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Railway Giants: Jan Bašta, the First Director of Czechoslovak Railways

Railway Giants: Jan Bašta, the First Director of Czechoslovak Railways
photo: Czech Railways / Public domain/Czechoslovak Railways
21 / 11 / 2023

In this new episode of the Railway Giants series, we explore the transformation of the railway system in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, focusing on Jan Bašta, the first head of the state railways.

The year is 1860, and in the city of Podebrady, within the Austrian Empire, a boy named Jan is born to Florián Bašt, a gardener from Poděbrady, and his wife Antonia. Jan completes his schooling in Jičín and Kutná Hora before moving to Prague in 1878. There, he studies at the Polytechnic Institute of Civil Engineering. After earning his state certificate in 1884 at the age of 24, he is well-prepared to embark on his professional career.

Jan is captivated by the railway, which is still in a phase of dynamic development within Austria. He joins the Chief Operating Directorate of the Imperial-Royal State Railways (kkStB) in Pilsen. This office, established in 1884, presents an ideal opportunity for the ambitious Jan to rapidly advance in his career. The Pilsen office, a regional directorate, primarily manages the Pilsen railway hub, a crucial junction connecting the Czech lands with the German Empire (specifically Bavaria and Saxony) and linking Vienna with České Budějovice and Cheb.

MUNI / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

In this role, Jan excels and gains invaluable experience. As a civil engineer, he oversees the repair of numerous damaged tracks, not only in the Pilsen district but also in the Prague district and even in Linz. His professional success leads to his appointment as the director of the Pilsen section.

However, Jan barely settles into his new position when a major project lands on his desk. In the 1890s, the imperial authorities decide to nationalize most railways and companies. Following Germany's example, they start to view railways as a strategic industry sector. This move necessitates the modernization of the railway network.

One of the initial areas targeted for reconstruction is the familiar Pilsen junction. The centerpiece of this redevelopment is the construction of a completely new Pilsen railway station. At this time, Pilsen has two station buildings: one serving the trains of the Czech Western Railway Company and the other belonging to Plzeňsko-Brzezenské Dráhy.

In 1893, Jan Bašta, as a civil engineer, begins designing the new railway station. He envisions it in the popular Art Nouveau style. However, his initial design is rejected. Undeterred, Jan revises his plans and then collaborates with architect Gustav Kulhavé, who further refines the proposal. This revised design is finally accepted. When the construction, personally overseen by Jan Bašta, is completed in 1903, the station is ready for its grand opening. Adding to his accomplishments, Jan also completes his doctoral studies at the Prague Polytechnic in 1902.

However, Europe is on the brink of monumental changes. It is a period of peak prosperity and development, with a sense of well-being, perhaps overly so. The challenges of the Industrial Revolution are largely mitigated, and many European states, including Austria-Hungary, are transitioning towards a more democratic governance. The onset and brutality of the First World War come as a profound shock to the majority of the population. After this devastating conflict, dynamic changes follow. Maps are redrawn, long-forgotten ideologies resurface, and the pre-war order is disrupted.

This upheaval also affects our story, as on October 28, 1918, the new republic of Czechoslovakia is spontaneously proclaimed. Emerging as one of the successor states of the dismantled Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia faces the typical challenges of a rapidly formed state: disorganization and ad-hoc decision-making.

The railways are not spared from these challenges. The independent Czechoslovak State Railways (ČSD) are established seemingly overnight with the founding of Czechoslovakia. Surprisingly, there appears to be no official decree or law marking this transition. Their primary task is to take over and begin operating the railway network of the former Imperial-Royal State Railways (kkStB) and Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) within the new state's borders. This proves to be a daunting task, given the lack of new legislation and the general state of disarray in the country. The question of leadership for this new entity is quickly resolved when Jan Bašta is appointed as its head on October 30, 1918.

Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Jan Bašta approaches his new role with vigor and enthusiasm. Together with the first Minister of Railways, Isidor Zahradník, they focus on transforming the entire railway network, a task of considerable complexity. The railways in what is now Czechoslovakia were primarily built to connect to Vienna or Budapest, a layout impractical for the newly independent state. The logical solution is to designate Prague as the new central hub. This necessitates the construction of many new lines, marking a transformation that will take years to complete. The experienced engineer Jan Bašta skillfully addresses these challenges until his retirement in 1923.

In his well-earned retirement, Jan dedicates himself to writing books and professional publications in the fields of railways and technology, often weaving in philosophical insights. He reserves his main work for the twilight of his life, titling it "On the Unity of Force and Matter in a Unified Physical Worldview." In this work, he postulates: "Many physical experiences encourage the reduction of numerous pressure and accelerating causes, known under the names of cohesion, adhesion, chemical affinity, adsorption, gas pressure, vapor pressure, and osmotic, general gravity, hydraulic buoyancy, electric and magnetic attraction, and repulsion to a single force, as the ultimate cause of the stresses in question in static conditions, or acceleration in dynamic conditions." Jan Bašta passes away in 1936.

This story concludes the journey of a man who fell in love with railways early in life and remained dedicated to them throughout. His greatest life's work was the transformation of the railways after the creation of Czechoslovakia, for which he laid very stable foundations.