Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner (1796–1840)

Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner was a railway engineer who worked internationally. He can be seen as the father of the railway in Austria and Russia.

Von Gerstner was born in Prague, the son of the mathematician, scientist and railway pioneer Franz Josef von Gerstner (1756-1832). While he was still a child his father designed the route of a horse-powered railway in the Austrian Empire from České Budějovice (Budweis) in what is now Czechia to Freistadt and Mauthausen in Austria. However, the construction of the line was repeatedly interrupted and temporarily stopped due to financing problems.

Franz Anton studied at the polytechnic in Prague and became a professor of geometry and surveying at the polytechnic in Vienna. However, in 1822 he was invited to organise the construction of his father’s railway. He studied railways in England on several visits and in 1824 he gave up his teaching post to concentrate on the railway project. The line opened in stages from 1827 to 1832. Eventually, it extended for 129 km from České Budějovice to Linz, linking the rivers Vltava and Danube, and climbed 540 m. It was the first long-distance railway in Austria.

As a result of his visits to England, von Gerstner rejected the system of inclined planes used there to climb hills. Instead he used extensive tunnels, viaducts and other engineering features to ensure maximum gradients suitable for traffic – an approach later followed by many other mountain railways, including Austria’s Semmering railway.

From 1834 von Gerstner was commissioned by the Russian Crown to present proposals for a strategic steam-powered railway network to serve the Russian Empire. He designed Russia’s first public railway line, which opened in 1837 for 27 km from St Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo. This line was 1,829-mm gauge and used both horse and steam power. In 1838 he went to the United States of America to study its railways. He was taken ill during his tour and died aged 43. He was buried at Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia.