City guide

Retro Railways: ride Budapest’s 143-year-old Cogwheel Railway

Photo : Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
Flat White, reggeli, szendvics

Trundling upwards into the forested Buda Hills since the 1870s, climbing steep slopes that no ordinary tram could ever ascend, the Cogwheel Railway holds a unique place in Budapest’s public-transport network – while this landmark train line is an antiquated relic, it continues to function as a crucial connection between downtown and the city’s peaks for everyday commuters and recreation seekers alike. Although this one-of-a-kind conveyance has come close to shutting down on multiple occasions, it survived war and obsolescence to persist as an integral part of Budapest’s rail network today.

Cogwheel Railway
  • 1125 Budapest, Szilágyi Erzsébet fasor 16.
Regularly traveling back and forth from Buda’s Városmajor Park to the top of Széchenyi Hill, Budapest’s Cogwheel Railway – officially designated as tram 60 in the city’s BKK public-transport network – seems like any other electrified train line at first glance, but a quick look between the tracks immediately reveals what sets this vintage vehicle apart: a third rail of evenly spaced metal teeth runs down the middle of the entire route. Each of the red-and-white trains has a motorized gearwheel that fits into the cogs of this third rail to propel the carriages when traveling uphill. This peculiar mechanism for propulsion is necessary because of the extremely steep conditions of the Cogwheel Railway’s journey – in less than four kilometers, the tracks ascend 327 meters, soaring considerably higher than the Eiffel Tower within a matter of minutes.

The history

Not surprisingly, the inventor of the Cogwheel Railway was from a mountainous country. Swiss engineer and locomotive builder Niklaus Riggenbach developed his rack-railway system to establish the Vitznau-Rigi line traversing the steep Alps of central Switzerland in 1871, which was Europe’s first such train line. Around that time, the Buda Hills were undergoing a dramatic period of development, particularly in the area of Svábhegy near the peak of Széchenyi Hill – many grand villas were constructed in this panoramic neighborhood during the 19th century, and this sylvan region became a popular urban retreat for many prominent actors, writers, and artists. Understandably for this era before cars, the growing hilltop population expressed increasing demand for a public-transportation system to carry people up to this lofty location.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
Thus, Riggenbach was brought to Budapest to oversee the construction of a rack railway here in 1873, with the works led by Swiss engineer Ferenc Cathry Szaléz; together they managed to complete the original 2,883-meter-long Cogwheel Railway within a matter of months, and the first vehicle was put into service on June 24th, 1874, connecting two ornately decorated terminus stations at Városmajor Park and Svábhegy. Steam locomotives powered the early trains running on this line, and since it only operated between April and October, passengers rode in open wooden carriages with platforms on the roof for the brakemen.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
In 1890 the Cogwheel Railway was extended to the current hilltop terminus at the peak of Széchenyi Hill, bringing the total length of the line to 3,700 meters. In addition to providing Budapest with an easy way to reach the city’s panoramic open spaces on top of the Buda Hills, this increasingly important train line sped up the development of this area, since materials to build more homes and mansions were carried on these tracks. As Svábhegy became an established residential area, in 1910 the trains started running year-round, and soon the wintertime rides became extremely popular among Budapest residents who would bring their skis and sleds aboard for the uphill journey.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
The regularity of service increased in 1929 when the Cogwheel Railway was electrified; at this point the hillside train was a critical connection for residents of the Svábhegy area, which became more densely populated. However, automobiles were also available for getting downtown by this time, so the Cogwheel Railway began a slow descent into obsolescence that was only made worse by severe damage to the train line caused by World War II. Although the Cogwheel Railway resumed operation after wartime, by the mid-1960s the condition of the tracks and vehicles was badly deteriorated, and city officials considered closing the entire line, but in 1968 it was taken over by Budapest’s public-transportation company (today’s BKK), which refurbished the railway with new tracks, stations, and vehicles – all of which are still being utilized today.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
After some further renovations in the 1990s, the Cogwheel Railway became tram 60 in 2008, cementing its continued role in Budapest’s public-transport system – and while this is not the speediest way to get between central Buda and the peak of Széchenyi Hill, the train line remains beloved by locals and international visitors alike to this day for its retro charm, and the views that can be enjoyed along the way; the tracks are surrounded by vivid foliage during the summer months, which transforms into a display of autumn colors during the fall, before the leaves drop to reveal sweeping panoramas of the Buda Hills throughout winter and early spring.

The ride

Stepping through the gates of the Cogwheel Railway terminus by Városmajor Park is something of a time-bending experience – while the red-brick buildings that house the train cars and their maintenance facilities were apparently built during the train line’s earliest decades, the ramshackle “station” of abandoned refreshment stands and dilapidated drivers’ offices beneath a corrugated-metal shelter definitely shows traces of Hungary’s communist era. (The 50-year-old Hotel Budapest – a circular skyscraper that is also a relic of Soviet times – looms in the background, adding to the slightly surreal atmosphere.)
The gently grinding sound of an approaching Cogwheel Railway train resonates with deep metallic bass long before it rolls into the station. When the two-carriage train arrives and its doors slide open with a slam, we can step aboard to see the unique interior of a vehicle that was obviously specially designed for steep grades – the seats that face downhill are angled upwards so that passengers who use them are not thrown onto the floor by gravity while the train traverses the sharpest slopes.
Another unique aspect of the Cogwheel Railway interior is the set of bike racks installed on every train. Many Budapest cyclists use this vehicle to save some energy on the uphill journey, from commuters who live in the Svábhegy area to hard-core mountain bikers who repeatedly charge down the dirt trails of Széchenyi Hill.
If you get a chance before the train departs, take a look into the driver’s compartment – the vintage dashboard is loaded with large buttons, levers, gauges, and a knob-equipped steering wheel, all of which clearly reveal that these vehicles are almost a half-century old.
Back in the passenger compartment, we take a seat by the right-side windows to get the best views, and hear a real bell ping loudly to signal that the doors are about to slam shut. A low rumble fills the train car as the gearwheel begins pushing us toward the hills, after first passing by Buda’s sedate Majorka eatery and its diners lounging at open-air tables. The journey is fairly flat through the first stop by the old brick buildings of Szent János Hospital, but it’s all uphill from this point on.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
Climbing past residential buildings and the backyards of family houses, passengers aboard the Cogwheel Railway begin to enjoy moving vistas over Buda’s broad valley between Széchenyi Hill and Hármashatár Hill – the Hotel Budapest now looks like a salt shaker standing out on a table set with a broad expanse of tiny buildings spreading up over District II’s hilly Rózsadomb neighborhood.
Since most of the Cogwheel Railway has only one set of tracks, occasional pauses at stops with a bypass line can take awhile, since we must wait for the train traveling in the other direction to arrive before we can continue – again, this is not the speediest way to reach the peak of Széchenyi Hill. However, it is probably the most direct route, as Riggenbach and Szaléz planned the line to be as short as possible by laying rails on sharp grades; by the time we reach the Esze Tamás School stop, the tracks passing this historic schoolhouse are at such a steep angle that they could serve as roller-coaster rails.
Winding further uphill, the train passes through hillsides thick with greenery during summertime; during winter and early spring, the views through denuded trees stretch as far as to the Elizabeth Lookout Tower atop János Hill. However, within a few minutes we plod into the Svábhegy station – the Cogwheel Railway’s original hilltop terminus – where a venerable depot building that resembles a Swiss chalet still stands with a cobblestoned platform, an ornately decorated wooden shelter for waiting passengers, and a plaque honoring Ferenc Cathry Szaléz’s engineering feats – all only somewhat sullied by 21st-century graffiti.
Many charms of the Svábhegy neighborhood remain from its long-bygone heyday; here amid crumbling villas and well-maintained parks, we can enjoy sweets at the Szépkilátás Confectionery housed within a 19th-century building, or dine at the venerable Bajai fish restaurant, both located a stone’s throw away from the Cogwheel Railway station.
Nonetheless, our journey is not yet done – the tracks continue up a particularly steep grade from which passengers can see another sweeping view to the south of Budapest through the left-side windows, before crossing a bridge and passing under another one, and finally concluding two stops later at the terminus station atop Széchenyi Hill.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
Just a few steps across the intersection from this final hilltop stop, the tree-shaded Kőbüfé restaurant is a sedate spot to enjoy drinks and classic Hungarian dishes, either on the sprawling terrace or inside – but the interior is definitely worth checking out for its display of historic Cogwheel Railway photos dating back to the train line’s earliest years.
Here guests also find photos of the Children’s Railway, because this laid-back eatery is also just a few steps away from that historic narrow-gauge train line operated by kids; many day-trippers take the Cogwheel Railway to reach the Széchenyi Hill terminus of the Children’s Railway, from whence they can continue traveling all the way to the Hűvösvölgy stop at the other end of the line, or disembark at János Hill to visit the aforementioned Elizabeth Lookout Tower, and then take the Zugliget Chairlift for a scenic downward journey back towards downtown.

The future

Considering how many times the Cogwheel Railway was almost decommissioned, it’s relieving to know that Budapest city officials are currently planning to extend this hill-climbing train line in both directions – at the base of the hill from Városmajor Park to central Buda’s Széll Kálmán Square, and at the top of the hill from Széchenyi Hill to the popular Normafa parkland. It remains to be seen when these plans may come to fruition, but for now, we’re grateful that easy excursions to Buda’s peaks remain available every day thanks to the Cogwheel Railway, still making its uphill climb after almost a century and a half.
Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
To reach the Cogwheel Railway base station, take bus 5 from downtown Pest to Buda and disembark at the Városmajor stop (the station is across the street), or take Buda’s tram 61 to the Városmajor stop; the Cogwheel Railway can be traveled from one end to the other with any BKK pass or with an ordinary BKK ticket. Check out the BKK website for Cogwheel Railway timetable information.