FOLLOWING an official inauguration ceremony attended by government and Austrian Federal Railway (ÖBB) officials on November 23, the new Vienna - St Pölten high-speed line opened for commercial service on December 9.

The €2.8bn, project, e40m of which has been funded by the European Union, is part of the scheme to four-track 20.8km of the West Line from Vienna to Linz and Wels. In total ÖBB has added 56.3km of new track and 36.9km of tunnel to its network, while trains are now operating at a maximum speed of 230km/h, the fastest in Austria. However, the new line has been designed to allow 250km/h operation in the future.

Divided into two sections, a contract for development of the new line was first issued by the Ministry of Transport in 1990, and following nearly a decade of negotiations, work on the first section, the Lainzer tunnel, began in 1999.

Trains are now operating at a maximum speed of 160km/h in the 12.3km-long single-bore tunnel which starts at Vienna Meidling and is supplemented by an additional freight access link from Inzersdorf before reaching Hadersdorf junction, which was completed in December 2008. This is a four-track underground junction which connects the existing Vienna - St Pölten line with the new line from Meidling to St Pölten via Tullnerfeld.

It is possible to switch between the old line and the new in both directions but capacity is limited at the single level junction. On the surface there is another double-track line from Vienna Hütteldorf to Unterpurkersdorf which is used by stopping trains and has no connection with the new high-speed line.

Construction began in 2003 on the second section, the 44km-long stretch between Hadersdorf and St Pölten via Tullnerfeld. The first part of the line is the 13km-long Wienerwald tunnel which starts at Hadersdorf, and apart from the initial 2.2km stretch from the junction, is twin bored.

The line continues in the open to Tullnerfeld station, a junction with the existing single track Tulln - Herzogenburg - St Pölten line. The station has five platforms for stopping passenger trains as well as two through high-speed tracks and a loop for freight trains. There is also a link from the Tulln line towards Hadersdorf which has no platform at Tullnerfeld and is used by passenger trains from Krems to Vienna.

West of Tullnerfeld, the line continues through a chain of six single-bore tunnels which range from 660m to 3.3km in length and total 11.4km. These tunnels have been built to limit the impact of noise on nearby villages and were the result of the environmental impact assessment. The high-speed line then joins the existing line at Wagram and continues into St Pölten station. A double-track freight line to bypass St Pölten to the south is currently under construction from Wagram and is due to be completed in 2017.

Travel times

The new Vienna - St Pölten line has had a huge impact on journey times for passenger trains. ÖBB's flagship Railjet service, and two-hourly German Rail (DB) ICE trains are the only services to travel at 230km/h on the new line. Railjet completes the journey from Vienna West to St Pölten non-stop in 25 minutes, which compares with 41 minutes previously. Together with some other timetable improvements, ÖBB is now operating its hourly Railjets from Vienna West - Salzburg in 2h 22min, a reduction of 23 minutes.

ÖBB's open-access competitor Westbahn is also benefiting from the improved journey times. Despite its almost hourly services only operating at a maximum of 200km/h, Westbahn completes the journey from Vienna West - St Pölten, with a stop at Vienna Hütteldorf, in 26 minutes, compared with 44 minutes previously, while Vienna - Salzburg journey times have been cut from 2h 58min to 2h 32min. On the eastbound journey Westbahn serves Tullnerfeld, while ÖBB inter-city trains, which also operate at a maximum speed of 200km/h, call at the station when travelling west. This is due to timetabling constraints and was part of a deal with regional authorities to provide a frequent train service to Tullnerfeld.

In addition there are five ÖBB Regional Express services which operate a commuter service from Amstetten, serving seven stations to Vienna West in the morning, returning to Amstetten in the afternoon. For the time being only one passenger train is using the Tullnerfeld link which runs from Krems to Vienna West in the morning and returning in the evening. However, additional services may be introduced in future.

The new line is fully equipped with ETCS Level 2 with Austria's PZB system also installed on the Hadersdorf - Vienna Meidling section. This means that Hadersdorf - St Pölten services can only operate with rolling stock carrying ETCS equipment, a requirement that is so far only being met by ÖBB class 1116 locomotives (90 were equipped with ETCS by the end of 2012), Railjet driving trailers, DB's class 411 ICE trains and by Westbahn class 4010 emus.

No open-access freight operators' locomotives have yet been retrofitted. This is in part due to the high cost of ETCS equipment and the failure of the locomotive industry at this point to deliver ETCS equipment with the specifications required by ÖBB Infrastructure for Bombardier Traxx (classes 185 and 186), Siemens ES64U4 (class 1216) and ES64F4 (class 189).

Consequently only Rail Cargo Austria freight trains will use the new Vienna - St Pölten line, with other operators continuing to use the existing line via Neulengbach, which has a 1700-tonne limit for trains with a single locomotive. Heavier freight trains need a pilot or are being diverted via the Herzogenburg - Tullnerfeld - Tulln line. However, this single-track line is likely to become congested following the reintroduction of an hourly local passenger service. These trains were replaced by buses during construction of the new line to provide additional capacity for freight trains.

With construction not due to be completed on Vienna's new Main Station until December 2014, fast trains to Linz and Salzburg will continue to start from Vienna West. As a result, the Vienna Meidling - Hadersdorf section through the Lainzer tunnel is currently used only by freight trains.

The new station did partially open on December 9 for use by regional passenger trains. Specifically S60 trains from Bruck an der Leitha now continue to Vienna Hütteldorf via Vienna Meidling and to Rekawinkel during peak hours. S80 trains from Hirschstetten continue to Vienna Neustadt via Vienna Meidling and Wampersdorf, while ÖBB Regional Express trains from Bratislava operate to Deutschkreutz via Vienna Meidling and Ebenfurth. These trains provide improved connections to U-Bahn Line 1 at the new Vienna Main Station and U-Bahn Line 6 at Meidling.

Following the introduction of these services, ÖBB closed the temporary Vienna South terminus on December 8. The structure is now being demolished in order to complete the Main Station, which will provide a new home for Austria's most important long-distance passenger services, many of which will benefit from higher speeds to St Pölten.