SALZBURG, Austria — In this alpine border town, the suspension of train service into neighboring Germany has been a boon to taxi drivers. Taha, who asked to use only his first name lest local tax collectors hound him about
his earnings, makes 300 euros every time he drives a stranded traveler the 143 kilometers (about 90 miles) to Munich.
Since Germany stopped rail service from Austria in mid-
September as a way to slow the tide of refugees pouring northward, Taha has made 18 such trips.
“Normally in a month I would go to Munich one time,” he said this month at the taxi stand outside the station in Salzburg. “People don’t know what to do without the trains. Some of them will spend anything.”
Meanwhile, grocery stores on the German side said their business has been halved as Austrian shoppers have been cut off.
The University of Salzburg lifted restrictions on handicapped parking to accommodate all the professors who had commuted by train from Germany. For drivers, the frontier is a one-way valve: Getting to work in Austria isn’t so bad, but coming home can mean a two-hour delay at the road crossing, where Germany has implemented new passport checks.
Salzburgers say it’s as if a border that had largely melted away has suddenly risen up like one of the stone walls that once surrounded this medieval city. The free flow of people across national lines is a core ideal of the European Union’s grand effort at unification. But here, and in other parts of the European Union where cross-
border trains have been halted, moving back and forth has taken on an Old Europe feel.
“For all intents and purposes, there really was no border until a few weeks ago,” said Reinhard Heinisch, head of the political science department at the University of Salzburg. “It’s like we’ve stepped back a bit.”
Austria has occasionally stopped trains from Hungary as it tried to control the masses of migrants moving north. Denmark stopped train ferries from Germany, a busy commerce and tourist route that became flooded with refugees trying to reach Sweden.
In Britain and France, the migrant crisis continues to disrupt rail services on the Channel Tunnel, a 30-mile undersea rail route that links the two countries. Passenger and freight services were suspended Saturday after 200 migrants broke through fences and clashed with police at Eurotunnel’s French terminal. The delays have disrupted travel and caused thousands of pounds of stranded produce to spoil.
None of the train and border disruptions have had a widespread economic impact, observers said, because the restrictions are limited to a few crossings. And at those, the borders have not been sealed completely. Drivers are enduring the waits or seeking alternative crossings.
“You have to find a workaround,” said a railway ticket agent at the Salzburg station. He has handed out dozens of photocopied instructions on how two local buses (take the No. 2, change at Esshaverstrasse) will deposit passengers at Freilassing, the closest station on the German side of the border.
Migrants, too, continue to get through. An unknown number have crossed by foot or in hired vans and taxis at border points that remain unpatrolled. And about 2,000 a day are allowed to cross on special trains sent by the German government.
But locally, the train stoppage has stung, shaking residents’ image of Salzburg as the center of a binational region that draws workers, shoppers and students almost without distinction from both sides of the line on the map.
Salzburgers use Munich as their home airport. When the morning trains arrive from Freilassing, they are filled with hundreds of Germans enrolled in the university. A third of Heinish’s faculty members live on the German side, where housing costs are lower. Many have been riding bicycles across the border, a practice that won’t last much longer as autumn begins to chill the Alps.
Jakob Bauer, a student from the northern Austrian city of Linz, said his father and uncle interrupted a years-long tradition of taking the train to the Oktoberfest in Munich. This year they drove, and they didn’t much like the change.
“They said parking was awful and they couldn’t drink as much because they had to drive after,” Bauer said.
Even some Viennese feel cut off. Mirjam Nentwich, 34, a construction manager in the Austrian capital, hadn’t seen her Munich-based boyfriend for weeks. Normally, they connect by rail every weekend. But the trains have stopped and he has a back injury that makes it uncomfortable for him to sit in a car for the four-hour drive.
“Getting here is still easy, but getting back to Munich takes so long,” Nentwich said. “Travel isn’t supposed to be this difficult.”
Europeans have grown accustomed to an easy glide across national frontiers, especially since 1995, when the Schengen Agreement eliminated border checks at most crossings between E.U. member states. Train and car passengers have been largely able to roam among 26 countries and across more than 1.6 million square miles without flashing a passport.
“Open borders have huge psychological and political meaning for Europeans,” said Judy Dempsey, a researcher and editor at Carnegie Europe in Berlin. “In some ways, what is happening now is a very good reminder for people of what they took for granted and how easily it could be undone.”
Heinisch, the political science professor, worries that the change, if it lasts, will slowly erode the links that have become so common across the border. Like many in Salzburg, he traveled at least weekly to take advantage of Germany’s lower sales tax. But he hasn’t been to the Globus warehouse (“Kind of a German Wal-Mart,” he said) since rail service stopped.
Employers also could begin to hesitate before hiring someone who lives on the other side of the frontier. In practical terms, bosses may worry that the crossing would make them late. More generally, it would create a greater sense of divide, Heinisch said. “If we start thinking in national terms again, it could be a problem,” he said.
No one is willing to predict how long the refugee crisis will continue to affect European border points. On Oct. 4, when Germany was expected to resume normal rail service, hundreds of migrants gathered at the Salzburg station, only to learn that trains would not run until at least mid-October.
Aymar Shakr, 53, had traveled for almost a month from Damascus, Syria, risking his life in an unstable raft crossing from Turkey to Greece. Now, he was just minutes from Germany, the country he had worked so hard to reach. But he was unsure how to get there. “I think a group of us may be taken over in a bus, they said, maybe tomorrow,” said Shakr, an electrical engineer who wants to settle in Hamburg. “There is a lot of mystery in the process.”
The government decides how many trains to run, Deutsche Bahn spokesman Holger Bajohra said. And it will be the government that decides when normal service will resume, allowing passengers to feel connected across borders they had largely forgotten.
“We are attempting to keep the effects to a minimum for our guests,” Bajohra said.