Vienna: Tales of Transport

With 800 milion U-bahn riders a year, there is a lot going on

On The Town | Marina Begovic | April 2011

Buskers, babushkas and abandoned travelers, there’s a bit of casual coupling and the occasional dead drunk, the pleasures of schmäh and wastrels wandering onto the tracks – it’s all business as usual on Wiener Linien.

In fact, sights like a musician serenading on accordion or an elderly man lecturing the passer-bys are so commonplace they would not even warrant a raised eyebrow. While a wizened old woman in a shawl eased through the train with a tin cup, a heated quarrel broke out between a couple of leather-clad hipsters with more tattoos and piercings than most rock bands a little less so – escalating into screaming and throwing of bags at each other, barely pausing for breath as they disembarked at the next station. Possibly best forgotten.

But it might be worth taking note of the chançonier who has set up in a protected corner of the Karlsplatz U-Bahn passage under the Otto Wagner Pavilion, singing haunting lyrics to an agile guitar accompanied by a friend on a cello, or the rock-and-roll star decked out in a leather jacket, tight jeans, red bandana and thinning grey hair singing a 1984 song by the British-American band Foreigner, crooning at the top of his lungs with his iPod and an air guitar. "I want to know what love is, I want you to show me," pointing at various members of the audience on the "you."

A World of its Own

For a relatively small capital of 1.8 million and about 400 square kilometers, Vienna’s five underground lines, 28 tram lines and 84 bus lines cover almost every corner of the city. Some 812 million passengers used the system in 2009, according to the Wiener Linien; this is a world all of its own where anything can happen.

On an early Sunday morning in mid-November at the bus garage Spetterbrücke, a bus driver found something unexpected: a man lying dead in the back of the bus. According to the Wiener Zeitung, the N43 Night Line driver had left him there just hours before, under the assumption that he was a sleeping drunk. Apparently it is not unusual for drivers to leave inebriated passengers on the bus for the night with the doors wide open, even though this is a clear violation of Wiener Linien policy. They have usually staggered off by the morning and the drivers avoid having to deal with unruly behavior or complicated paperwork.

What in most cases is a win-win situation, was quite the opposite this time. The 40-year old man never got off the bus, and the driver has lost his job. The rules say he is to wake all passengers and get them off the bus before parking in the garage. If he had realized that his passenger was not responsive and had called an ambulance, the man could potentially have been given the right care and still be alive today. As he had not sustained any injuries however, foul play was ruled out as a cause of death. The suspected cause was a drug overdose.

Sex in the City

Not all stories end tragically, of course. One of Vienna’s internet sensations in early December was a video of a couple "getting it on" as it were, at around 5 a.m. on the U1 line while a crowd stood by watching and cheering. Several apparently recording the scene on their phones as several videos from various angles quickly appeared on YouTube.

"This may have been the first time such a thing has happened on one of our trains," said  "Answer" Lang, a spokesperson for the Wiener Linien. "No one reported the couple to the police. But it’s impossible to avoid such incidents."

Not much is actually visible in these videos except the man’s backside poking out slightly under his black jacket and yellow hoodie with his jeans and white boxers wrapped around his ankles. After a larger crowd formed, he quickly put up his hood, but did not otherwise appear daunted by the laughing, clapping, and the other passengers recording the incident on video.

Some of the passengers noted that (not surprisingly) the two were intoxicated, but (more surprisingly) did not appear to be together, as they did not "work as a couple." The man and the woman parted at the Alte Donau station, walking in opposite directions.

Papers across Europe, including The Sun in the UK and Germany’s Berliner Zeitung and 20 Minuten, have run stories about the incident and the viewership of the video clips has reached over 10 million on the internet. In Vienna, Lang said, "no one has complained."

No Exit

Most days, of course, U-Bahn runs like clockwork; still, even in Vienna, things can get out of hand. Over 200 passengers on the U4 were stuck underground for two hours between 16:00 and 18:00 on Tuesday Nov. 30. What appeared at first to be a minor hiccup ended up as a power outage. Passengers got the usual message of a technical malfunction and then were left completely uninformed for over an hour according to a 22-year-old student in an interview with Kurier, during which the heat switched off and the emergency lights came on.

And the passengers left in ignorance on the platforms? A "miscommunication," according to the Wiener Linien. "We regret the incident and apologize to all concerned," said spokesman Lang. The train was eventually hauled out by a diesel-powered train and the passengers freed, but not fast enough: Wiener Linien regulations require a train be evacuated within 15 minutes in an emergency.

Too bad the trapped U-bahn wasn’t driven by Raimund Korner, the legendary driver who would surely have brightened the situation with the comments that have earned him a Facebook fan-page of almost 7,500 people. Korner has been driving U-Bahn trains for the Wiener Linien for 37 years now and enjoys his job.

Instead of repeating the usual, "The train is departing, please step back" this man says things like, "if the door you are trying to enter is full, you might try one of the other 17 doors. This will give you an experience comparable to a trekking holiday in the Yukon territories!" Korner wanted to be a teacher when he was younger, he told Der Standard, but needed the higher salary provided by the transit job. After a while, he liked it better and better, until he couldn’t leave, he says; it took his parents around seven years to accept his decision.

His true gifts were revealed only gradually; as he began making little changes to the usual script of  "Zug faehrt ab." When that got good responses, and he realized he was making his and his passengers time more enjoyable, he began to improvise.

Now you can hear him telling couples parting in the doorways to, "Please continue kissing either inside or outside the doors, as I need to close them." Alongside his Facebook page and websites containing the "Best of" his sayings, he says he frequently gets passengers knocking on his door asking for autographs. A local star, Korner has even brought an element of Christmas spirit to his riders. "Dear passengers! Unlike an advent calendar, in the subway doors may be opened simultaneously!"

With those 800 million riders each year, the transit system of Austria’s capital buzzes with life and very occasionally death – drivers to passengers, singing or "getting it on", the Wiener Linien is a world all to its own.

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