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'The new timetable brought the cancellation and reduction of some regional and suburban lines or a reduction in the capacity of connections,' says Desana Mertinková

'The new timetable brought the cancellation and reduction of some regional and suburban lines or a reduction in the capacity of connections,' says Desana Mertinková
photo: Archive/'The new timetable brought the cancellation and reduction of some regional and suburban lines or a reduction in the capacity of connections,' says Desana Mertinková
13 / 02 / 2023

RAILTARGET presents an exclusive interview with Desana Mertinková, a Slovak journalist specialising in rail transport. In the interview, we focused on the most important events of 2022 in passenger rail transport and the new timetable.

We are here to talk about 2022. Last year, major things happened on the Slovak railways. What do you see as the most important events of 2022 in passenger transport?

Last year, the Slovak government approved two fundamental documents that should speak about the future direction of rail passenger transport in Slovakia. These are the first nationwide transport service plan for rail transport and the first timetable for the liberalisation of subsidised rail lines.

The transport service plan was followed by the so-called reform schedule for train transport in 2022/2023, which, however, brought several controversies. During its preparation, a clear emphasis was placed on the economisation of operations and, to make it as easy as possible, the Railway Company of Slovakia (ZSSK), self-governing regions and the entire public were excluded from the decision-making process. And, it could be said, the Ministry of Transport too, as the main say was given to people from the Ministry of Finance, more specifically, from the Value for Money Unit (VU).

The state-owned ZSSK, which currently provides all railway performances in the public interest, also continued to draw on EU funds intended for the renewal of the rolling stock and the construction of three new technical and hygienic train maintenance centres in Zvolen, Nové Zámky and Humenne. In the current programming period, which ends in 2023, ZSSK has completed or started 16 projects worth EUR 665 million, excluding VAT, for which it can draw a subsidy of EUR 641 million, including co-financing from the state budget.

ZSSK was also the first in the transport sector to receive a financial contribution of EUR 42 million from the Recovery and Resilience Plan at the end of last year. Euro funds are a vital source for it to finance investments, as in the same period since 2016, it has implemented only 11 projects from its own resources, worth EUR 220 million excluding VAT.

You talk about the controversies of the new schedule. In what way did it manifest itself?

The new timetable has brought about the cancellation and reduction of some regional and suburban lines or the reduction of the capacity of connections because shorter and lighter trains have lower operating costs. There has also been a strong emphasis on shortening train turnarounds at termini to reduce the need for turnaround vehicles and staff. And as this went to the brink, and, at the same time, journey times were reduced or, alternatively, train timings were changed, train connectivity was disrupted at several junctions, and train delays began to chain up on several lines.

Regular commuters lost several morning, afternoon and evening services, making it difficult for them to get to work and school. They were not satisfied with shorter but overcrowded trains, the breaking up of direct services into connecting services, the cancellation of several stops or the rerouting of some lines to other stations. Several felt that the timetable was not adapted to their needs, but that they had to adapt to the timetable.

Two regions, Trenčín and Trnava, even requested that the validity of the new train timetable be postponed for a year to ensure the continuity of the suburban buses they order. The Banská Bystrica region, on the other hand, criticised that the state was saving money at its expense, as the region had to replace the trains shortfall with new bus services, but did not receive any additional money for them. All this is in a situation where the regions and municipalities have lost part of their income as a result of government measures, and their expenses are also growing enormously due to high inflation and high energy prices.

Several petitions have been launched in the Žilina, Košice and Prešov regions, where passengers have demanded redress. Their voice was partly heard when ZSSK, which started with an average of 1 763 trains per day in the new timetable, added 13 trains in mid-January and is counting on more trains from the change of the timetable in March.

However, the new timetable also has benefits...

The main benefit should be an increase in the total transport capacity of subsidised trains from last year's 35.7 million kilometres to this year's 37.9 million kilometres. More trains should run mainly on the northern route between Bratislava and Žilina, in the vicinity of the capital and the regional cities of Trnava, Žilina, Košice and Prešov. About twelve per cent of passengers should experience an acceleration of train traffic and eight per cent a slowdown.

For example, the journey by express from Košice via Žilina to Bratislava should be shorter by 24 minutes. The express train journey between Bratislava and Zvolen is 20 minutes longer both in reality and on the timetable. The need for vehicles has been reduced by ten per cent and the need for train staff by five per cent. The cost per train kilometre should fall by six per cent.

However, the overall impression has been spoiled by the Ministry of Transport itself, which has provisionally ordered only 11.1 million train kilometres in the new subcontract with ZSSK for 2023. The reason? The Ministry of Finance has not yet provided it with the necessary money package and is making it conditional on further austerity measures on the part of ZSSK. However, it's worth mentioning that the finance ministry has been keeping other ministries in an unnecessary tizzy over money for the third year. Last year, for example, ZSSK threatened to have to cancel every third train in the second half of the year.

A few days ago, it was reported that ZSSK would charge a fee for tickets bought at ticket offices. What do you think, is this the right move?

The populism of Slovak politicians caused the regulated fares on Slovak railways to have not been changed since 2011. At the same time, at the end of 2014, free transport of students and pensioners on trains chartered by the state was added. While in 2013, these trains carried around 45 million passengers, in the record pre-Cold War year of 2019, it was over 81 million and last year, about 67 million. But it was in 2013 that ZSSK had its highest-ever fare revenue. Since then, passengers have paid an average of just EUR 1.0 to EUR 1.1 per journey, excluding VAT. In 2013, it was over two euros.

Initially, it was said that free transport would cost only EUR 13 million a year. In reality, however, it could be as much as EUR 50 million a year. Because ZSSK does not receive compensation for the ticket price that a free passenger would have to pay, it is not clear how much it costs. Although the state then pays the difference between the costs and the revenues associated with the operation of subsidised trains, it is, on the other hand, shouting that this is too much. A partial way out of this situation may be higher fare revenues, which may be brought in by new paying passengers or new charges.

One such may be a 50-cent fee for buying a ticket at a brick-and-mortar ticket office or on the train. In fact, about sixty per cent of tickets are sold at the station ticket office and another eight per cent on the train. Nothing has been decided yet, but this novelty has already appeared in the new ZSSK transport regulations. Several exemptions should apply. For example, pensioners should be exempted from the fee. It may also be a problem that ZSSK currently has only 15 ticket vending machines.

You mentioned the new timetable for the liberalisation of subsidised railway lines. When will the first tenders be launched?

At the outset, it should be said that in Slovakia, the Ministry of Transport is the sole ordering authority for train transport. In 2009, the law on transport on railways was adopted, which also contained a paragraph on the transfer of competencies in ordering regional rail transport to regional governments. However, this has been postponed from year to year, and in recent years it has been openly said that this will not happen and that all competencies in ordering trains will be taken over by a new nationwide transport authority. It is said to be because we are too small a country to decentralise these services. There have also been doubts about whether the counties would do this well. In reality, however, the idea is for the state to help the national carrier for as long as possible and to decide on the financial flows that flow through it to the accounts of several suppliers.

Nevertheless, the first attempt to liberalise passenger rail transport in Slovakia was already recorded at the end of 2010, when the Ministry of Transport assigned RegioJet by direct order to operate the 100-kilometre line Bratislava – Dunajská Streda – Komárno for the years 2012 – 2020. At the same time, in a 10-year contract with ZSSK for the years 2011 – 2020, it reserved the right to tender 35 per cent of the transport performance. However, this never happened, although five tenders were announced for the operation of three lines during 2015-2020. All of them ended in fiascos, which led ZSSK to return to the line to Komárno at the end of 2020.

Such a procedure is not supported by European legislation. As of 25 December 2023, it is not possible to conclude new contracts for rail transport services in the public interest by the direct award. Since the current 10-year contract with ZSSK expires in 2030, virtually all train lines must be tendered by then, while giving the tendered carriers sufficient time to take them over. It is why not only the liberalisation timetable was drawn up last year, but the first three tenders were also pre-announced in the European Tender Bulletin. These are for the 10-year operation of long-distance express Tatran on the Bratislava - Košice line, Vtáčnik fast trains on the Bratislava - Prievidza line and Zemplín night trains on the Bratislava - Humenné line from the turn of 2025/2026. By the way, this is a year later than was considered in the timetable.

Desana Mertinková (60)

She is a graduate of the Faculty of National Economy at the University of Economics in Bratislava. She has worked as an editor and editor-in-chief in several media outlets, and from 2007 to 2019, she edited Železničná revue, a magazine about railway transport and industry. To this day, she continues to work on railway issues.