The countries of the Visegrád Group (V4) have declared their intention to build a high-speed railway line connecting Warsaw and Budapest via Bratislava and Brno.
According to the most optimistic forecasts, the trip between the capital cities of Poland and Hungary should only take three hours. But is it possible for such a quick journey to become reality? During a meeting of the ministers from the V4 countries, that was held in October 2018 in Štrbské Pleso, ministers discussed the construction of the Via Carpatia road route, as well as a high-speed railway line connecting the countries.
The most important outcome was signing of a declaration concerning the construction of a high-speed railway link between Budapest and Warsaw via Bratislava and Brno. Work will soon begin on a thorough project feasibility study.
Speed: 350 km per hour
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó assured that the decision coincides with the political interests of the states belonging to the V4. In his opinion, this should be a “typical Visegrád task” involving of all the V4 countries. Meanwhile, Polish Minister of Infrastructure Andrzej Adamczyk emphasized the civilizational dimension of the project, which “could change the European Union’s transport map in favor of our region”. “The High Speed Railway will connect the countries of the Visegrád Group, just like the Via Carpatia road link,” he added.
According to plans, the double-track railway line will be adapted to trains reaching speeds from 250 km/h to as much as 350 km/h, which will only stop in three capital cities (Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest) and in Brno. This way the journey from Warsaw to Budapest would only take three hours instead of the current duration of 10 or 12 hours.
It’s worth adding that the meeting was also attended by the representatives of the European Investment Bank. Up to now, this institution has financed many railway projects, but according to Mr. Szijjártó, only 14 per cent of them were implemented in Central Europe. At the same time, the Hungarian minister declared that loan offers from other financial institutions were expected.
Economic viability of the investment
Meanwhile, some commentators in Hungary have claimed that the planned investment is solely motivated by political considerations and that it will not be economically viable. According to this view, the project is supposed to fulfil the ambitions of the Hungarian government, which were announced by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during his summer visit to the Tusványos festival in the Hungarian-speaking part of Transylvania (Romania). In his speech, Orbán publicly invited the neighboring countries to cooperate with Hungary on the construction of high-speed rail and road connections, integration of energy networks, and the coordination of defense policy.
The Hungarian government isn’t counting on EU funding for these projects, but it hopes for support from Chinese investors, which would supposedly go hand in hand with the Chinese strategy of the so-called New Silk Road (the “One Belt, One Road” project). It’s worth noting that the railway line between Budapest and Belgrade is currently being modernized thanks to China’s support.
The total cost of the planned construction of a high-speed railway link is to be estimated after the feasibility study is completed. We have to wait until then to obtain the answer to the key questions: What will the train’s actual operational speed and duration of the journey be? What will the exact route be? Will the high-speed train require the construction of completely new tracks, or will currently existing tracks be used? Will a single track be possible in certain sections or will there be two independent tracks along the entire route? The Hungarian government declared that it has allocated EUR5m for the preparation of the analysis alone.
There are also some doubts concerning the supposed 3-hour duration of the journey between the capitals of Poland and Hungary. Jan Raczyński and Agata Pomykała, from the Polish Railway Research Institute, prepared an extensive analysis on this subject, according to which the travel time between Warsaw and Budapest should take at least 5 to 5.5 hours. The journey from Warsaw to Brno alone is unlikely to be shorter than three hours. However, in order to even consider such a fast journey, it would be necessary to first upgrade the Poland’s Central Rail Line so that it could accommodate trains travelling at a speed of 300 km/h. Then that line should be extended in order to reach the city of Katowice. Additionally, it would be necessary to build completely new tracks connecting the capital of Upper Silesia with the city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic. That would cost Poland around EUR4.6bn. It’s worth noting that while the Central Rail Line in Poland would require the modernization and adaptation of existing tracks, in the remaining V4 countries it would be necessary to launch the construction of entirely new railway tracks. The question also arises of whether it would be better to bypass the Czech Republic altogether and to select a different route, e.g. one going through Kraków. However, such a route would lead through mountainous terrain, which would require the construction of numerous viaducts or tunnels associated with enormous investment expenditures. Here we also touch on the issue of direct rail connections between Poland and Slovakia. Such links are virtually non-existent, and they could provide an impulse for the development of the border areas.
What about Katowice?
The question about the economic viability of the investment leads us to the issue of the potential demand for such a high-speed rail connection. There is no doubt that the new connection is primarily intended to speed up the journey between Warsaw and Budapest, which in itself is valuable for the development of mutual relations. However, each day there are two flights between the capitals of Poland and Hungary (operated by Wizzair and LOT). According to specialists from the Hungarian Urban and Suburban Transit Association, if the demand was bigger, then the airlines would have launched additional connections a long time ago. In their view, there won’t be any greater demand in this area, and high-speed trains are not able to compete with the relatively low prices offered by the airlines.
On this occasion, some in Hungary have voiced the opinion that instead of investing in a high-speed railway line whose financial viability is questionable, it would be worth allocating more funds to the development of the domestic railway infrastructure, because on certain sections of the Hungarian railway lines the trains can only travel at a speed of 40km/h. Is it possible, however, that the high-speed train could provide an alternative to air travel thanks to the significantly reduced travel time? The flight from Warsaw to Budapest takes about an hour, but we need to add the time spent at the airport — both before the departure and at the baggage claim upon arrival. Then there is also the process of getting off the plane and the commute between the centers of both capitals and their airports. All of that requires a minimum of 3.5 hours. This means that in theory, a three-hour train trip between the center of Warsaw and the center of Budapest does not necessarily have to be longer than the total time spent on a flight, provided, of course, that such a fast train ride will be possible at all.
If the high-speed railway line will actually use the Polish Central Rail Line, then it is surprising that the city of Katowice was not included as one of the stops. It is not only the main city of the most populous urban area in Poland, i.e. the Upper Silesia, but also an important transportation center located relatively close to Kraków. The inclusion of the capital of Upper Silesia could increase the interest in the high-speed train, e.g. among the inhabitants of the southern part of Poland. However, we will only obtain the initial answers to the emerging concerns after the feasibility study is presented.
For the time being, the completion of the Via Carpatia road investment project seems to be more important from an economic point of view.
Michał Kowalczyk is a PhD student at the History and Social Science Department of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. He specializes in Hungarian and Central European politics.