Hannes Richter

The Americans in Vienna's Streetcar Network

Hannes Richter
The Americans in Vienna's Streetcar Network

By Hannes Richter

Vienna celebrates 150 years of its streetcar network this year. Austrian Information takes this opportunity to have a look at the U.S. contribution to its operation, specifically asking how New York City streetcars came to operate on Viennese streets.

A Brief History of Vienna’s Streetcar Network

The history of Vienna’s streetcars dates back to 1840, when a preliminary, horse-pulled rail line operated on wooden tracks between the Danube Canal to Brigittakirtag under the name Brigittenauer Railways. This tram mainly serviced an entertainment center called the Kolosseum located at the end of the line at Brigittenau in Vienna’s 20th district, situated between the Danube Canal and the river Danube. In 1842, this precursor of the city’s streetcar network was auctioned off.

It was not until 1863, when the private firm of Carl Schaeck-Jaquet & Compagnie was granted a concession to build a proper tramway. It suggested the establishment of two test tracks, a proposal that was met with approval by the city council on May 30, 1865. An important prerequisite of these plans was the removal of the city walls and the creation of the Ringstrasse between 1857 and 1865. On October 4, 1865, a single-track trial rail line was opened, running from Schottentor (located on the Ringstrasse right next to the University of Vienna) to Hernals Wattgasse in Vienna’s 17th district, where the depot was located. The trains on this test track were still horse-pulled; the first steampowered train did not go into service until 1883, when the Dampftramway Krauss & Comp. opened the first steam line.

Expansion and electrification followed. Werner von Siemens had presented his electric motor in 1879 and in 1881 the first carriages pulled by an electric locomotive in Berlin marked the first public, electric streetcar line. In Vienna, the electrification of the system began in 1897. At that time, Vienna’s mayor, Dr. Karl Lueger, began municipalization of city services that had been provided by private firms. Thus, the new, electrified routes were to be built by the city, which also included the purchase of the Wiener Tramwaygesellschaft’s streetcar network assets.

Electrification was initially met with protests by some, as they felt the overhead lines would blight the city’s imperial vistas. Nevertheless, electric streetcars became an easy success in Vienna, as they produced less noise and odors as opposed to steamand horse-powered carriages. World War I complicated the operation of the network; women had to replace men who were drafted into the war and some lines had to seize operations – by 1917, about one quarter of the stations was not serviced anymore. During World War II, the network remained unharmed at first; the streetcars transported a record number of 732 million riders in 1943 and provided jobs to some 18,000 employees.

However, the air campaigns in 1944 and 1945, as well as the battle for Vienna during April 1945, The Americans in Vienna’s Streetcar Network forced a reduction in service and ultimately led to discontinuation of service on April 7, 1945.

New York City Streetcars in Vienna

Vienna’s municipal transport services were hard-hit by World War II, specifically during the 1944 and 1945 air campaigns. Limited service resumed on April 28, 1945 on five lines in Western Vienna.

Out of a total of 3,635 passenger cars, 587 were completely destroyed and 1,539 were damaged. In the following years, only few cars could be repaired due to a lack of materials; new cars could not be produced until 1951 for the same reason. The lack of cars led to overcrowding and long service intervals; passengers who could not find room in a car often held on to the exterior, leading to a high number of accidents – 1946 saw 3,654 streetcar-related accidents and 61 dead in Vienna.

In 1948, the U.S. military administration informed Austria that the city of New York was selling functioning streetcars after deciding to shut down its network. The cars, built in 1938/39 and known by their designation as “Z-Cars,” serviced the network of the Third Avenue Railway System (TARS), including parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, as well as the cross-town line. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had pushed to replace the streetcars, as they failed to portray a modern image for the city he envisioned, also prompting increasing pressure from the board of transportation to serve the city through a unified bus system.

As a result, operating franchises for the streetcars were not renewed, prompting the switch to bus services. The streetcars thus were no longer needed in New York and presented a solution to Vienna’s shortage. Experts from Vienna’s municipal transport department were invited to New York and a deal was signed on December 18, 1948: Vienna purchased 42 New York City streetcars for the amount of 234,820 U.S. Dollars.

Such an amount at that time was hard to finance by cash-strapped, post-war Vienna; however, as the country’s participation in the Marshall Plan was finalized just a few months earlier, on July 2nd, 1948, the mayor of Vienna, Theodor Körner, intervened at the Federal Ministry for the Securing of Assets and Economic Planning in order to secure Marshall Plan funds for the purchase of the streetcars to finalize the deal. The streetcars were subsequently shipped between May and July of 1949, first by ship from New York to Rotterdam and then via rail on to Rodaun, today a part of Vienna’s 23rd district.

Once there, the engineers were met with a surprise: the technical plans for the streetcars were not delivered as promised. As a result, two streetcars had to be dissected in order to investigate the details necessary to make the cars fit for service in Vienna. Public test runs commenced on September 16, 1949, and first scheduled service of the Z-cars in Vienna commenced on March 13, 1950 on Line 331, running between Franz-Josefs Kai and Stammersdorf in Vienna’s Northeast. The cars were soon nicknamed “Amerikaner” (Americans) by the population.

They eventually ran on six different lines on Vienna’s streetcar network and were taken out of service on September 5, 1969, when the last Z-car retired on line 11. The Amerikaner had attracted quite some media coverage, prompting many to show up for the first run at Floridsdorf station. Many features of the cars were new to Viennese riders, like automatic doors, retractable footboards, or cushioned benches. In addition, the benches’ backrests were reversible, meaning one would always be seated in direction of travel.

On the other hand, the Z-cars also had some disadvantages and quite a few were involved in accidents. For one, the Amerikaner were wider than the other Viennese cars, resulting in a limited service area – they could only travel on the older steam tram’s as well as single tracks. The location of the pantograph, the apparatus used to collect power in the middle of the roof, required an additional adaption of the overhead wires. Furthermore, the cars also were equipped with an unusual brake system (at least for Viennese drivers), which was activated using a foot pedal that was difficult to dose, in addition to the absence of a rail brake. The differences in the break system were suspected to be in part responsible for a rather large number of rear-end and frontal collisions during the Z-cars’ time in service.

line 331 with z-type train (amerikaner) in stammersdorf, november 1963 (Wiener Linien)

Today, several of the original cars can still be found in Austria: Car No. 636 (its original TARS number) can be viewed at Vienna’s Public Transport Museum, the Verkehrsmuseum Remise. Two cars of the same type, specifically TARS 634 and 640 are currently housed at Museum Tramway Mariazell; the latter car, however, used to be in service in Brussels, rather than Vienna. TARS 637, meanwhile, is housed in the Tramway Museum in Graz, Austria.

While Vienna currently boasts state of the art ultra-low floor streetcars designed by Porsche, the Amerikaner remain in the hearts of those who remember them. Other historic Viennese streetcars are available for rent to serve as special tour vehicles and for private events, parading along the Ringstrasse tracks. On September 27, 2015, Wiener Linien, the company running Vienna’s local public transit network today, celebrated 150 years of Vienna’s tramway with a great parade of historic vehicles, including an Amerikaner. 

the streetcars from the united states are being unloaded in rodaun on june 13, 1949 (Wiener Linien)

An "Amerikaner" on line 331  at the final stop in stammersdorf on october 1, 1963 (Wiener Linien)

Modern-Day Ultra Low Floor (ULF) car at hernals Station (Wiener Linien)