The Vál Valley Light Railway, a 6-kilometer vintage railway line passing through Prime Minister Viktor Orbánʼs hometown of Felcsút, is set to be extended at a cost of billions of forints, despite low passenger numbers and questions about the misuse of EU funds for the initial stage of the project, news site hvg.hu reports.
The railway would be extended to the nearby town of Bicske within the framework of a countrywide HUF 12.28 billion narrow-gauge railway project over the next two years, according to the portalʼs information.
The plans also include a "mountain railway" in Salgótarján (a town in northern Hungary known for its once blooming mining industry) in order to let tourists "get the mining experience." The plans for the developments claim that traveling on such vintage railways is a "beloved, active relaxation of families" and that there are some 1.5 million passengers using the railway.
In 2015, when heavy criticism was levied on Orbán for building grandiose projects in his hometown of less than 2,000 people, including a football stadium and the vintage railway, he countered that "if they attack the vintage railway, it has to be extended to Bicske, and if they keep on attacking it, then to Lovasberény."
The building of the initial phase of the line was supported by funding from the EU, which was subsequently urged to launch an investigation. A delegation from the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament visited the facility in 2017.
The fact that the current plans feature an extension until Bicske sparks questions regarding the governmentʼs motives behind the project. According to hvg.hu, the plans were floated between ministries, with the Ministry of Finance objecting to some points, and recommending a reconsideration of the amount of money to be spent on the project and the "possible creation of a tender system." Such objections were reportedly dismissed, however.
According to the portalʼs information, the message behind the development will be that the extension of the narrow-gauge railway would be indispensable due to "its role in eco-tourism."
"It brings thousands of nature-loving passengers to the natural values around the railways in a nature-friendly way," the plan argues. Currently, the railway passing through the PMʼs hometown is serviced by diesel engines, however, while a 2017 report by the U.K.ʼs The Telegraph observed that in its first month of operation, only 30 passengers used the nostalgia train, which the government had claimed would be a tourist draw.
The original funding application for the first stage of the development stated that an estimated 2,500-7,000 passengers would use the line daily. According to Hungarian investigative news outlet Átlászó.hu, there was a ten-day period when the train carried zero passengers.
The plans of the proposed new extension also hint at the possible domestic development and prototype manufacturing of narrow-gauge railway vehicles.