Free trains with costs

THIS YEAR November 17 is special, apart from recalling the 25th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime, nearly half of the nation will be able to travel for free on most domestic trains from this date on. The discounts come as part of a €250 million social-economic package that Prime Minister Robert Fico says is designed to compensate for recent years of austerity, but the policy has its fair share of critics too.

(Source: Sme)

THIS YEAR November 17 is special, apart from recalling the 25th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime, nearly half of the nation will be able to travel for free on most domestic trains from this date on. The discounts come as part of a €250 million social-economic package that Prime Minister Robert Fico says is designed to compensate for recent years of austerity, but the policy has its fair share of critics too.

“We believe that all young people know that trains, about which Mr. Robert Fico is speaking, are in reality not for free,” Tomáš Smutný, the head of the civic organisation Nová Generácia (New Generation) said at a rally at Bratislava’s main train station November 11 as cited by the TASR newswire. “These trains will be paid for by their parents from their taxes and also by students from payroll taxes they pay from their short-term work contracts and from each student’s wage.”

About 30 young people gathered at the main station to protest against the free trains, claiming it is a sign of the general populism by the current cabinet. They also launched a petition which has drawn 22,000 signatures, they say. “We would like to hold up a mirror to the current ruling party and also to show that young people will not allow themselves to be bought by 50-year old trains,” said Smutný.

Transport Ministry officials claim the protesters are nothing more than members of the former youth organisation of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) mobilising before the November 15 local elections.

“Everybody has the right to express his or her opinion and we understand that this topic seems to young politicians to be attractive,” Transport Minister spokesman Martin Kóňa told TASR. “Students and pensioners do not need to be afraid; free rail transport is certainly not endangered by these political activists.”

Until October 2014, New Generation was indeed part of the SDKÚ, but split over opposition to Chairman Pavol Frešo’s continued leadership of the party, the organisation writes on its website. In response to the New Generation’s petition, Anton Martvoň, deputy for Smer, launched a petition to support free train transport on November 12.

“We the supporters of this petition think that free rail transport as a measure of Robert Fico’s cabinet shows solidarity, is in line with the social policy of the Slovak cabinet as well as with the politics of the European Union supporting this kind of transport as ecological and safe,” said Martvoň, as cited by the SITA newswire.

Free trains

Based on the proposal elaborated by Transport Minister Ján Počiatek and approved by the cabinet on October 22, children under the age of 15 and full-time students under the age of 26, people over 62 and all recipients of pensions under the Act on Social Insurance in Slovakia are eligible for free travel using the national railways.

It is estimated that as many as 2.5 million people in Slovakia (approximately half of the country’s population) will be eligible, as opposed to the current 900,000 who travel for free. At present, children under 6 and seniors older than 70 years can travel for free on trains.

The specified groups of people will be able to travel by train for free in second class carriages. These are trains that the Ministry of Transport orders from transport operators under contracts for services in the public interest. Such contracts include the state passenger railway company Železničná Spoločnosť Slovensko (ZSSK) and private passenger railway company RegioJet for the Bratislava-Komárno route.

The measure does not apply to inter-city and other trains which carriers operate at their own expense without state support. The annual state subsidy for passenger railway transport is €205 million, while the draft state budget for 2015 adds €13 million for coverage of costs linked with free trains. Of this sum, €12 million should go to ZSSK and €1 million to RegioJet.

ZSSK has calculated that those who have been paying travellers so far but will be eligible for free trains as of November 17, accounted for about 15 percent or €13.7 million of ZSSK’s sales last year, according to the Pravda daily.

But there are estimates that total costs would be higher than the planned €13 million. The Institute of Transport and Economy estimates €30 million, for example.

“The first loss will be costs for the launch of new trains,” said Ondrej Matej, the former director of the passenger rail company ZSSK who now works in the Institute of Transport and Economy, as cited by SITA, adding that so-far, cost estimates do not include these. “The second loss would be failed sales of ZSSK when paying passengers would not be able to get seats in a train and would opt for a different means of transport.”

Peter Novoveský from the railway network operator ŽSR points out that children, students and pensioners make up about 25 percent of train travellers, the measure about free trains would increase the share to 60 percent, while the increase would account for those who would switch from buses to trains. Thus he sees two victims of the free trains measure. The first are taxpayers, the second is bus transport because neither regional governments nor the state plan to cover what are bound to be lost sales.

Last year buses transported about 188 million passengers a total of 206 million kilometres, the SITA newswire reported. Trains, in comparison, accounted for 46 million passengers. It is estimated that more than 80,000 people commute by train whereas buses transport nearly 600,000, according to Pravda.

The Slovak cabinet is launching the free rail transport for selected groups of citizens, also to move more travellers from buses to trains. The rail and bus public transport in Slovakia is perceived as not harmonised enough, as trains and buses often compete for the same traveller instead of complementing each other.

Ľubomír Palčák of the Research Institute of Transport did not assess the economic or social dimension for the free trains measure, but he believes that this may increase the number of passengers on trains.

“From this point of view I assess it positively,” Palčák told the TASR newswire in July, adding that the number of passengers in trains is decreasing and that the average occupancy of trains in 2012 was just 40 percent.

ZSSK prepares

In the meantime, the passenger railway company ZSSR is getting prepared for an influx of travellers. It is adding trains, launching extra ticket counters at train stations, increasing the number of serving personnel, as well as borrowing carriages from the Czech Republic to satisfy the expected demand for rail transport.

ZSSK plans to add 103 new train lines, of which 79 should be regional and 24 long-distance ones. In total, ZSSK is adding nearly 1.5 million rail kilometres. Some of these lines will be launched already on November 17, while others will start with the launch of the new train schedule on December 14.

It is expected that at least one tenth of passengers in long-distance bus transport, used especially by students, would switch to trains, according to Pravda.

“We assume that people will switch especially other means of transport for trains,” Pavol Gábor, director general of ZSSK told Pravda.

The Association of Bus Transport estimates the drop in passengers will be 8 percent or 15 million passengers, thus a €15.8 million hole in sales. They are calling on the cabinet to support bus transport too, Peter Sádovský, vice-president of the Association of Bus Transport, told the Slovak Radio in early November. According to bus transporters, lower passenger numbers will translate into higher fares.

ZSSK plans to set exact numbers of seats for paying and non-paying travellers in most popular long-distance trains. It does not see this as a big difference to the present as when seat reservation tickets are sold out, the traveller does not have a guaranteed seat.

The state rail company is borrowing 40 old carriages manufactured between 1981 and 1983 from the Czech railway company České Dráhy, Pravda wrote. ZSSK should also obtain nine new bilevel passenger trains from Czech Škodovka and 20 new diesel trains from ŽOS Vrútky while these should serve on regional and suburban routes.

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