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How the Bratislava Metro Was "Built": From Plans for a Million-Dollar Metropolis to Abandoned Ruins

How the Bratislava Metro Was &quote;Built&quote;: From Plans for a Million-Dollar Metropolis to Abandoned Ruins
photo: e15 / Public domain/Tunnel of the planned Bratislava metro
06 / 05 / 2024

The grandiose plan to build a Bratislava metro to connect the planned housing estates with the city center has been in the works—or rather, not in the works—for more than fifty years. The 100-kilometer line was supposed to solve the traffic problem in the Slovak capital, for which there were many plans for dynamic development. Why has the vision of modern urban transport been left with only tombstones in the form of a similar tunnel and corridor stretching across the entire Petržalka housing estate?

In the 1970s, Bratislava was a city of 300,000 residents. But that was expected to change in the following years. The government planned to build four housing estates for 200,000 inhabitants, thus achieving a metropolis of millions. However, such a drastic change had to be accompanied by the development of transport to connect the new housing estates being built on the outskirts of Bratislava with the city center.

The construction of the new housing estate, Petržalka, was the first to start. Construction began with an important condition: Bratislava must have a metro. This condition was enshrined in a government resolution, which decided that a metro corridor would be built in the middle of the housing estate. The year was 1974, so consultants from the Soviet Union were invited.

The Soviet experts arrived and found on the spot that the capital needed a metro. However, their task was clearly set: to dissuade the Slovaks from the idea. So they considered other options such as trams, buses, trolleybuses, or monorails. Gradually, all these options were rejected; the metro was to be driven out of the minds of the Slovaks, so rapid transit was allowed. In other words, there would be a metro, but it would be called rapid transit.

Then came the practical questions, such as how many routes the metro would have or how long it would be. In the end, the most likely option seemed to be a three-track system with a respectable length of 103 kilometers. In the first proposal, the vehicles to serve them were based on the idea of using the Czechoslovak ČKD Tatra R2 metro vehicle.

As these cars were to draw power from both the third feeder rail and the overhead trolley, it was planned that the system would run underground, on radials, or when the line left the city center, at ground level, or on trestles. In doing so, 37 kilometers of the 100 km length would run underground, the rest on the surface.

This first Bratislava metro plan thus combined the advantages of trams with those of the metro and seemed ideal for Bratislava, both in terms of cost and solution. Even above ground, the city was not to be crossed by other transport, and overpasses, underpasses, and pedestrian underpasses were planned everywhere. But then politics came into the picture. The Soviet Union decided that the subway would be served by Soviet trains, which necessitated a change in the concept of preparing the subway because these obsolete trains could not operate on the surface for long periods, so the subway had to be taken underground.

Another acceptable solution for the Soviet Union was the LEV250 vehicles from East Germany, which were modified specifically for the Bratislava rapid transit system. This proposal also failed. The vehicles were not sufficiently compatible with the signaling technology for the Bratislava metro. This technology was from the Soviet Union. Bratislava, therefore, reverted to Soviet car technology; the rapid transit system was to be of the Soviet type.

In the 1980s, the first, and contrary to plans, the last Petržalka housing estate was completed, and the daily bus service to the center completely collapsed. Therefore, an incredible idea was born: the so-called Temporary Passenger Transport across the Danube. In practice, this meant building a temporary metro line about 2 km long, with one station at the beginning of Petržalka on the Danube. The route would run its entire length on the surface and use the old railway bridge over the river. There would be two stations on the other side of the city. And when the final metro line through the Danube tunnel was built, this temporary metro line would be canceled.

Variant solution of the underground crossing over the Danube from 1983. Collection of Peter Martinko; Source: MHD86 / Public domain

The construction of the temporary route was planned, started, and even saw half of the bridge built over which trams now run from Petržalka to the center of Bratislava. However, in hindsight, it became clear that the temporary route project would be so costly that it simply was not worthwhile. And so, the construction was terminated a year after it started.

It is how the Bratislava metro was "built," or rather not built. In fact, the decision to build it was made and reversed thirteen times over twenty years.

All that is left of the entire temporary metro project is another government decision and a bridge, which is the only structure from the entire project that later found a use for public transport, only today it is not a metro but a tram. But at the end of the 1980s, the plans for future construction in Bratislava changed because, after the experience in Petržalka, the planners concluded that it was not a good idea to build more mega housing estates like this and that in the future, Bratislava should grow more within the existing city.

The turning point came after 1989. The regime change meant that Bratislava would not have to have a Soviet-style metro but could build a much more modern sub-surface transport system. So, in the post-revolutionary enthusiasm, work on the metro was halted, and today, all that is left of Bratislava's plans for a metro is rubble.