WITH three rail freight corridors (6, 7 and 11) crossing Hungarian territory, international and transit traffic play a vital role in the country’s network. While some of these corridors were developed before the fall of the Iron Curtain, others have recently undergone significant improvements. However, some are still awaiting upgrades.

Hungary is surrounded by seven countries and has 28 cross-border railway lines, including two mixed-gauge lines to Ukraine. Only 19 of these lines currently support passenger services. There are also several which continue beyond the current border but were cut back after the peace treaties of 1920 and are now good candidates for reopening. Only 12 of the border crossings are electrified, one each towards Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, four of the five towards Austria and four of the nine crossings north towards Slovakia.

The line to Vienna via Hegyeshalom remains the most important artery for international traffic. The line was rebuilt in phases from the 1970s and upgraded to allow 160km/h operation on some sections from 1997. It remains the only route to permit speeds above 120km/h and one of only two cross-border lines which is entirely double track (the other is the Budapest - Szob - Štúrovo link towards Bratislava and Berlin). Some other lines are mostly double track with single-track sections only near the border: Debrecen - Záhony; Miskolc - Hidasnémeti; and Békéscsaba - Lökösháza.

Improving passenger and freight services

In the past two decades, the lines from Budapest to Szob, Békéscsaba, Debrecen and Nagykanizsa have largely been rebuilt, improving passenger and freight services to and from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia and beyond. Following Slovenia’s independence, a former single-track connection from western Hungary to Hodoš was reinstated predominately along new alignments in 2000 to keep the transport of cereal to the Slovenian port of Koper within the EU’s borders. This line was electrified by 2010 and the Szerencs - Sátoraljaújhely line will be electrified later in 2019 - but sadly with a gap of around 3km, thus not connecting with Slovakian electrification. Although Croatia is now a member of the EU, the line to Slovenia remains important for freight because the alternative routes towards Croatia are mostly single track.

GySEV took over the operation of several lines in western Hungary from Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) in 2001-2011, which have since been electrified. This includes most notably Sopron - Szombathely, Szombathely - Szentgotthárd, Rajka on the border with Slovakia - Szombathely, and Szombathely - Zalaszentiván. Trains using the Rajka - Hodoš corridor now require just a single electric locomotive. However, for traffic from Rajka towards Croatia via Gyékényes, a 50km gap remains in the electrification between Zalaszentiván and Nagykanizsa.

The connection towards the Adriatic ports and Italy consists of three different lines, all of which are mostly single track. The line along Lake Balaton to Nagykanizsa and Gyékényes has been rebuilt as far as Balatonszentgyörgy in recent years, including the double-track commuter section from Budapest to Székesfehérvár. Sections of the other line to Gyékényes via Dombóvár and Kaposvár have also been rebuilt and an upgrade of the double-track suburban section from Budapest to Pusztaszabolcs is underway. The third line branches off at Székesfehérvár and passes through hilly terrain in the Veszprém area before continuing to Slovenia via Hodoš.


However, since GySEV electrified the Rajka - Szombathely line, some operators have opted to use the double-track Hegyeshalom main line as far as Györ and travel on GySEV’s lines via Csorna and Szombathely to Zalaszentiván, before continuing on MÁV tracks to Slovenia. Two curves were built to facilitate the Slovenian line - one at Zalaegerszeg and one at Boba - and planning is underway for a chord to avoid Zalaszentiván. Electrification of the line from Györ to Celldömölk has not yet been initiated, although this is a major gap in the electric network.

Work to rebuild the Budapest - Hatvan suburban section of the line to Miskolc is also underway. This will facilitate services towards Hidasnémeti and Slovakia/Poland.

All electrified border crossings, including at Hidasnémeti and Komárom, carry several freight trains a day. The busiest border station is Hegyeshalom. However, Lökösháza also accounts for a significant number of freight services due to the strong flows from Romania.

Hegyeshalom - Lökösháza is the most important transit route and is used predominately for automobile and intermodal freight trains.

Indeed, considering current rail freight traffic flows, Hegyeshalom - Lökösháza is the most important transit route and is used predominately for automobile and intermodal freight trains. Budapest also generates significant container traffic to Germany, Belgium and Koper while cereals from all over Hungary (and beyond) are mainly transported towards the Adriatic but also western European ports. Coal for the Dunaferr steel works at Dunaújváros arrives from Poland via one of the cross-border lines with Slovakia. Dunaferr also receives iron-ore via Záhony while automobiles are transported from Kecskemét, Esztergom and Györ mostly towards Germany.

An important element for cross-border operation is the Záhony transhipment area where the Ukrainian 1520mm-gauge line meets standard-gauge infrastructure. Of the two dual-gauge lines across the border, the Záhony link is used only by standard-gauge passenger trains while freight is transferred to broad-gauge wagons and vice-versa at one of several Hungarian facilities to use the line via Eperjeske. MÁV manages a 150km 1520mm-gauge network, including a freight wagon bogie-changing facility. Passenger coach bogies are changed at Chop, Ukraine, and since late 2018, a direct standard-gauge inter-city service operates between Budapest and Mukacheve, making use of the standard-gauge line from Poland to Romania via Ukraine.

Over the past 10 years, much of the network in the Záhony area has been rebuilt, and many of the transhipment facilities improved. The Ukrainian crisis resulted in a loss of traffic but some commodities are still crossing the border and free capacity may be attractive when other trans-loading points, such as near Terespol on the Poland-Belarus border, become saturated. The proposed extension of broad-gauge infrastructure into Slovakia from Haniska to the Bratislava area is not expected to undermine traffic flows from Ukraine to Hungary or Serbia but may affect iron-ore shipments to Linz in Austria.

The Ukrainian crisis resulted in a loss of traffic but some commodities are still crossing the border.

One of the biggest and eagerly-anticipated improvements to Hungarian railway infrastructure is the introduction of GSM-R. A contract for the second stage rollout on 2255km of line was awarded to a consortium of construction contractor R-Kord and telematics company I-Cell Mobilsoft in August 2018. Work involves installation on unequipped lines as well as boosting coverage on the Budapest - Hegyeshalom/ Rajka line from Level 1 to Level 2. However, the first stage of the project is several years behind schedule and there is still no confirmed date for the full rollout.

Apart from on the Hegyeshalom - Lökösháza line, speeds are restricted to 120km/h in Hungary. GSM-R and ETCS Level 2 can support 160km/h but these projects have been delayed. Photo: Ferenc Joo

Without GSM-R, existing and upcoming ETCS Level 2 installations will not function, limiting maximum speeds to 120km/h apart from on the line to Hegyeshalom, which is used by Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) RailJet services from Budapest to Austria and Switzerland. Many suburban services are also failing to make use of the 160km/h capability of Stadler Flirt EMUs.

One of the contributors to an increase in cross-border freight traffic is China. More and more intermodal trains are arriving, mostly via Belarus, Poland and Slovakia, despite the shorter route via Ukraine.

An alternative option for China is to use the Chinese-owned Piraeus port near Athens. From here trains can reach western Europe via Serbia and Hungary. China is offering assistance to rebuild the line from Belgrade north to Budapest, with rehabilitation work already underway in Serbia with RZD International responsible for some sections.

Contractors to rebuild and double the single-track line have been chosen

Contractors to rebuild and double the single-track line for 160km/h operation from Soroksár in the suburbs of Budapest to the border station at Kelebia have been chosen and the project is expected to take five years to complete. However, the start of the project is awaiting the approval of a loan from China, which is expected before the end of 2019.

The work will take place on the Great Plains of Hungary, avoiding major settlements and is not particularly complicated. However, at more than $US 13m per km, the new line will be Hungary’s most expensive railway project ever. The rate of return is projected by some experts at less than 1% a year and many argue it would have been more sensible to rebuild the line via Kecskemét and Szeged, although this line experiences heavy commuter traffic around Budapest.

Regional cross-border developments are also on the horizon. The town of Lendava in Slovenia is proposing to build a short spur from the Ljubljana - Hodoš main line across the border to Rédics. This would mostly serve local traffic as Lendava is only served by a line from Croatia but could support future cross-border services between Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia.

Another proposal, already discussed by the governments, is to reopen the line between Szeged and Subotica, Serbia, for passenger traffic. In light of the migrant crisis, the border was sealed a few years ago. However, it was a popular through service and a journey time of 30 minutes is envisaged once the line is rebuilt and electrified.

There are also plans to reinstate the Subotica - Baja line, which would require rehabilitation of the former connection via Csikéria where tracks do mostly still exist. A further suggestion is to extend the line from Debrecen to Nagykereki by a few kilometres to connect with the Püspökladány - Oradea, Romania, line, thus creating a direct link between the regional centres. Services could then be extended via Salonta and Békéscsaba to Szeged, and via Subotica to Baja. While this connection would not match current Debrecen - Békéscsaba or Debrecen - Szeged inter-city service journey times, which include a change of train, it would offer improved regional links.

Busiest international passenger corridors

Budapest - Vienna and Budapest - Prague are currently the busiest international passenger corridors with a roughly two-hour frequency. There are also several fast InterCity or EuroCity services to Romania due to the sizeable Hungarian population. However, services to other countries are less frequent. Several border crossings with Slovakia don’t even have a passenger service and other destinations such as the Slovenian capital Ljubljana only have one train a day.

Railways aren’t really competing with airlines here but road. A bottleneck exists between Hungary and Poland as there is no direct line between Budapest and Warsaw. Krakow has closer historical links to Budapest than Katowice but the line between Košice and Krakow is slow. The only direct connection is a night train portion that travels via Ostrava, Czech Republic, meaning quite a detour. EuroCity passengers bound for Warsaw must also travel via the Czech Republic.

However, a new initiative is under development to build a high-speed line from Budapest to Warsaw, also serving Bratislava and Brno. This would also be a detour but a dedicated high-speed line would offer competitive travel times.

All in all, cross-border infrastructure and operations have vastly improved in recent years

A consortium of Hungarian planning companies is currently preparing a feasibility study for the project. A similar initiative is also proposed to build a high-speed line to Cluj Napoca in Romania, which is in the area populated by Hungarians. While a lot of development has taken place between Bucharest and Cluj Napoca, there is not much west to Oradea and the Hungarian border. This project is not yet in the development phase and it is doubtful that funds will be found in the near future.

All in all, cross-border infrastructure and operations have vastly improved in recent years. With private and international companies expanding their reach in Hungary and several neighbouring countries, traffic is exceeding levels before the fall of the iron curtain.

Traffic is mostly channelled via the European rail freight corridors, which means that other infrastructure does not receive the same level of investment. As the road network expands - most motorways have now reached the border and town bypasses are improving driving conditions - Hungarian railway politics is concentrating more and more on improving commuter rail services and conditions for long-distance block trains, including transit freight.