahn

A brief history of the Erzberg and the famous rack railway, constructed to transport
the ore over the mountain, the Erzbergbahn


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The Styrian Iron Road and the Enns Valley; holidays and quality accommodation IRON ROADS

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The Styrian Iron Road winds between the picturesque mountains of Upper Steiermark (Styria) between Altenmarkt on the border with Upper Austria (Oberösterreich), southwards following the course of the River Enns and its tributary, the Erzbach, upstream to the Erzberg. It continues over the Präbichl Pass to Vordernberg and Leoben. It's focal point is the extraordinary red, stepped pyramind of the Erzberg "Styrian Iron Mountain" whuch stands at the watershed between the Enns and the Mur, a pyramid six times the height of the Great Pyramids at Giza, glowing copper red in the late afternoon sun and surrounded by the dramatic backdrop of the Hochschwab and Eisenerz Alps. The Erzberg, the largest open-cast iron ore mine in central Europe, has been shaped over 1500 years by man and during the last 150 yearsand its exploitation called for the construction of an extensive narrow gauge railway system and what was undoubtedly Europe’s most famous standard gauge rack railway, the Erzbergbahn.

Iron ore has been mined in this area since the Iron Age, the Erzberg has even been connected with providing armour for the Roman Legions. Ore was initially gathered from the surface of the then forested mountain but by the 16th century mines were being excavated. The iron was extracted in open “wind” furnaces in situ up to the 12th century by which time rudimentary charcoal smelting furnaces, “Radwerke”, were emerging along the valleys on either side of the Erzberg. The towns of Eisenerz and Vordernberg developed with this new industry and divided the mountain between them; the lower “Innerberg”, the largest and most easily accessible deposit was exploited by the Eisenerz furnace masters, the upper section, “Vor dem Berg” by the Vordernberg furnace masters.

In 1625 the Eisenerz furnace masters, “Radmeisters”, had the foresight to form an association, the “Innerberger Hauptgewerkschaft (IHG)”. The Vordernberg mining and smelting operations didn’t follow suit until 1829 under the influence of Archduke Johann, brother of Kaiser Franz I, who took an active interest in the Styrian iron industry. The IHG and the “Vordernberger Radmeister Communität” (the direct forerunners of today’s Voest-Alpine) paved the way for a huge upsurge in production during the 19th century as capital was combined for investment in developing smelting techniques and mining practices, and improving the efficiency of transport systems for ore and charcoal. There were further innovations as processes were refined, the development of a continuous smelting process (from 1762), which enabled a constant flow of molten pig iron and slag to be tapped off separately, being one of the more significant. Stationary steam engines were installed in some of the “Radwerke” in place of water wheels, but by the end of the last century their numbers had dwindled dramatically, to three in Eisenerz and six in Vordernberg by 1892, as the modern coke-fired blast furnace complex at Donawitz took over. The last furnace in Eisenerz, the Rupprecht-Ofen, closed in 1907 while in Vordernberg Radwerk XIV was smelting iron up to 1922.

Since about 1870, when it was realised that the iron ore deposit on the Erzberg was uniform, the ore has been extensively quarried from the surface, gradually eroding the mountain from a height of 1532m to its present 1465m above sea level, and resulting in its distinctive appearance; 23 terraces (with an average height of 24m) forming a giant, stepped pyramid towering up to 700m from the valley floor. The summit was reached in 1907 and first blasted in 1925, though ore is no longer quarried from the upper third of the mountain. In addition to surface quarrying, ore was also extracted via five mine systems on four levels of the Erzberg, the last of which (Level 1) closed in 1986.

The iron industry of the Erzberg was amalgamated to form the Österreichisch-Alpine Montangesellschaft (ÖAMG) in 1881, which subsequently became Voest-Alpine in 1973 . At the beginning of the 19th century annual iron ore extraction stood at around 40,000 tonnes and it was estimated that there was sufficient to have lasted a further 850 years. However, technical advances mechanised every facet of work on the Erzberg and although the industry has waxed and waned, reflecting world trends in the demand for iron and steel, production peaked at 3.76 million tonnes in 1974. The Erzberg is the only place in Austria where iron is still exploited. Explosives3 are detonated once a day creating 15,000 tonnes of rubble which is cleared away and the ore separated and crushed. The Erzberg deposit comprises spathic iron ore (siderite, FeCO3) with a low iron content, about 32%. Annual production of enriched ore currently runs at 1.3 million tonnes4, accounting for 1/3 of the iron used in the present day blast furnaces at Donawitz and Linz. The industry was in decline during the 1970s and 1980s, but has recently witnessed an upturn in production.


Iron ore was first transported down from the Erzberg on sledges dragged by horses, then in carts hauled by oxen or horses to the furnaces of Krumpental. However, labour was less expensive so men, known as “Sackzieher”, were employed from 1564 to bring the ore down from the Innerberg in sacks supported rather like a shopping trolley on a pair of wooden wheels. In 1810 a more efficient transport system incorporating crude wagonways, the earliest “iron railways” in Austria5, was introduced to facilitate the transfer of ore from the upper levels to the crushing and sorting plants below. These were constructed on both parts of the Erzberg and came to be known as Erzförderbahnen, “Ore supply railways”.

The earliest system, comprising free-fall shafts and chutes which caused the iron ore to become broken up and sodden, was replaced by a series of vertical winding shafts with cable brakes and self-acting (gravity) inclines developed to lower ore down the mountain in wagons, with a laden weight of three tonnes, to the large storage area at the 903m Liedemann level and to the enrichment plants. The winding engines incorporated ingenious hydraulic devices which utilised water and wind resistance to tension and brake the cables. These connected with horizontal 830mm gauge wagonways on each of the 28 levels in use at the time, along which the blasted rock and ore was cleared from the working areas. By 1891 there were close to 50 levels (terraces) being quarried on the Erzberg, the uppermost reaching an altitude of 1360m. The eight upper levels were connected by a 106m winding shaft (a second came on line towards the end of the decade). Ore arrived from each of these upper levels via further wagonways, the lowest incorporating a 595m walled tunnel to enable onward transport to the 1085m “Dreikönig” level where there was a covered storage area and a transshipment facility with the Erzbergbahn at Erzberg station. The lines fanning out along each level to serve the opencast mining operations utilised steam and later also electric locomotives. The equipment for overhead electrification was extremely flexible and easy to handle so simple track sections could be quickly taken up and re-laid, using special machines, as required. This extensive surface system survived until the large scale introduction of dumper trucks on the Erzberg in 1965.

The “enriched” ore was finally transported from the plants above Krumpental via a covered self-acting incline and 830mm gauge horse tramway, the “Huntslauf”, to a transshipment facility with the railway, at Eisenerz station, for onward delivery to domestic blast furnaces and for export to other countries. There was also a connection via two high bridges to the last remaining Eisenerz smelting furnace, the Rupprecht-Ofen in Krumpental, to supply charcoal and ore until its closure in 1907. Following the construction of a new transshipment complex, “Erzverladung”, with a storage capacity of 4625m3, in 1938, 11,000 tonnes of ore would be unloaded daily from the “Huntslauf” into main line wagons at Eisenerz station and delivered to the blast furnaces at Linz6 and Donawitz. Electric locomotives were employed on the “Huntslauf” from the turn of the century running off 600V DC. The Huntslauf also carried ore to blast furnaces in the Münichtal quarter of Eisenerz from 1901 to 1944. Mining equipment such as locomotives and wagons continued to be transported to the Münichtal main workshops and there was even an internal passenger service for employees of the workshops until 1971 when the section Werkschule - Hochofen Münichtal was closed. The “Huntslauf” and the transshipment complex at Eisenerz were closed in 1985, and later dismantled, due to the completion of a new transfer facility at Krumpental.

The final part of the Erzberg Förderbahnen was an underground electric mine railway, “Werksbahn”, which also brought ore to the large crusher and enrichment plants. The last of the five underground mine systems (Level I) closed in 1986, while the railway itself was still in use until the end of 1987. However, a section of the system on Level I (813m) including a complete Werksbahn train, “Katl”, with a 100hp direct current locomotive coupled to each end has been retained by Voest-Alpine as a tourist attraction in connection with guided tours of the Erzberg.

The total combined length of the railways making up the the Förderbahnen on the Erzberg was 70.36km in 1892. The whole system was converted from 830mm to 900mm gauge between 1939 and 1945 during which time it reached its greatest size and utilised the largest number of locomotives. This had diminished to a mere 9km by the time of its closure in 1987.


Constructed between 1831 and 1847 to the plans of Johann Dulnig, the Vordernberger Förderbahn was the forerunner of the Erzbergbahn. Like the other Förderbahnen it utilised a system of inclined and horizontal railways. Iron ore from lower levels of the Vordernberg part of Erzberg was raised by two 2800kg capacity water-assisted 38% inclines. From 1835 this ore, together with that from the highest area of exploitation on the Erzberg (up to 1360m) at Wismath, was transported along a 920mm gauge horse wagonway, the “Präbichlbahn”, at 1262m to a transfer facility at Präbichl. The horses were replaced in August 1878 by 11 tonne, 45hp steam locomotives, producing a steam pressure of 8 Atmospheres, which were put to work hauling trains comprising up to 35 three tonne capacity ore wagons to Präbichl. Ten trains could be made up in 12 hours. Although this was a purely industrial line an 1892 tourist guide to the Erzberg and the Erzbergbahn suggests taking a ride on the “Werksbahn” from Präbichl in order to reach the Erzberg!

Work on the extension of the Förderbahn down to Vordernberg began in 1844 and was completed by 1847. This section was also built to 920mm gauge and involved a total descent of 369m which was overcome by the provision of two self-acting inclines (“Bremsberge”) with a gradient of 13% and connecting wagonways with a maximum gradient of 8.3‰. The “Präbichlbahn” was initially extended along the side of the Polster to the Handlalmhalde where iron ore was transferred from the trains and lowered down the first of the inclines to another wagonway, the “Kohlbergbahn”, which began above Almhäuser and extended along the west slope of the Kohlberg to a second incline, named Glaslbremse after its designer. The ore trucks were thus lowered to the valley floor. The next wagonway delivered the ore to the Laurenziröst, where it was enriched by burning off carbon and other impurities, to prepare it for the furnaces. The final run down to Vordernberg took the ore via a crushing plant and rubble tip, the Schönauhalde, down to an unloading bay at the upper end of Vordernberg. The enriched ore was loaded on to horse drawn carts and transferred to the various furnaces to be smelted. Two of the larger furnaces, Radwerk I and Radwerk IV, later paid for the Förderbahn to be extended in order to receive their ore directly.

This transport system proved very successful, resulting in a 40% saving for the Vordernberg furnaces in the cost of ore despite having to transfer it onto the inclines between each level. Apart from the Präbichlbahn where steam locomotives were used, the ore was transported along the horizontal sections in free rolling wagons controlled by a man standing at the back operating a foot brake. After unloading at Vordernberg he would have to push the empty wagon back up the line. In 1892 the total length of track making up the Förderbahnen on the Vordernberg part of the Erzberg, as far as Präbichl, was 29.93km but, the central section between Präbichl and Schönauhalde with its gravity inclines was made redundant by the opening of the Erzbergbahn and was subsequently closed in 1893. From 1891 ore from the Vordernberg part of the Erzberg was unloaded at a new transshipment gantry constructed at the Präbichlhalde (beside Präbichl station) onto the Erzbergbahn. A train comprising six ore wagons with a total capacity of 90 tonnes would then descend to Schönauhalde where there was a further unloading bay for the crusher and enrichment plant. Enriched ore for the Vordernberg furnaces continued to be delivered, as before, by the lower section of the Förderbahn. The line remained in operation until 15.8.1965 although, like the other Förderbahnen, it was regauged to 900mm at the end of World War II, and was further cut back in 1950 when the transfer facility at Präbichl was closed.


The transportation of iron from the Erzberg to foundries along the various routes which have come to be known as the “Eisenstrasse”, Iron Road, was slow and difficult. It was transported down the Erzbach valley on horse drawn carts as far as Hieflau where it was loaded onto rafts and transported down the Enns to Steyr, a hazardous journey on account of the rapids, then onwards to the Danube. Small foundries forging everything from needles to scythes developed along side valleys harnessing mountain streams to drive bellows and hammers. Towns such as Steyr and Weyer in Upper Austria and Waidhofen an der Ybbs in Lower Austria prospered as important iron markets and later industrial centres. To the south iron from Vordernberg was taken down the Vordernbergbach valley to Leoben and along the Mur valley to Graz, the Styrian capital and gateway to the southern realms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the port of Trieste. At the same time the demand for charcoal to fuel the furnaces was ever increasing. It had to be brought up from the charcoal works at Hieflau (where the remains of great timber rakes fanning across the Enns to catch driftwood may still be seen) and Hafning near Trofaiach.

The scene was therefore set for the first railways to begin to play an import role in transportation in this region during the middle of the 19th century. With their arrival came previously unheard opportunities for creating wealth. In 1872 the railway reached Vordernberg from Leoben opening up potential new markets for local iron via the Südbahn and provided a direct link with the capital via the Semmering pass. In 1873 Eisenerz was reached from Hieflau facilitating transport onwards to Steyr and Linz. There was little space for further technological development in the narrow valleys round the Erzberg so Donawitz, 11km downstream of Vordernberg, was chosen as the site for the construction of a large blast furnace complex to be integrated into the newly formed Österreichisch-Alpine Montangesellschaft (ÖAMG) to utilise Erzberg ore for steel production. Rail connections along the Mur and Mürz valleys played an important role in this decision. Furthermore, the last barrier to the rich iron ore reserves of the Innerberg of the Erzberg, the Präbichl Pass was about to be overcome.

The first suggestions to connect Eisenerz and Vordernberg with a standard gauge railway came about as a result of the limitation on the efficiency of the Vordernberger Förderbahn with its narrow gauge, inclines and transshipment requirements. Such a railway would enable the Vordernberg smelting furnaces and, more significantly, the proposed Donawitz blast furnace complex an economical supply of iron ore. Early plans for an adhesion railway incorporating a 4km tunnel beneath the Präbichl at an estimated cost of 12 million florins were prohibitively expensive and would have provided little benefit to the local iron ore mining industry as the planned route excluded the Erzberg. Consequently the idea of a rack railway (”Zahnradbahn”) providing access to the working areas wherever possible was mooted and accepted.

It was decided to adopt the Abt combined rack and adhesion system devised by a Swiss Engineer Roman Abt. This required a 220mm high steel blade with teeth cut into it to be attached along the centre of the sleepers. It was engaged by the cogwheel teeth of the locomotives which were machined accurately to fit closely thus minimising vibration in the locomotive and wear on the rail. In the case of the Erzbergbahn two blades were laid side by side with the teeth staggered and the locomotives had pairs of cogwheels so that a tooth would always be in mesh with the rack.

The railway from Leoben to Vordernberg and from Hieflau to Eisenerz in 1873. Initiation of surveying work for the proposed Erzbergbahn started three years later and concession for the operation of an adhesion and rack railway from Eisenerz to Vordernberg granted to ÖAMG in 1881. Construction work began in earnest on the line and civil engineering projects including Erzberg station, where progress was slow on account of a rubble scree having to be cleared, six viaducts built with quarry stone with spans up to 12m across and foundations down to 17m, and five tunnels with a combined length of 2.5km. The first train ran over the entire stretch of the Erzbergbahn from Vordernberg to Eisenerz in August 1891 and a passenger service followed a year later.

By the mid 1970s the price of iron ore from the Erzberg was once more falling sharply due to a worldwide slump in the demand for steel, the construction of new steelworks in developing countries and the domestic steel industry importing an ever increasing proportion of its ore requirement from countries such as Nigeria and Brazil. The initial effect on the Erzbergbahn was the withdrawal in 1973 of several class 97 locomotives and the beginning of trials with Uerdingen type railbuses with a view to replacing the existing steam-hauled passenger services. By the middle of the decade the majority of the ore was being exploited from the lower levels of the Innerberg part of the Erzberg closer to the crushing and sorting plants where it could be loaded directly onto trains of the “Huntslauf” at Krumpental and conveyed to the transshipment complex at Eisenerz station. As the decade progressed it became increasingly more economical to transport ore to Donawitz via the electrified Gesäusestrecke to Selzthal then over the Schoberpass than over the considerably shorter Erzbergbahn. Excluding passenger trains, traffic on the western ramp of the Erzbergbahn between Erzberg and Eisenerz was becoming a rarity. The decline in the supply from the transshipment hoppers at Erzberg station for transport down to Vordernberg lead to the eventual curtailment of steam-hauled ore trains and the replacement of all remaining steam locomotives by just four specially adapted diesels in 1978. In 1974 regular services between Vordernberg and Eisenerz were inaugurated using 5081 class railbuses April 1974 marked the end of an era when the last iron ore train was hauled over the Erzberg by steam locomotives. though several steam specials were operated during that summer. The Abt rack rails (”Zahnstange”) were subsequently removed from the entire Erzbergbahn.

In 1984 Voest-Alpine completed the construction of a new ore loading facility at Krumpental permitting the direct loading of main line ÖBB trains from the crushing and sorting complex. The track between Krumpental and Eisenerz station was upgraded and electrified to enable trains direct access and the “Huntslauf” was closed and dismantled. 1986 saw suspension of ore traffic over the Erzbergbahn to Vordernberg the last ore wagons being loaded at Bahnhof Erzberg and hauled down the “Westrampe” of the Erzbergbahn to Eisenerz. Official closure of the Erzbergbahn Eisenerz-Vordernberg Markt came in 1988.

In 1990 the Verein Erzbergbahn took over tenancy of the former Erzbergbahn between Eisenerz and Vordernberg Markt with the intention of setting up a museum railway. The first train comprising two railbuses ran from from Vordernberg to Eisenerz in June of that year, and in 1993 the Erzbergbahn Museum was extended and relocated to Vordernberg Markt station. Tourist trains operate at weekends in the summer (see
ERZBERGBAHN link for latest schedules) while several of the famous steam rack locomotives have been preserved, either as mouments in Vordernberg, or at other museums.


ÖBB class 97; formerly KKStB class 69

Four 420hp rack tank locomotives with a wheel arrangement 0-6-2T (C1’zzt) were built at Floridsdorf for the opening of the Erzbergbahn. Their 56 tonnes was distributed proportionately over all four axles, the front three of which were coupled and produced a tractive effort of 6000-7000kg, the last a System Bissel adjustable free-running axle. The Abt rack mechanism was located between the first and second driving axles, and comprised two, coupled sets of toothed wheels inside the frames which were driven directly from a pair of inside cylinders. Prior to entering service the locomotives were successfully tested on the Erzbergbahn proving they were capable of hauling 105 tonnes up a 25‰ gradient by adhesion alone, and a 71‰ gradient on the rack. A further fourteen 97s followed; four in 1892, two in 1893 and again in 1898, one in 1902, two in 1906 and finally three more in 1908. They were reliable and smooth running, indeed ten of them remained in service until the end of steam operation in 1978 when they were either sold or scrapped. Five 97s have survived, two of them as working museum locomotives.

ÖBB class 197; formerly KKStB class 269

In 1911 the ÖAMG determined that further, more powerful locomotives would be required to cope with an estimated 30% increase in the demand for iron ore transportation. The upshot of this was the delivery at the beginning of 1913 of three rack locomotives of class 269 (subsequently ÖBB 197) which were capable of negotiating the steepest gradients with a 170 tonne ore train. The rack mechanism was virtually identical to that of the earlier locomotives, the better performance being achieved through the adhesion on the track from them having six coupled axles (the outer pairs having 52mm side play), i.e. 0-12-0T (F’zzt) and a greater weight. These locomotives were popular with their drivers on account of their excellent pulling power and, although they were somewhat prone to breaking down, they also survived in service to the end of steam operation, the first being withdrawn in 1975. One is preserved as a working locomotive at Strasshof.

ÖBB class 297; formerly DRG class 974

Plans for heavier locomotives were first made in 1931 but, as a result of the economic recession of the 1930s, it was not until 1941 that they came to fruition with the delivery of two massive 125 tonne locomotives with a wheel configuration 2-12-2T (1’F1’zzt). Planned as class 369 they were actually delivered to the Deutsche Reichsbahn as class 974 (later ÖBB 297) and were the world’s most powerful rack locomotives, capable of hauling a 300 tonne train up the steepest gradients at 15km/h compared to 10-11km/h for class 269 with a heavy load. However, they gained a notoriety for needing repairs which was exacerbated by the extreme inaccessibility of the rack mechanism. In addition they developed serious vibrations when descending the mountain to such a degree that their speed had to be severely limited in order to prevent derailment. The enormous maintenance costs took their toll when 97.402 was prematurely withdrawn on 11.5.1949 and henceforth served to provide spare parts to keep the other locomotive running. 297.401 was used less and less, rarely venturing beyond the shunting yard at Vordernberg or the adhesion stretch down to Donawitz. It was last used in service on 13.5.1964 though it was not officially withdrawn until 1968 and, despite its reputation, it was preserved by the Österreichisches Eisenbahnmuseum (“Austrian Railway Museum”, Vienna) in 1976 as a static exhibit at Vordernberg (Südbahnhof). On 23.7.1993 it was placed back on the rails and hauled up to Vordernberg Markt where it was lifted onto a piece of rack line beside the Erzbergbahn Museum housed in the station building.

The Erzbergbahn Verein presently have four ÖBB class 5081.5 railbuses. The 5081 lightweight 2-axle railbuses had been introduced on several branch lines, usually with trailers during the 1960s. They were based on the DB class 798 Uerdingen railbus with simple mechanical transmission, a maximum speed of 90km/h and seats for 56 passengers. Those for the Erzbergbahn (5081.5) differ from the above by having only 52 seats and received some modifications

This information has been condensed from "Railway Centres of Austria - The Erzbergbahn" published by the Austrian Railway Group in 1995.
Copyright © 2004 Michael Morton and ARG

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