One of the best ways to get to the so-called Oetscherland, in Lower Austria, is to take a ride on the 85km long Mariazellerbahn, a 760mm narrow-gauge railway that stretches from the regional capital town of Sankt Poelten to Mariazell, a well-known place of pilgrimage. If you happen to be in this part of Austria, you should definitely not miss it.
Beginning in Sankt Poelten the train enters the lovely Pielach valley and passes the small towns of Ober Grafendorf and Rabenstein. When the valley narrows, shortly before Schwarzenbach, it passes below the ruined castle Weissenburg and, after a short tunnel at Schoenau, the train tracks meander into Natters Valley.
In Laubenbachmuehle the really interesting part of the journey begins. The train winds its way in continuous turns towards the mountains. In the 2368m long Goesing tunnel, at a height of 892m above sea level, the track reaches its most elevated point. In a space of only 17km length it climbs up about 358m. After this summit tunnel, the mountain scenery of Erlauf valley is breathtaking. Viewed from Goesing station the Oetscher peak (1893m) dominates the view, appearing incredibly imposing. The railroad then runs on down the valley to Annaberg-Reith and passes over the highest bridge of the track, the Saugrabenviadukt, which is 116m long and 37m high and continues along past the Wienerbruck and Erlaufklause reservoirs. In Mitterbach the train journey reaches the Styrian border and the train journey ends in Mariazell.
Except for the part from Sankt Poelten to Laubenbachmuehle, which was relatively easy to build, the track passes through high mountains and narrow gorges, where no roads and not even a footpath exists. Some parts of the track are only accessible on foot by walking on the tracks, which is not recommended because there is no where to go if a train approaches. The whole track passes through 21 tunnels, and over 75 bridges, with a total length of 4574m.
Mariazell, some 100km south west of Vienna, was founded in 1157 by a monk, who built a small shelter or Zell in the woods to protect a statuette of St Mary. Today, Mariazell's Baroque church, which has been rebuilt several times in different architectural styles, still houses the old statuette and is Austria's most important place of pilgrimage. In 1757, about 373,000 pilgrims visited the small town; the average, though, is about 90,000 a year.
In 1871, the first plans to build a railway from Sankt Poelten to Mariazell were proposed, but the project was delayed until 1898. However, starting in 1878, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy built a network of narrow-gauge railway lines in Bosnia, for which they had bought some 760mm gauge locomotives from a Serbian steelwork. 760mm is approximately two and a half feet. It is said that this material was originally used for construction of the Suez channel and to ensure compatibility between the different narrow-gauge lines, most tracks in Austria were also built with a 760mm gauge. The construction took several years, the last part was opened in 1907.
The building of the Goesing Tunnel took one year and 200 days to complete, which was a very short time for more than two kilometres of track. Fogowitz, the constructor, was the first person to use small 1hp-electric drills powered by steam generators located at both ends of the tunnel.
In 1909, the railway traffic became so heavy that the steam locomotives could not handle it anymore. 190,000 tons had to be moved. Therefore, the Mariazellerbahn became the first electrified railway line in Austria, and the only electric narrow-gauge railway. Almost unbelievably, of the 16 electric locomotives built in 1911, 15 are still in service today. The single loss was by accident in 1981.
For the project, two hydroelectric power stations were built, one in Erlaufboden and one at Wienerbruck, by the Niederoesterreichische Landesbahnen, or Lower Austrian Provincial Railways Company. They too, are still in service and supplying the railway with power today.
In 1886, the Parliament of the Province of Styria considered construction of a narrow-gauge local railway from Mariazell to Kapfenberg, as the area was not only witnessing the development of a substantial iron industry, but was also rich in coal deposits and woodland. After the franchise had been granted, construction work was commissioned in the winter of 1892/93 and work started on the Kapfenberg - Au-Seewiesen local line. After 210 days of work, the 22.9 km-section was completed. The formal inauguration ceremony was held on 8 December, 1893. Even though the Sankt Poelten - Mariazell - Gusswerk line was completed in 1907, the link through, to the Kapfenberg - Au-Seewiesen Landesbahn, was never established for cost reasons. Service on the 3km section from Seebach-Turnau to the Au-Seeweisen terminal station was discontinued on 31 December, 1964 and the tracks were soon dismantled.
While goods transport to and from Thoerl was running close to capacity, the line lacked the potential for passenger traffic. While the line provided access to the scenic mountainous landscape of the Hochschwab it was running far from any major settlements, and scheduled passenger service was therefore discontinued as early as 15 March, 1959. Since then, special outings with steam traction have been organised at regular intervals for railway enthusiasts, and tourists. This continued until the end of 1999, when the line was finally closed down. It will probably be dismantled in the next few years.
Except for a visit to the church there are lots of other things to do in Mariazellerland. The area is ideal for hiking through the gorges and valleys around the Oetscher mountain. Climbing that mountain is something for experienced climbers only, and you should watch out for the bears still living in this national park area.