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TRANSPORTATION OPERATOR GUARANTEES ON-TIME SERVICE OR THE RIGHT TO A REFUND

Railway updates system

IN AN EFFORT to become a respectable EU member, Slovakia has agreed to modernize its railway services to meet EU rail transportation standards. This means that while the country improves its tracks, trains and platforms, passengers will be faced with delays and service disruptions.

IN AN EFFORT to become a respectable EU member, Slovakia has agreed to modernize its railway services to meet EU rail transportation standards. This means that while the country improves its tracks, trains and platforms, passengers will be faced with delays and service disruptions.

Slovakia is carrying out construction according to the strategies laid out in two specific agreements: the European Agreement on the Main European Railway Lines and the European Agreement on International Combined Transport Lines, both of which were designed to help EU member countries mutually increase the speed and safety of international railway travel.

"The railways infrastructure must be competitive within the European market. If we did not modernize, Slovakia would be avoided by important [passenger and cargo] transport and we would become an unimportant speck on the European map," reads a document released by Železnice Slovenskej republiky (ŽSR), Slovakia's railway network operator, which supports the improvements.

The chairman of the board of directors of ZSSK Cargo, Pavol Kužma, told the press that the other reason to improve the Slovak railway system is competitiveness. The rail transportation market has already been liberalized and "the monopoly of ZSSK Cargo does not exist anymore".

Slovakia has divided necessary construction projects into three so-called European Corridors: IV, V and VI. Work on the fifth corridor is already underway. Started in 2000, it is expected to be finished in 2020.

Corridor V crosses six countries: Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine. Out of a total of 2,831 kilometres, 536.2 kilometres of track are in Slovakia.

The whole modernization process costs money, of course - lots of it. The Transport Ministry estimates that costs will climb up to €2 billion.

To pay for current construction on the fifth corridor, Slovakia has tapped the European Union Cohesion Fund. It has also dipped into the state budget, as EU funding can only represent 85 percent of the cost.

For the railway passengers, modernization means disruptions and redirections today for convenience 20 years down the road.

Construction started in Bratislava in 2000. ŽSR hopes to "arrive" in Trnava in 2007, Piešťany in 2008 and Žilina in 2012. The Ružomberok-Poprad section of Corridor V should be finished in 2016, and Poprad-Kosice and Košice-Čierna nad Tisou sections in 2020.

"This is not a definitive deadline, it is just a plan," ŽSR Investment Director Marian Urbánek told the SITA news agency.

Delays have naturally upset customers, resulting in a decrease of riders in certain sections and a decrease in sales.

As a member of the European Union's Association of European Railways, however, ŽSR has accepted the Traveller's Rights Charter. This means that ŽSR is required to financially compensate its customers in case of delays.

"We decided to compensate costumers on inter-city (IC) and international (EC) trains as well as domestic lines in cases of delays. This applies for EC trains if they are more than 30 minutes late and IC trains more than 30 to 59 minutes.

Those passengers delayed more than 60 minutes are ensured refunds on seat reservations and any surcharges," Matej told Ozveny, a railway magazine.

The railway operator also promises decreased bureaucracy, particularly when filing complaints or collecting refunds. Matej told the press that he believes that increased communication between a "smiling" railway staff and passengers is the key to minimizing complaints.

ŽSR is fully aware that by joining the European railway association and adhering to the Traveller's Rights Charter, it stands to lose Sk175 million (€4.6 million) in lost ticket sales and refunds.

The bigger worry, says the ŽSR director, is losing passengers for good.

Many are taking cars instead of trains these days. Only 15 percent of the trains operating in Slovakia are less than 15 years old.

Old trains slow things down. Even though Corridor V allows speeds up to 160 kilometres per hour, older trains run at a maximum of 140 kilometres per hour, although for safety reasons, most of them travel at an average 120 kilometres per hour.

It is expected that the Transport Ministry will do what is necessary to update its equipment, especially before 2008, when 3,000 to 4,000 people daily will have to commute to the new KIA and Peugeot factories.

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