What to do with old train stations? Cancel service and demolish them? Keep them, complete with bored ticket sellers, though only a handful of passengers pass through? The ideal lies in between, and Europeans have sought the solution for years. Czechs seek this, too, but haven’t made much progress.
Some might say Petr Chaloupka suffers from train obsession. His girlfriend would say so. “Whenever we take a train, he forgets everything and only looks for signposts and track types,” Eva Zemanová said. Chaloupka, a 35-year-old operator at a gas plant, has admired trains since childhood. Now he spends holidays at a depot.
The couple’s accommodations lie in the dispatch building at the station in Střížovice, a half hour by rail from Jindřichův Hradec. It looks like a model train set: Trees grow so healthy it appears that a hobbyist exaggerated the green paint. A forest surrounds the station, and a polished train blows its horn several times daily. The 19th-century building fits the tradition of others built during the Austrian monarchy. The station once represented the gateway to the world. A century ago, terminals made for central spots in villages and towns.
Then, stations functioned as airports do today. Passengers arrived early, checked in luggage, showed tickets and awaited the bell in second- or third-class lounges.
Bigger terminals had post offices, storage areas, workshops and mechanics – dozens of employees and metre upon metre of buildings and land. Today the whole operation runs much smaller and easier; most of what existed before would seem useless.
Střížovice’s station fell out of service for years. However, as a cosy little building in a travel destination, it easily became a hotel. What to do elsewhere?
Even careful planners struggle to find solutions. Most stations in the country belong to Czech Railways (ČD), which has never earned the reputation of careful planner. ČD owns some 1,000 stations and approximately 10,000 additional buildings. Thousands of other stations mostly belong to the Railway Infrastructure Administration (SŽDC). In 2002, when ČD and SŽDC split, some buildings were deemed unnecessary, but that decision is being examined. Should the railways not want the buildings, the structures will go up for sale. The money earned won’t go into repairs and reconstruction for buildings that need it but will subsidise losses in passenger transport.
The railways haven’t planned which lines to preserve and support and, therefore, which stations to invest in and which to discontinue or demolish. So they all crumble.
Střížovice represents the oasis. The pension has no vacancies until autumn, and everything seems clean and repaired.
Střížovice belongs to the private Jindřichohradecké railways (JHMD), which acquired the stretch of track that attracts tens of thousands of tourists annually for CZK 1 in a privatisation.
The train from Jindřichův Hradec to Nová Bystřice started operation in 1897. A century later ČD calculated annual losses on the line at CZK 30 million and announced it would discontinue service. Some 40,000 people signed petition to preserve the line. A privatisation project was endorsed. JHMD became the first line, and Jan Šatava, previously a railway employee and nostalgic, became head and co-owner.
JHMD doesn’t depend on a few commuters, as other lines do. Some 200,000 people ride the line annually.
Šatava serves as proof that under favourable circumstances one can operate a profitable railway. Side revenue comes from the 45 beds in the station buildings.
“Such tourism potential is not available everywhere,” Šatava says. “However, there is always the possibility for ideas. You can create offices, some buildings would be suitable for sales or storage – entrepreneurs could then take advantage of train transport for the goods. There are many possibilities. The stations are 19th-century buildings: Demolition should be the last resort.”
The station was a destination for Chaloupka and Zemanová. “We went to Kaproun, where Cimrman had been,” she says. The Kaproun stop, in the middle of the forest, consists of a signpost and a mound commemorating when the most famous fictional Czech, Jára Cimrman, got banned from trains for travelling ticketless and faking sleep to avoid inspection. Dozens come just for this, and everyone brings a stone for the memorial that has reached the character’s supposed height. That mound further proves that the railway can remain attractive.
It’s the centre of the world
For curiosities such as Kaproun and the architectonic gems like big central stations, nobody questions preservation.
Most 19th-century stations have no special features. The value comes in heritage. “The dispatch buildings of state railways are, excepting a few, very simple in their exteriors throughout former Austria,” according to Mojmír Krejčiřík, quoted the book Česká nádraží. The universal character of stations once identified Austrian railways, and few things remind of the Habsburg empire’s continuity to such an extent.
“From Hostivař to Uhříněves, you can see stations built following the same plan used in the Austrian Alps,” says Miroslav Kunt, who runs railway history pages at Archiv.kvalitne.cz. “The station is irreplaceable: It serves as an orientation point in towns. I consider it as significant the town hall, school and church.” He, like many others, criticises the fact that companies often build new buildings rather then repair and old ones. Many stations can find new functions.
Still, in some cases, we shouldn’t romanticise. “In Switzerland, I have often seen a station demolished and replaced by a heated waiting room on the platform,” says Petr Šlégr, transport consultant and former Green Party deputy transport minister. “There is a P+R parking lot instead of the station, where people can leave their cars. People would not use the train without it.”
Stations need to lose their odours, unfriendliness and other disgusting aspects. Otherwise no one will take the train.
“Unless the stations get fixed, passengers will not come at all, no matter how modern they are,” says Karel Tabery, who handles ČD’s properties. “I want to have a nice restaurant at the station, a place to buy newspaper – somewhere to wait.”
“Somebody has to pay for it, ” he adds. Most of ČD’s funds subsidise money-losing operations. Tabery would like to rely more on public and private financing: “The money should come from combined sources,” he says. “From state, regional and municipal budgets because stations serve towns and inhabitants. Investment can also come from private sources because stations have commercial potential.”
Ideally, regions or towns would cover something, ČD would pay a portion, and another chunk would come from private sources. This would create centres full of services, shops and meeting rooms where transport would still play the main role. That solution proves successful elsewhere. Deutsche Bahn even made a slogan: “The station is not only a place for getting on and off.”
Five years of stamps
Making that a reality here won’t happen so easily, especially if we expect the state’s SŽDC and ČD – both famous for lacking concepts, assigning commissions without transparency, and running up prices – to co-operate.
Take a trip through the first railway corridor in this region, for example, the modernisation of which cost CZK 36.5 billion, though the original estimate came in at CZK 24 billion.
7:30am, Prague, Masarykovo nádraží. Like so many Czech stations, this one comes across as crumbling and even hostile. Those travelling to Děčín can buy tickets at the window. Those continuing to Dresden or Leipzig have to wait another half hour for the international window to open. Why can’t you buy an international ticket from the same window? “Because it is a different window,” the cashier explains.
“But why aren’t the tickets sold at the same window?”
“One more question like that and I’ll go crazy,” she shouts and closes the window.
10:33am, Děčín, main station. Even at the oldest international transit station in the country, separate windows sell international and domestic tickets. On 6 April 1851, two trains from Prague and Dresden set out from opposite points to ceremoniously meet here, thus connecting Austria and Germany by rail. More lines were built, and in 1874 the first train from Vienna arrived. Děčín became one of the biggest Austro-Hungarian junctions; today five railroads meet here and the town has 15 stations and stops and dozens of unused railway buildings.
The dispatch building at the main station, built from pinkish Elbe sandstone, has protected status and received careful reconstruction as part of the corridor modernisation. Two years ago it won the competition for prettiest Czech station.
Besides the station building, some 80 structures stand. You can see them from the train, which passes through 3 kilometres of workshops, stores and tracks. Most buildings have withered, crumbled and ceased function. They remind of better times. The railways need to look after these buildings, too.
7:10pm, Prague, Hlavní nádraží. This station comes closest to the solution. Everything looks better since mid-June, a result of an attempt to revive the station through private resources. The Italian company Grandi Stazioni should invest CZK 1 billion here based on its contract with ČD. In return it will get a golden egg: the right to rent station space to retailers for 30 years.
The first impression has improved, thanks to a nice restaurant and newspaper and flower stands. Despite initial disputes the redesign preserves the hall’s architectonic character.
Still, the private planner failed to accommodate at least one operation. The passenger gets to the train by passing a Burger King, but tickets and information hide half a storey below, off the most direct route.
Luggage storage did not seem very important either – just lockers. Can one leave a bicycle here? “The company operates luggage storage,” ČD spokesman Petr Šťáhlavský wrote. “Ask Grandi Stazioni.”
“I checked and found out that ČD will operate luggage storage,” Grandi Stazioni spokesman Martin Hamšík said.
The main station should serve as an example of the ČD project Živá nádraží (living stations), which attempts to attract investors. The most important rule of such co-operation fails here. “The main function of the terminal has to come first,” Petr Šlégr says. He uses the Munich station as an example, where the ground floor functions exclusively for transport services, and shops sit in the first floor gallery. Leipzig’s station has two parts: shops in one, depot in the other. Termini Station in Rome, also revived by Grandi Stazioni, proves similarly functional. Czech Railways failed to ensure this at Hlavní nádraží.
The Živá nádraží project has 120 stations. About 20 have found private investors. Grandi Stazioni should finish up at Mariánské Lázně this year. The Italian company acquired Karlovy Vary in the package with Prague and Mariánské Lázně, but announced that it will pull out of that portion of the contract.
Some partners selected to convert stations into centres have no experience, and so results remain uncertain. Conceptual co-operation with municipalities has come to a dead end. Partner companies have good contacts at ČD. AŽD, which supplies ČD with interlocking devices, will renovate stations in Kralupy nad Vltavou, Nymburk, Kolín and Havlíčkův Brod. Bostas, a ČD building contractor, acquired stations in Sokolov, Chomutov and Teplice. Viamont, well-known for a previous co-owner, former Transport Minister Aleš Řebíček – who claimed to have sold his shares, though the company gets billions in commissions from ČD – has invested in Ústí nad Labem.
Some suspect that, in addition to saving the stations, the project might serve a contrary function for companies connected to ČD. No renovation has reached the stage at which we can draw conclusions.
Just one so far
Still, you can sometimes come across the ideal of the railway organisations and municipalities working together. Take Ostrava-Svinov: Reconstruction cost CZK 550 million, of which the town covered CZK 230 million. Both passengers and architects have praised the result, and the building won several awards. Architect Václav Filandr attached a modern glass hall to a neo-Renaissance building. The structures complement each other, water fountains sit out front, local buses stop, and nothing spoils the success of the station. ČD portray Ostrava as a striking example. Still, that all finished in 2006, and no other exemplary reconstruction has happened since.
Modern stations represent a complicated task. Still, they can happen when town representatives, railway executives, private developers, architects, urbanists and economists meet and reach agreements without side interests interfering. Then we might achieve the ideal: “The station grows into the town and the town into the station,” says Petr Moos, dean of Transportation Sciences at the Czech Technical University and former transport minister. “It is a beautiful living organism.”