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High-speed Rail Link Will Make Bratislava Good for a Night out – at a Cost

The Visegrad Four (V4) countries have put their weight behind a feasibility study to build a new, high-speed rail line linking Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw – along with Brno (Czech Republic’s second city). Reports of Monday’s announcement vary, but most state trains will be travelling at “at least 250 kilometers per hour”.

Such speeds would slash current schedules, putting Bratislava (200 km) within an hour of Budapest. Warsaw – around 900 km distant – would be more like four and a bit.

It’s the kind of news that allows politicians to offer the TV cameras a broad smile: the line would propel Hungary into the age of the high-speed train proper (the Budapest-Belgrade project, at 160 kmph, while an excellent improvement, is a mere canter in terms of modern rail performance), and will surely get consultancies very excited. Construction companies especially, and those involved with railway signalling, track and rolling stock, will also have taken note.

Coincidentally, the news comes just one week after Otilia Dhand, an analyst with political think tank Teneo Intelligence, visited Budapest to talk about her recent book “The Idea of Central Europe: Geopolitics, Culture and Regional Identity”. Dhand, a Slovak educated at Oxford, grew up in the euphoria of the 1990s thinking “Central Europe was the second best place to be, after the West”. But after studying the region’s 20th century geopolitical history – and living it in the 21st – she’s concluded, in short, that the V4 grouping is nothing better than a talk shop. Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland have such different interests that in the V4’s 27 years of existence its members have united on only one, negative issue – the rejection of asylum seekers/illegal immigrants.

Misplaced Pessimism?

So, will this V4 initiative prove Dhand’s pessimism misplaced, at least in terms of rail transport? In truth, only time will tell. But for sure, it is one thing for ministers to discuss high-speed rail links, and another altogether to build and – most especially – finance them.

A new, 900 km line fit for 250 kmph is an enormous undertaking. The Budapest-Belgrade project, at some 370 kilometers, has been costed by Hungary at EUR 1.65 billion – but this is essentially an upgrade, based on an existing rail alignment. Moreover, for mile after mile, it traverses the flat plains of Hungary and Vojvodina. Any route to Warsaw traverses some seriously hilly country and river crossings in Moravia and northern Hungary, not to mention the Tatra Mountains on the Slovak-Polish border. Designing high-speed routes through such terrain involves miles of tunneling – and spiraling investment costs.

Then there is the question of who, exactly, will use the super-fast trains? In another, coincidental twist, your correspondent took the train to Prague at the end of September. (Note, the present plan does not include Prague in the high-speed project – let’s see how that goes down politically with Czech voters.)

The current service, based largely on trains from Budapest to Prague connecting at Breclav (Czech Republic) with others from Vienna to Warsaw – is only two hourly. The fancy new trains – according to the politicians – will only stop in Brno and national capitals. Yet, from the crowds joining and alighting at intermediate stations by far the largest passenger flows are from stations within their respective countries. High-speed trains will certainly attract new, long-distance passengers – but how much will they cover the enormous capital and running costs of such new services?

If a 900 km high-speed line does go ahead as announced (as opposed to sectional upgrades to the current route – that would be another matter) it will be political, rather than an economically justified project. Taking Otilia Dhand’s arguments forward one stage, the V4 countries are simply not connected enough for passenger traffic to pay even a majority of the costs of such a scheme. These will be left on the shoulders of future taxpayers.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu