Slovak trains will speed up, but not yet

SLOVAKIA is on track for a massive rail modernisation, with the government spending millions to put the country in line with EU regulations.

SLOVAKIA is on track for a massive rail modernisation, with the government spending millions to put the country in line with EU regulations.

When the changes are finished, trains will be able to reach speeds of 160 kilometres per hour, the target speed for an international rail corridor that travels through Slovakia. More than 80 kilometres of tracks have already been adjusted for this speed.

But Slovaks will have to wait another two years for the faster ride, because some parts of the speed security system are still missing.

The state railway company in charge of Slovakia's rail network, Železnice SR (ŽSR), started the project in 2000 to bring the Slovak section of the fifth European Railway Corridor in line with the sections in other countries. The 2,831-kilometre corridor travels from Italy to Ukraine via Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia.

The Slovak part of the corridor is 545 kilometres long, which makes up 19 percent of the corridor. It runs from Bratislava to Čierna nad Tisou on the Ukrainian border, via Žilina and Košice.

ŽSR's modernisation project will replace the country's old tracks and add new signals, revamp the waiting rooms at train stations and make sure rail facilities are wheelchair accessible – something widely missing in Slovakia. It will also eliminate pedestrian crossings over rail tracks by building underground crossings or railway bridges, the ŽSR communication department told The Slovak Spectator.

ŽSR estimates the total costs of the Slovak part of the modernisation at €2 billion.

The tracks on the Bratislava-Rača-Trnava corridor were modernised last year, along with train stations from Rača to Trnava, according to ŽSR.

Revamping that part of the railway is estimated to cost €149 million. About €58 million of that has been financed through EU funds, and €91 million from the state coffers, ŽSR said.

The modernisation of the Trnava-Nové Mesto nad Váhom railway tracks and the Trnava-Piešťany section, which cost €145 million, also reached its final stage last year. It was financed by the EU cohesion fund and is expected to wrap up this year.

The Piešťany station was also renovated last year, and the Nové Mesto nad Váhom train station is under massive construction.

First safety, then speed

After construction on these sections are completed, a safety systems will be installed on the Bratislava-Piešťany section by the end of 2008 and on the Piešťany-Nové Mesto nad Váhom section by the end of 2009, ŽSR said.

“Only after that can the trains run at 160 kilometres per hour on these sections,” Zuzana Melcerová of the ŽSR communications department wrote in a memo.

The rail company performed a technical test on the tracks between Bratislava and Piešťany in early December to make sure trains can run at 160 kilometres per hour there. A special measuring rail car placed at the end of the train measures and records the track's conditions.

At the higher speed, the trip from Bratislava and Piešťany was 36 minutes faster. Currently, passengers taking express trains can make the 81-kilometre trip from Bratislava’s main station to Piešťany in 56 minutes. A regular train trip takes about an hour and a half.

But just because the test has been done, it does not mean that the trains will now run at 160 kilometres per hour. First the technical safety system must be installed and trains and wagons must be adjusted, ŽSR said.

The rail company has also invested substantial finances into electrifying the tracks on the Zvolen-Banská Bystrica sections. That will cost a total of Sk1.143 billion, 75 percent of which is financed through EU structural funds and 25 percent through the state budget. The tracks have been fully electrified since March 2007.

The Prešov train station and the Poprad Tatry train stations also got facelifts last year.

Fewer passengers

The state railway company split into two firms in 2002: ŽSR is in charge of Slovakia's rail network, while Železničná Spoločnosť (ŽSSK) is responsible for transport and commercial activities. In 2005, the state split ŽSSK into two joint-stock companies: ŽSSK Slovakia, a passenger entity, and ŽSSK Cargo Slovakia, a railway cargo operator.

While ŽSR is moving ahead with its plans, things are looking rockier for ŽSSK. The company missed its target of carrying 49 million passengers in 2007. ŽSSK will see a shortfall of about Sk200 million in its revenues, and the option of filling the financial gap by charging higher fares is unrealistic because of strong competition from road transporters, the company said.

ŽSSK carried three percent fewer passengers in the first three quarters of 2007 than it did during the same period in 2006. The drop also resulted in lower sales than expected, the Pravda daily wrote.

"There are several reasons. . . People are switching to bus travel, and many have begun using cars," ŽSSK spokesman Miloš Čikovský told the daily. "The government's inconsistent transportation policy has had consequences as well."

Problems caused by train and bus services that cover the same routes are not being dealt with, he said. Trains have to pay fees to the state for every kilometre of track they use.

"Only after tolls are introduced on the roads will the competition between buses and trains be equal," he said.

The rail company took a hit this summer when sales were 10 percent less than expected during July and August. There were more passengers during the summer, but people used trains mostly for short distances, and fewer tickets were sold for international travel.

The rail companies hope that with different bonus programmes, along with the modernisation of the rails, more Slovaks will choose to travel by train.

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