LOCATED in the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is ideally situated as a key railway transit country for traffic heading east and west, north and south.
With 9458km of lines in a land area of 78,866km2, the network is one of the densest in the world. Yet poor quality infrastructure - much of the network is single track which limits average speeds - has for many years restricted its ability to deliver on this potential.
However, with work on an infrastructure improvement plan, which was agreed nearly 20 years ago, finally set to be completed in the 2014-2020 funding period, the railway's situation is already looking much healthier.
Mr Pavel Sury, director general of Czech railway infrastructure manager SZDC, told IRJ that delivering good quality infrastructure was the first prerequisite for improving the railway's competitiveness, which is backed up by introducing new modern rolling stock to increase the attractiveness and efficiency of services.
Specific infrastructure improvement work has focused on four key corridors: north-south corridor I, Dolní Zleb (German border) - Prague - Pardubice - Brno - Breclav, with branches to Austria and Slovakia; corridor II, Petrovice u Karviné (Polish border) - Ostrava - Prerov - Breclav; east - west corridor III, Mosty u Jablunkova (Slovak border) - Ostrava - Olomouc - Prague - Pilsen - Cheb (German border); and north - south corridor IV, Dolní Zleb - Prague - Ceské Budejovice - Horní Dvorište (Austrian border).
Sury says work is now nearing completion on corridors I and II, with only the major junctions requiring completion. On corridor III he reports that work is progressing to develop Pilsen junction and that work is underway on a 4.15km tunnel near Ejpovice, which will be the Czech Republic's longest railway tunnel when complete. On corridor IV he says that work is now underway to introduce a second track, which will help to reduce journey times between Prague and Ceské Budejovice from 2h 30min to 1h 40min when complete.
"The aim of these improvements has been to increase line speeds up to 160km/h, depending on local circumstances, and therefore the most visible change is a significant shortening of travel times for both international and domestic services," Sury says.
He adds that modernisation has already shortened the journey time between Prague and Ostrava by almost 30%, while there has been an increase in speeds on international routes: from Berlin to Prague, Vienna/Bratislava, from Prague to Ostrava and Warsaw/ Košice, and on the Warsaw - Ostrava - Vienna corridor.
"Modernisation has also increased safety and punctuality and also brought savings in maintenance costs," he says. "For freight transport, we are now able to accommodate 22.5-tonne axleloads and the GC loading gauge."
Financing for the work is coming from a combination of national government sources and European Union (EU) subsidy programmes, specifically the 2007-2013 Operational Programme for Transport. The value of construction carried out thus far has reached Koruna 142bn ($US 5.87bn) with the remaining costs of construction estimated at Koruna 45bn, and the EU again expected to offer significant support for these investments.
Indeed the Czech Republic has applied for Connecting Europe Facility funds for four projects, including the Pilsen junction work, for which the EU could provide up to 82% of the financing, and Sury says that SZDC is currently preparing applications for the Operational Programme for Transport 2014-2020.
Many of its projects involve the installation of modern technologies, with GSM-R, the Czech AVV automatic train operating system, and ETCS all playing a critical role in delivering enhanced network performance.
ETCS deployment in particular is a priority for SZDC under the ERTMS National Implementation Plan administered by the Ministry of Transport and notified by the European Commission.
The infrastructure manager is responsible for concept development, construction, implementation, operation and maintenance of an ETCS Level 2 network and Sury says the pilot installation is now complete on the Porícany - Kolín section of corridor I. Work is also underway on the Kolín - Breclav section. For future installations, SZDC is prioritising installation on the most heavily used 478km stretch of corridor I, corridor II, the connecting line Prerov - Ceská Trebová which is part of corridor III, and between Prague and Ceské Budejovice, which is part of corridor IV.
"By 2020 we expect to deploy ETCS on approximately 1350km of lines, which means equipping around 250km of lines every year for a period of six years," Sury says. "It is a challenging task, but I am convinced that we will be able to fulfil it."
Sury adds that by deploying ETCS, SZDC will gain from enhanced safety and improved interoperability. He hopes this will ease the process of accommodating cross-border traffic in the Czech Republic by potentially eliminating delays and restrictions currently associated with crossing borders, and is aiming for a complete installation on all four corridors by 2030.
However, he is clear that it will only be possible to realise these benefits if there is a complimentary vehicle rollout programme for both domestic and international operators. "SZDC is currently in intensive negotiations with state authorities and with operators on a strategy for equipping vehicles with onboard ETCS parts," he says. "In order to motivate operators, state authorities will support installation of onboard ETCS in accordance with the Transport Policy Strategy 2014-2020."
Two tools are envisaged to achieve this: utilising EU funds to subsidise the purchase and installation of onboard ETCS equipment for operators registered in the Czech Republic; and through state-guaranteed discounts on infrastructure access fees for operators using vehicles equipped with onboard ETCS equipment.
"The aim is to ensure there is synergy between the installation of trackside equipment and onboard GSM-R and ETCS equipment," Sury says. "Adequate funding must be in place in order to guarantee the required speed of implementation, not only for the trackside part, but also for equipping vehicles."
Railfreight operators will benefit from enhanced interoperability as well as the main line infrastructure upgrades which cover the EU's Baltic - Adriatic, Orient/East Med, North Sea - Baltic and Czech - Slovak corridors. Rail currently accounts for 17% of all freight carried in the Czech Republic, which is significantly higher than in other European countries. However, Sury deplores the unfair advantage that he feels roadfreight has over rail which may increase the difference further.
"Despite the introduction of tolls on motorways and selected Class I roads eight years ago, we consider the harmonisation of the two systems as unbalanced," he says. "After all we collect fees for the use of railway infrastructure across the entire network."
Railfreight traffic is also increasingly undermined by growing demand for paths from new entrants to the passenger market. The Prague - Ostrava route now has three passenger operators, Czech Railways (CD), Leo Express and RegioJet, all of which are striving to attract business.
While this is good news for passengers through reductions in fares and improvements in service frequency and quality, it is proving challenging for SZDC.
"A serious problem is the inefficient use of the line's capacity which subsequently affects freight transport," Sury says. "With the renaissance of rail passenger transport, the amount of free capacity on lines near large cities and towns is quickly decreasing due to suburban traffic and the shortening of intervals between trains required by regions and municipalities."
As a result pressure is growing for SZDC to enhance suburban infrastructure to accommodate greater demand for passenger and railfreight services, particularly with the regional passenger market opening up to competition. Sury says that improvements to regional infrastructure are now inevitable and will focus on removing speed restrictions, increasing infrastructure capacity through track-doubling, and through electrification, including the possible transition to a universal 25kV ac 50Hz traction system. Indeed the Czech Ministry of Transport recently issued a tender to develop a concept for the transition of 1796km of lines in the north of the country electrified at 3kV dc to 25kv ac 50Hz. Safety improvements, including at level crossings, are also a priority.
Funding for these projects will again come predominantly from national and EU sources with regions playing only a limited role in co-financing through financing station projects. However, one recent example where the regional funds were used for new railway infrastructure is the new line to Leoš Janácek Airport in Ostrava, the Czech Republic's first dedicated airport rail link, which was partly financed by the Moravian-Silesian region. This may set a precedent for future projects.
In an effort to better understand the regions' needs and inform the future planning process, Sury adds that SZDC has this year introduced a programme of direct meetings and forums. Under the "Rail Transport for Regions" initiative, SZDC officials are visiting individual regions to introduce plans to enhance transport infrastructure and gather feedback about what the regions feel is required.
"We are listening carefully to ideas for the development of transport brought by our partners in the regions," Sury says. "We ask representatives of the regions, among other things, which lines they consider important to meet future demand and where they see deficiencies in the level of service available."
Further infrastructure upgrades are also expected to improve links to Germany. Current services to Bavaria rely on buses to provide a journey time of four hours to Nuremberg and five hours to Munich. Direct by rail, the journey to Munich takes six hours. SZDC has completed a study to electrify the Pilsen - Domazlice - German border section of the route, which would also involve building several double-track sections. and increasing line speeds. Sury adds that negotiations are taking place with German authorities to develop "a mutually-acceptable connection to Munich."
In addition, a further study by SZDC in close cooperation with the Ministry of Transport and representatives of the German state of Saxony is underway of the cross-border connection from Ústí nad Labem to Dresden and is due to be completed by the end of 2015. This project will ultimately form an integral element of the high-speed corridor from Prague to Ústí nad Labem.
Sury says the lack of any high-speed infrastructure puts the Czech Republic at "a great disadvantage against other countries" but that work is underway to address this situation.
The "Rapid Service" plan outlines the Czech Republic's long-term vision for a network of 200km/h and 350km/h lines which will slash journey times between the country's largest cities. The plan calls for the completion of the core sections by 2030, which will increase line speeds to 200km/h between Brno and Prerov, and Brno and Breclav, and introduce a new high-speed line from Prague to Lovosice, which will offer speeds of up to 350km/h.
"Czech Republic is obliged to modernise the core network sections under EU regulations," Sury says. "By 2050 we shall finish the Lovosice - Ústí nad Labem section and high-speed lines from Prague to Brno, Prerov to Ostrava and Prague to Wroclaw. Completion of the first phase will offer a 1h 15min journey between Prague and Brno, compared with 2h 37min today. "
SZDC is playing a major role in the modernisation of the Czech Republic's transport infrastructure, as the government, in line with EU expectations, places a significant emphasis on rail to deliver improved infrastructure for passengers and freight. SZDC will soon take responsibility for CD's assets, including station buildings, a transfer which Sury says will mark the completion of the railway sector's transformation.
Identifying the optimal use for these facilities following modernisation will, according to Sury, "represent another challenge to us," but as the infrastructure manager's work has already shown, will further benefit the health of the network, which appears increasingly well placed to meet future demand.