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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
Alexander Zimmermann

Sustainable transport for a greener future

Updated on 14.04.2020 in Recommendations

U-Bahn-Station in Serfaus. Foto: Andreas Kirschner
U-Bahn-Station in Serfaus. Foto: Andreas Kirschner

Every holiday begins with a journey to the destination. Tirol is home to a plethora of initiatives, projects and concepts aimed at encouraging locals and visitors alike to go green and embrace eco-friendly transport. We have taken a closer look at a number of these ideas, from flat rate tickets for public transport to tiny underground trains at 1,400 metres above sea level. A report on success stories and coming challenges.

“We must learn to see mobility as a resource,” says Ekkehard Allinger-Csollich. From his office at the Regional Authority for Transport Planning, Allinger-Csollich has a perfect view of the Inn Cycle Path traversing the city from west to east. Directly next to the cycle path is Tirol’s busiest road, the B 171. It measures 160 kilometres in length and crosses the region from the town of Kufstein in the east to the Arlberg mountain in the west. Less than a kilometre away from Allinger-Csollich’s office as the crow flies is yet another core element of Tirol’s transport infrastructure: Innsbruck railway station. “You see,” he explains, “mobility is precious and finite. That’s why we have to use treat it with care.”

Tirol is a tourism destination, a key north-south transit axis – and, for around 750,000 people, home. Situated in the heart of Central Europe, the region is a pioneer and trendsetter in the field of transport and mobility. Ekkehard Allinger-Csollich is in his early fifties and an optimist – he knows better than most that even small changes can have a big impact. It was in the 1980s, he remembers, that villages and resorts in the region introduced guestcards giving visitors free access to local public transport as well as to ski busses in winter and, in many cases, cable cars in summer alongside other benefits such as free admission to local museums and swimming pools. “It led to a huge reduction in the volume of traffic and, as a result, to a better quality of life for local people and a better holiday experience for guests,” he says. It is just a small example, but one which shows what is possible. After all, there are still plenty of challenges waiting to be solved.

Use of cable cars and ski lifts makes up only 4% of the total carbon footprint created by holidaymakers in Tirol in winter. Accommodation and food account for over 50%, while 39% results from the journey to and from the resort – arriving by airplane, of course, creates a significantly higher carbon footprint. With this in mind, the decision about how to travel from home to Tirol and back again has a significant effect on the overall climate impact of a holiday. For the region’s transport planners it means creating attractive alternatives to get people out of their cars and onto public transport.

Tirol already has a comprehensive public transport network covering every town, village and valley in the region. Put together, the local bus routes and railway lines total around 8,800 kilometres, with an incredible 40 million kilometres travelled by buses and trains in Tirol every year. This means it easy to leave your car at home and use public transport instead – an option being taken up by more and more people, especially in the last ten years.

The regional public transport operator VVT serves Tirol’s many valleys in both summer and winter.The regional public transport operator VVT serves Tirol’s many valleys in both summer and winter.

Flat rate for public transport – a success story

Tirol’s railway and tram network has seen year-on-year growth – not least thanks to a groundbreaking new system. “Four years ago we introduced a flat rate for public transport usage, which has been a huge success,” says Ekkehard Allinger-Csollich. The ticket costs €509 and gives the holder use of all buses, trains and other forms of public transport in Tirol. Annual ticket sales have tripled since 2008, from 50,000 to more than 135,000. The ticket is often used by commuters to get to work, but it has also proved popular for leisure activities. “The biggest growth we have seen has been in leisure use and at weekends,” explains Allinger-Csollich. This push to encourage rail travel also extends to tourism. A new campaign, “Tirol auf Schiene”, has been launched to encourage more visitors to leave their car at home and switch to public transport. One of the short-term goals is to double the number of visitors arriving by train. In 2013 only 5% of tourists travelled to Tirol on the railways, by the end of 2020 the aim is to increase this to 10%. In the long term, the regional government wants to make Tirol Austria’s number one federal province for railway usage.

Another hot topic in Austria at the moment is the “1-2-3-Ticket”. This is also a flat rate offer for use of public transport, albeit one at national instead of local level. It would give holders access to all public transport in one federal province for just €1 per day (€365 per year). For twice the price – €730 – it gives access to two federal provinces. The third option, totalling €3 per day (€1,095 per year), would be an annual ticket valid for all public transport anywhere in Austria. This would include tram lines 2 and 5 in Innsbruck – routes which until recently were served by diesel-powered buses. Since the switch to trams, Tirol’s busiest single transport route, which runs through the heart of the city from west to east, is 100% electric. This has had a major impact on the transport network’s carbon footprint – and, at the same time, increased passenger numbers on the route by 75%. The switch from bus to tram was part of the city’s overarching regional tram and rail concept, which will see a total investment of €300 million until 2028.

Next stop, Innsbruck main railway station. With 37,000 travellers passing through each day, it is one of the busiest in Austria and provides a bustling backdrop to everyday life: passengers waiting for their trains sip coffee in the many cafés, school pupils check train times on their mobile phones, students heading home for the weekend rush to the platform before the train departs. Here too there has been strong growth in passenger numbers: in the last five years the number of rail travellers has increased by a third.

The Stubaitalbahn is a tram connecting Innsbruck with the Stubai Valley. Photo: Innsbruck Tourismus / Christof LacknerThe Stubaitalbahn is a tram connecting Innsbruck with the Stubai Valley. Photo: Innsbruck Tourismus / Christof Lackner

Narrow-gauge railway powered by hydrogen

This forward-looking approach is by no means limited to urban Innsbruck. The local public transport network in the Zillertal Valley, for example, has been leading the way for several years when it comes to offering visitors a convenient and environmentally friendly alternative to the car. The narrow-gauge railway leading into the valley welcomed 2.9 million passengers in 2018 – up 16% on the previous year. In 2002 the service was used by 1.7 million passengers, in 1952 by 600,000. The next innovation is already on the horizon: the railway is set to switch to hydrogen power. By 2023 it will have new trains with a significantly increased capacity of 450 passengers operating on the narrow-gauge line dating from the Habsburg monarchy. The hydrogen powering by these new trains will be generated by green electricity from the local hydroelectric plant. The logistics, however, will remain more or less the same – as with the diesel currently used, the hydrogen can be filled up at the railway depot. The fuel cells on each train mix hydrogen with oxygen from the air to create an electrochemical reaction that produces energy to power the train. The new technology will save around 800,000 litres of diesel and more than 2,100 tonnes of CO2 per year. Together with the new trains there will also be a new timetable introduced with shorter gaps between services. Visitors will be able to use the line free of charge with their guestcard.

An artist’s impression of what the new hydrogen-powered Zillertalbahn railway will look like. Photo: Zillertaler Verkehrsbetriebe AGAn artist’s impression of what the new hydrogen-powered Zillertalbahn railway will look like. Photo: Zillertaler Verkehrsbetriebe AG

Underground railway at 1,400 metres above sea level

While the new trains in the Zillertal Valley represent the new, there are plenty of eco-friendly transport options in Tirol that have been around for decades. One good example is the underground railway in Serfaus. It was built 40 years ago, when cars were banned from entering the village, and has proven a real success story. Indeed, in recent years it has had to undergo major maintenance work – because it has been used so much. Locals and visitors park on the edge of the village and travel in using the mini-metro. In the picturesque centre, the 1,100 locals plus tourists can get around either by bike or on foot. The maintenance work was also used to increase the transport capacity to 3,000 passengers per hour – almost double the previous capacity. It is a small and quirky example of how local solutions can bring real benefits for people and the environment.

The world’s highest hovertrain. Photo: Andreas KirschnerThe world’s highest hovertrain. Photo: Andreas Kirschner

One of the mini underground train’s four stations. Photo: Andreas KirschnerOne of the mini underground train’s four stations. Photo: Andreas Kirschner

Another key element in Tirol’s eco-friendly transport concept is cycling. Within the region’s towns and cities there are many bike paths and cycle lanes, with a further 9,000 kilometres of cycle routes criss-crossing the region. In 2016 Tirol introduced a new cycling concept providing €4 million per year for cycling infrastructure in the region’s towns and villages. “It has had such a great impact. The Inn Cycle Path and the Zillertal Cycle Path are classic long-distance cycle routes which are in excellent condition and are used a lot by not only visitors to the region but also commuters going to work,” says Ekkehard Allinger-Csollich. The 83-kilometre-long Kaiser Mountains Loop – from Söll via Kufstein, Walchsee and Ellmau back to Söll – is another of the projects which has benefited from financing as part of the concept.

The Inn Cycle Path leads 230 kilometres across Tirol.The Inn Cycle Path leads 230 kilometres across Tirol.

Both visitors and commuters use the Inn Cycle Path.Both visitors and commuters use the Inn Cycle Path.

Environmentally-aware visitors planning to spend their next holiday in Tirol can reduce their carbon footprint by getting here by train and travelling around the region on public transport or by bike. The region has plenty of rental shops offering e-bikes, mountain bike and road bike for hire. Indeed, bikes are not the only thing you can leave at home and hire here in Tirol. There is a wide range of summer and winter sports gear available to rent.

Alexander Zimmermann loves spending time in the mountains – sometimes hiking, sometimes climbing. In winter he can be found out and about on alpine skis and cross-country skis. He works as a journalist and strategist based in Munich, Tirol, Hamburg and Heidelberg.

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