Austria by train – Salzburg to Hallstatt / Obertraun

The Journey

For the Austrian portion of my route from Bristol to Hallstatt, I took to the rails. Various guides had instead suggested traveling by bus; this is easily the cheaper option, and by avoiding the lengthy detour (and change of trains) via Attnang-Puchheim is potentially quicker too:

Train route Salzburg to Hallstatt via Attnang-Puchheim

However, with this trip already featuring some eight hours of coach travel between home and Gatwick, plus my itinerary having been deliberately constructed around an extended stay by the Hallstätter See, I was happy to trade time/money for comfort whilst getting there. Moreover, as my actual destination was Obertraun, I avoided the complication of Halstatt’s station being across the lake from the village itself (and thus requiring a ferry ride to complete the rail journey).

An unexpected benefit of this longer route is that the tracks follow the Traun river for much of the way between Attnang-Puchheim and Bad Ischl (which can be reached more quickly by bus from Salzburg, if you want a half-way option between price and comfort). In particular, the train runs alongside almost the entire western shore of the Traunsee, which offers wonderful mountain views across the water. I was reminded of the journey Alaina and I took between Zurich and Chur – what was assumed to be just a positioning leg turned out to be an early taster of dramatic scenery to come.

Following the Traun
The Traunsee near Traunkirchen Ort Bahnhof

Planning and Booking

Booking on services run by Austria’s state-owned rail company, ÖBB, is refreshingly simple: Sparschiene are cheaper tickets locked to a particular departure, whilst standard tickets are good for up to two days. All pricing is one way, and there doesn’t seem to be any peak/off-peak timing to worry about.

Not being sure of how long I’d need to transfer between Salzburg’s airport and main station, nor when I’d want to start the return journey on Sunday, I opted for the standard tickets. Given how irregular bus and ferry services turned out to be in Hallstatt / Obertraun, I’m glad I didn’t introduce the extra difficulty of trying to connect to a particular train just to save a few euros. Although with weekend services being less than hourly it’s good to have at least a rough idea of the schedule.

Purchasing on the day was straightforward – even Obertraun’s tiny station has one of the automated ticket machines, which can be easily switched to english, accepted international credit cards, and has an identical interface to the website. Probably the most complicated part was specifying Obertraun Dachsteinhöhlen Bahnhof correctly… I was happy enough with the standard price of €30 each way – that’s a fraction of what the walk-up fare for a 2-3 hour rail journey in Britain would be, and overall I think I spent more during this trip on short rides by cable cars / funiculars!

The trains

To balance the simple ticketing, ÖBB has a bewildering array of services that you could experience on this journey: Railjet, Regional, S-Bahn, Intercity, Cityjet, Regional Express, Nightjet… plus the more direct route partly by bus mentioned earlier. There’s also a rival operator out of Salzburg, WESTbahn, who show up if you search ÖBB in timetable mode but seemingly can’t be booked through them.

Given my ignorance of the differences, my choices were driven entirely by schedule rather than by train type; pleasingly I ended up entirely on different flavours of ‘jet’.

Railjet

Attnang-Puchheim is on the main rail line between Salzburg and the capital, Vienna; in both directions I was lucky enough to travel aboard ÖBB’s flagship Railjet trains, the fastest in the fleet.

However, for both legs I received warnings that these were peak days, with a very high number of passengers expected and thus no guarantee of a seat without a reservation. As I didn’t know how to make one, I took my chances without. From Salzburg just after lunch on a Friday there was clearly no need to worry – the carriage was at less than 20% capacity. Returning on a Sunday evening it was busier, but I still got an unreserved pair of seats to myself throughout.

Railjet standard class interior

These trains also offer first and business class seating, but standard class was fine: modern, clean and spacious, with plenty of room for luggage and at-seat power, it proved more than comfortable enough for the mere 45 minutes I spent aboard. Based on this short taster, I’d happily consider Railjet for a long distance trip – they operate to a number of international destinations as well as linking key cities domestically.

Cityjet

From Attnang-Puchheim to Obertraun I switched to a Cityjet regional service. Although the seat pitch (and possibly width) was less generous, the design was again clean and modern with a mix of airline and table configurations. Again my early afternoon departure was quiet enough to have a seat pair to myself, and then swap it for one on the other side of the carriage once I realised how beautiful the scenery was. Should you find yourself on a more crowded service, try to sit on the left for the best views travelling south along the Traunsee – although for a first glimpse at Hallstatt later you’ll want to be on the right.

Cityjet interior
Cityjet table seating

Nightjet

Departing Obertraun at the definitely during-the-day time of 16:30, I was surprised when a Nightjet-branded loco pulled in. Presumably there are sleeper accommodations somewhere onboard, but having misjudged the train length I joined the final carriage, which was configured with six-seater compartments to the right hand side, the corridor running along the left.

A card outside each compartment indicates which seats have been reserved; I was able to find an entirely unbooked one, although as we made our way north we steadily collected passengers until it was at full occupancy. Still, as first in I was able to secure the forward-facing window spot, which meant the best experience of those wonderful views once again, plus access to a small fold-out table with power sockets.

Nightjet seating compartment

Still, for the solo traveller I’d try to avoid these trains – the compartments are quite crowded, especially when one of your companions falls asleep immediately after boarding and snores loudly for the rest of the journey… The seating was also less comfortable than the rail/city jets, with the headrests set bafflingly low.

Worst of all, we picked up a fifteen minute delay – not too bad for an 80 minute run, but disastrous for my 13 minute connection! That turned out to mean a 58 minute wait for the next ÖBB service – there were a couple of WESTbahn options, but buying a new ticket just to reach Salzburg 35 minutes sooner didn’t seem worth it. Sadly there’s little to do at Attnang-Puchheim for an hour, although there is at least a small waiting room offering shelter from the sun.

An alternative option…

Whilst waiting to depart Obertraun I spotted some decidedly older stock parked on a side track that I didn’t remember being there when I arrived… Some googling revealed that the elaborately named Brenner and Brenner Dampflokomotiven Betriebsgesellschaft mbH operate steam train services to various events throughout the year.

B & B Blue Train carriages spotted at Obertraun

On this occasion they’d conveyed passengers from Vienna to Bad Aussee – a couple of stops further down the line – for the annual daffodil festival. (Presumably it was then easier to backtrack to Obertraun to park for the day.) Their next trip, to the Festival of Lights, didn’t look outrageously priced especially with a boat trip on the Traunsee included. But beware that the ‘luxury’ styling might not to be all tastes, let alone the ‘disco wagon’:

B&B Blue Train Salon Rouge interior (photo from their website)
B&B Blue Train on board disco! (photo from their website)

For the truly wealthy, it looks like you can also charter the train for a custom itinerary. Personally, I think I’ll generally be sticking with Railjet… but I’d be more than happy to explore Austria further by rail.