Use railways, reduce air pollution

If state authorities want to shift people from cars to trains, they must dispatch more trains and improve services, experts say.

Dispatch of the first train after the reintroduction of ZSSK's InterCity trains in December 2016.Dispatch of the first train after the reintroduction of ZSSK's InterCity trains in December 2016. (Source: Sme)

Several Slovak cities such as Košice, Ružomberok, Martin and Žilina struggled with a higher concentration of dust particles in the air in the first few months of 2017. The smog problem has largely been impacted by the heating and energy industry, but transportation has also played a part.

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Though excessive heating is only seasonal in nature, overcrowding of city centres by cars and their inappropriate usage are year-round issues. The government is now trying to decrease emissions in municipalities by expanding urban mobility, but also by promoting more ecological means of transport, mainly trains. However, transport experts state that the current railway network lacks sufficient density and quality to replace freight and bus services.

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“What might be helpful is intra-city rail transport, even trams, yet over the past 10 years the development of tracks in Bratislava and Košice has been completely halted,” transport analyst Jozef Drahovský told The Slovak Spectator.

Promotion of railways

While the Slovak government considers railways a major transport system in Slovakia, it directs attention mainly to the promotion of the national carrier, the state-run company Železničná Spoločnosť Slovensko (ZSSK), the return of its commercial InterCity trains to the main route Bratislava – Košice, and modernisation of the railway network.

Currently, the Transport Ministry is using the EU funds from several operational programmes to increase speed limits on railways, ensure better access of immobile people to trains, and install information systems for passengers. The biggest investment so far went into increasing the speed to 160 kilometres per hour on most stretches between Bratislava and Žilina, said the ministry’s spokesperson Karolína Ducká.

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Read also: Brussels will contribute €1bn for Slovak railways Read more 

Another promotional measure of the state introduced in November 2014, which has a significant impact on year-on-year changes in the total numbers of passengers, is the ongoing subsidy for free travel for children under 15 years old, students up to 26 years old and all types of pensioners in selected trains of ZSSK.

In 2014, ZSSK carried in total 47.3 million passengers, in 2015, 57.3 million and in 2016, 65.6 million. The number of free passengers grew from 24.6 million in 2015 to 26.7 million, or 41 percent of all passengers, in 2016, said ZSSK spokesperson Tomáš Kováč.

Lack of lines and capacity

However, analysts consider the measure to be an economic distortion of the market. Such measures have lured only those people who travelled before by bus or who did not travel at all, Drahovský said. Residents of towns without railways cannot benefit from free or cheap trains.

“They lost a significant number of buses due to economic pressure too,” Drahovský said.

Desana Mertinková, editor-in-chief of the Železničná Revue magazine, sees the problem in the low capacity of state trains which leads to dissatisfaction of many free passengers who do not have a place to sit or have to pay for a ticket when the carrier sells out the quota of free tickets. Though the number of passengers has significantly increased, the state increased the number of trains by only 3 percent, she said.

“If the state really considers that it is necessary to maintain the trains for free, it should order more of them in order to also have happy paying passengers,” Mertinková said.

Many passengers are willing to pay extra money for faster and better connections, said Rastislav Cenký, director of the Institute of Transport and Economy (IDH). Either people who do not need to travel use free tickets, or they fill the capacity and cause artificial demand for its enlargement.

Different spectacle abroad

Meanwhile, neighbouring countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland attract passengers with more trains, about half intervals on several lines, modernisation of the train fleet, and commercial discounts on weekends and outside of peak hours. Discounts can solve the issue of overcrowded trains because people do not travel during peak hours when the tickets cost half the price outside of them, according to Mertinková.

“Though the total cost of railways has increased, countries cover it not only with higher subsidies, but also with higher revenues from tickets,” Mertinková said.

Public or private

More competition usually leads to greater satisfaction of customers, thus liberalisation of Slovak railways still remains in dispute. While the government prefers its own carrier ZSSK for ensuring performance in the public interest, analysts see mainly the importance of passengers’ opinions.

People do not care about state or private carriers and about the type of transport, Cenký said, but rather look at quality, accuracy, periodicity, riding time, number and quality of changing points and price.

“The state should keep track of how much of a subsidy it gives to its carrier for one transported passenger,” Cenký told The Slovak Spectator.

While at places with train stops within reach, railways should become major transport hubs, buses can carry passengers to trains from surrounding areas and trains would deliver people to public transport in cities, Cenký added.

Yellow trains left main route

As of February 2017, the biggest private carrier in Slovakia, Czech company RegioJet, gave up carrying people on its yellow trains on the main Slovak route Bratislava – Košice due to state-funded free travel and the reintroduction of InterCity trains. When a private carrier ceases to be profitable, it must end its operation otherwise it would go bankrupt, according to Drahovský.

“In contrast, the state carrier has distorted the economic behaviour as in the case of a loss it gets a subsidy from the government paid by all taxpayers,” Drahovský said.

IDH sees the problem in customer habits concerning quality and the approach of the private carrier that starts when buying tickets. If the state really wanted to replace these services, it should look at the reasons for success in attracting passengers and try to improve them, Cenký said.

Read also: Slovaks lose trains between Bratislava and Košice Read more 

Though now people can only travel on the route in ZSSK trains, RegioJet’s departure does not affect the free travel. Moreover, the difference in the annual changes at the turn of January and February in 2016 and 2017 is only 0.9 percent, said Kováč.

Another line remains unliberalised

Several private companies also wanted to have trains on the route Bratislava – Banská Bystrica as the government held a competition for an appropriate carrier beginning in November 2015. However, in February 2017, Transport Minister Arpád Érsek cancelled the tender with words about the need for more complex serviceability of the area and financial viability of public transport.

“Whereas the originally introduced competition had a number of bugs, we have to look up and set new policies for the beginning of liberalisation of lines in Slovakia,” said Érsek, as quoted in a press release.

The ministry plans to launch a new tender in accordance with the legislation and a fourth railway package which authorities will use to adjust to the EU regulation, the press release stated.

How to attract more people

To promote higher interest in public transport, IDH recommends creating one integrated transport system for the entire country, under the control of a single authority and with only one timetable as well as common all-network tickets and reasonable prices. In addition, current rail transport lacks better advertising, according to Cenký.

“Many citizens do not even know that the state carrier recently bought a number of new, high-quality and comfortable carriages, two-storey carriages included,” Cenký said.

Carriers must constantly monitor passenger demands and on that basis match their routes, stops, timetable and services provided, Drahovský said.

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