THE DECISION to close 25 branch railway lines was inevitable and unavoidable, and marks a serious step on the long haul to bring Slovakia into line with the western European model of rail transport, focussed on intercity services and commuter networks.
The 19th-century concept of railways as national passenger networks providing a service as close as possible to door-to-door was abandoned in the West in the years following the end of the second world war. Gradually, the typical spider-web rail network contracted to main-line and commuter services, as the explosion in car ownership made branch lines less and less affordable.
That said, it should be remembered that there is no single European model. Rail services in France and Germany are subsidised directly by the state, whereas the British ideal is for railways to pay their own way.
What needs to be kept in mind as the Slovak rail system transforms itself in line with economic fundamentals is that roads are also costly - and not only to build and maintain. Consider last week's fatal pile-up near Trnava, involving 70 cars.
Perhaps the biggest problem in restructuring rail services is that economic orthodoxy can get in the way of what really matters: providing the most efficient national transport system. In the free market, car ownership and use, while costly to the individual, is seen as more democratic than a system of state subsidies for the railways. But roads cost money, and if a national transportation network is to make the most sense, the railways will not be alone in calling for state support. Road and rail transportation need to be seen as a single issue rather than two separate matters as Slovakia makes its journey to the West.
27. Jan 2003 at 0:00