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Free trains bring queues at stations

TRAINS were fuller and stations busier on November 17. It was, of course, the end of the holiday weekend; but it also saw the launch of free train travel for students and pensioners.

TRAINS were fuller and stations busier on November 17. It was, of course, the end of the holiday weekend; but it also saw the launch of free train travel for students and pensioners.

“We have come to the conclusion that this measure is rational and has its sense,” Prime Minister Robert Fico said at a press conference on November 17, as cited by the SITA newswire, adding that the cabinet seeks to encourage train – as opposed to bus or car – transport.

By November 17 the number of students and pensioners who picked up their passes needed for free rail transport had neared 200,000.

“This confirms that this measure has its sense and has huge support,” Fico said.

Transport Minister Ján Počiatek recalled that passenger rail transport is traditionally busier during the last day before the first working day of a new week.

“This day often has a large load for train transport and I hope that this would be not evaluated in the way that today trains are fuller because of the launch of this measure,” Počiatek said, as cited by SITA.

Free trains for students up to 26 years of age and pensioners is one of 15 measures from the €250-million social-economic package that Fico says is designed to compensate the public for recent years of austerity. This measure increases the number of passengers eligible for free rail transport from 900,000 to about 2.4 million, about half of the population.

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. However, some outsiders estimate costs will exceed €30 million.

To travel free, those eligible need to register with ZSSK, get a pass and to pick up free tickets. Since many left registration to the very last moment before taking the train free of charge for the first time, there were queues in front of the box offices at train stations complicating travel for those who needed to buy a ticket too.

To cope with the expected increase in train transport ZSSK increased seat capacity by 12,000 seats, of which 7,000 were in long-distance transport. It also added wagons and increased number of staffers at stations as well as in trains. ZSSK is also adding new train lines with most set for launch by early December.

Next year the government plans to extend its railway measure and increase discounts for workers commuting by trains to 30-50 percent.

ZSSK issued a total of 104,000 tickets on November 17, of which over 48,000 or 46 percent were free tickets. This means an increase by about one-third compared with 2013, but last year November 17 was on Sunday and thus did not extend the weekend to three days as was the case this year, ZSSK spokeswoman Jana Morháčová said as cited by SITA.

On November 18 the number of issued tickets increased to 110,000, of which free tickets accounted for 61,000 or 55.5 percent. The number of registrations exceeded 200,000.

ZSSK was satisfied with the course of the first day of the extended free transport and in terms of queues for registration Morháčová said: “People, similarly to cases of submitting tax returns or other duties, leave the registration at the very last moment before the first free trip.”

ZSSK is not afraid that the cabinet’s measure would increase the interest in rail transport beyond its capacity.

“The most loaded train [on November 18] reported 60 percent of sold seat reservation tickets,” said Morháčová as cited by SITA.

On November 17, ZSSK also launched a bonus for paying passengers with a free seat reservation for tickets over €10 and for first-category trains.

“We have launched the measure as a bonus for paying passengers,” said Morháčová. “We believe that their interest in travelling by train will not decrease in spite of the increase of free passengers.”

Počiatek estimates that the number of rail passengers would increase by more than 10 percent.

“This principally should not have any fundamental influence over the quality of travelling because nowadays the average occupancy of trains is 25 percent,” said Počiatek as cited by the TASR newswire. “Capacities should be sufficient with the exception of critical and extreme days, for example such extended weekends when such moving of nations takes place.”

Morháčová and Peter Sádovský of the Association of Bus Transport expect that the change in behaviour of passengers will be gradual.

“We assume that those, who registered for discounted rail transport, are primarily train passengers,” Sádovský told the TV JOJ. “In case of bus passengers the switching of buses for trains would be probably gradual.”

Bus companies call for subsidies too

Sádovský estimated the annual costs of the measure at €46 million while lost train and bus sales should be included in calculations too, he said.

“We have sour feeling in mouths because railways are now getting a generous contribution while bus passengers have been left with empty hands,” said Sádovský.

The Transport Ministry is not against extending discounts to bus transport.

“But the precondition is that commissioning of subsidised transport gets harmonised in the way that trains and buses do not compete with each other [on the same routes],” Transport Ministry spokesman Martin Kóňa told TV JOJ.

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