The Zillertalbahn (Ziller Valley Railway) is Austria’s most popular heritage railroad, and is well known throughout the rest of the world due to its popularity among model railroaders.
The Zillertal (Ziller Valley) lies in Tyrol, Austria, not far from Innsbruck. The Zillertalbahn was opened in 1902 and connects Jenbach, at the north end of the valley, to Mayrhofen, in the south. The 760-mm, narrow gauge tracks follow the banks of the Ziller River for the 32-km journey between these two towns.
It is not fair to call the Zillertalbahn a tourist railway, or an heritage railway, or a commercial railway. It is all three. Most of the trains are steam-hauled, showing off the Zillertalbahn’s heritage and catering to the enthusiastic tourists. Locals also enjoy riding in the heritage coaches and use the railway as a “commuter” or “light-rail” service among the many small villages along the route. In fact, there is also a trail along the banks of the Ziller River, so many locals and tourists ride the steam train, then walk or bicycle back.
Of course, the steam trains are slow, in keeping with the character of the original railroads (when many people were terrified to ride at 35-km/hr). For people who are in a hurry to commute, the Zillertalbahn offers modern, diesel powered “railbuses” that also run during the busy skiing season.
Chris and I visited the Zillertalbahn on a perfect day in 2009, in late autumn after most tourists had gone. We rode the steam train through the Ziller Valley, admiring the beautiful, pastoral scenery. We inspected the famous “Crystal Car”, a snack-bar coach sponsored by Swarovski (whose factory is about 20-km from Jenbach) and decorated with 62,000 sparkling crystals! We also spent several seconds in the unique “Beer Wagon”, a coach made from a giant beer keg, where guests can drink and smoke. If you have ever wondered what it would smell like to wake up in a “drunk tank”, then you must experience this!
During the summer, you can learn to drive a steam engine for a small fee. It was too late in the year for us to see (or try) this option, but you might want to consider it.
While in this area, you should also visit the Achenseebahn (Achen Lake Steam Cog Railway), which also starts in Jenbach and climbs north to Seespitz, on the south shore of the Achensee.