Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

T R A N S P O R T:
The Little Engine That Couldn't
The sad story of rail in Central and Eastern Europe
Martin Burger

Travellers and industrial goods in Central and Eastern European (CEE) used to move mainly by train. Not anymore. The old centralised transport systems are collapsing while new roads, flooded by new fleets of cars, divide landscapes.

Changes are quick and radical. Overall in CEE, rail traffic has been reduced to about one-third from 1990 levels, says Ferenc Joo, national secretary of the Hungarian Traffic Club.

In Poland, the 24,000 km of railway line operating in 1993 are expected to be reduced to 14,000 km after planned road building, says the European Environment Agency (EEA) in the "Europe's Environment: Second Environmental Assessment" report.

Since 1970, the total length of all roads in CEE increased by 12 per cent, adds the EEA.

At the same time, the numbers of vehicles on roads has skyrocketed. In 1975, the number of passenger cars per thousand inhabitants was 55 in Hungary and 32 in Poland, according to the Global Report on Human Settlements, published by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Some twenty years later, that number jumped to 223 in 1998 in Hungary and to 221 in Poland in 1997, states an August 1999 report on CEE transport compiled by Rupprecht Consulting for the Coordinated Action for Pan-European Transport and Environment Telematics Implementation Support project.

Future trends in CEE are expected to follow past growth patterns in Western Europe, where rail transport of goods fell by 20 per cent from 1985 to 1995, states the EEA. And state subsidies in the transport sector are moving from rail to road throughout Europe.

Why the change?

Car ownership in CEE is more than a practical thing. It is a symbol of social status, Joo says. Furthermore, railways simply cannot compete with highways. "As long as a highway has been built between location A and location B, trains have no chance anymore," explains Gerald Fancoj of the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the railway system is deteriorating. "Rail networks in the region are generally quite dense, as rail constituted the principal means of freight and passenger transport under the previous regime," says Ivan Pollock of the Institute of Transport Sciences in his 1995 study, "Issues in Sustainable Transport: The case study of Hungary," published by the European Conference of Ministers of Transport.

"The rail network suffered the effects of insufficient maintenance and lack of necessary repair for many years," he adds. "As a result, traffic is often delayed, the quality of service is inadequate and the conditions of travel are poor. Financing has been inadequate for the maintenance of rail infrastructure and rolling stock. Estimates show that only one-fourth of necessary maintenance is actually carried out. Unless higher priority is given to improvements in this area, rail will be unable to compete with road transport," Pollock says.

When faced with the task of modernising a road link, most CEE governments decide to rebuild it as a highway, adds Joo. In contrast, the railway network is so severely deteriorated that even if money is spent on upgrading, trains will only reach a speed of 100 to 120 km/hour, that is, the level of 50 years ago - far too slow to compete with road travel, according to Joo.

In 1995, work began on sizing up the transportation needs of the 11 EU accession candidate countries through the European Union-financed project, the Transportation Infrastructure Needs Assessment (TINA). At first glance, TINA is a pro-train package. According to TINA's 1998 progress report, the region's transportation network would comprise 18,353 km of roads and 20,423 km of railway lines. However, only a fraction of this would be new links, as most would be existing road and rail routes, many of which are currently in poor condition.

TINA states that the overall cost of fixing and upgrading (for example, road widening) the proposed network is estimated to reach EUR 89 billion by 2015. It is not obligatory for accession countries to build or upgrade every road and rail link on TINA maps. But if they go ahead with some upgrades, the EU has agreed to cover 10 to 20 per cent of the cost through its ISPA program, which sets aside EUR 500 million per year for transport infrastructure development.

Now, the question is whether CEE governments will even ask the EU for help with fixing the roads or rails on TINA maps. According to Ferenc Joo, the governments seem to prefer building roads. "The road lobby won," he says.

Martin Burger

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin (Vol 8, No. 3), a quarterly magazine published by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe. For more information see http://www.rec.org.



Theme: Poverty

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