Czech Republic: “When it comes to investments, we leave nothing to chance”
Posted: 4 June 2015 | | No comments yet
In the words of Pavel Surý, Director General of the Czech Railway Infrastructure Administration, state organisation (RIA): “nothing is for free”. By that he means that time is running out for drawing down a significant amount of European money from the Operational Programmes on Transport which will, however, result in a large number of temporary line closures in conjunction with the necessary modernisation of the lines. Pavel has headed the RIA since June 2014, and in this interview he explains that his main goals include the completion of the modernisation of the main lines in the Czech Republic, including the use of European money from Operational Programmes on ‘Transport 1’ (OPT 1) and ‘Transport 2’ (OPT 2). As well as the modernisation of the railway infrastructure, it is also necessary to complete the restructuring of the rail system in the Czech Republic and the transfer of property owned by the Czech Railways to the RIA – in particular station buildings and the land underneath the tracks.
You have been in the Director General’s position for about one year now. What ‘successes’ have you had?
Since commencing my activities, I have endeavoured to make use of my operational experience which I have acquired from the years when I worked in various positions. I am of the opinion that there is basically nothing in operation which can surprise me nowadays. I remember that the company management in Prague did not always communicate well with the regional units. I have strived to eliminate this communications gap from the very beginning, because I know that we cannot function well at a national level without the perfect cooperation of railway workers from the entire country. I think that I have been able to set up a functioning system of company management with essential feedback from the regions so that the decisions which we issue from the centre are truly competent and correct. Naturally, this does not only involve communication within the framework of our company.
You began regularly visiting the individual regions right from the start of your tenure as Director General, didn’t you?
I am interested in the problems which the regions are tackling. For this reason, I have been gradually visiting the individual regional governors and we have spoken about the options for the development and improvement of the transport services in the given region with the maximum use of the railway. Our network is very dense and we will not have to consider mothballing or closing lines, if a use can be found for them. Frequent topics include investments in the railway infrastructure where a number of non-corridor lines will come into contention alongside the large-scale corridor construction work. In fact, their modernisation often brings a greater effect for less money. My first visit took me to the South Moravian Region where we signed a memorandum on the development of rail transport on three prospective regional lines. Since then, I have visited a number of other regions and I intend to continue doing so.
Have you also focused your interest on cross-border routes?
Yes, I have. In July 2014 I had the opportunity to officially open a renewed rail operation between Dolní Poustevna (Czech Republic) and Sebnitz (Germany) after many decades. We are also preparing to launch operation on further cross-border lines, on which operation was halted in the past mainly due to the existence of the Iron Curtain. I am talking, for example, about starting up operation on the Aš–State Border–Selb Line. Operation will be able to be renewed there once the German section of the line has been replaced but we expect works could start this year already.
Is it true that after years of lamenting a lack of funds, the situation is now much better?
The former managers at our company complained of a lack of finances both from the point-of-view of investments in the railway lines and their maintenance. Unfortunately, a lot of projects were suspended during that period. This is, of course, also associated with the ability to realise events with the support of European funds from the existing and new Operational Programmes on Transport. The RIA now has more funds available than it has ever had since its establishment. This has also led to the demanding task of effectively planning the temporary line closures which will not be easy given the extensive construction activities.
The deadline, by which the RIA must drawdown the funds from OPT 1, will soon expire. Is the Czech Republic capable of using the entire amount allocated to it?
I don’t share the worries of those who look at this pessimistically. On the contrary, I am convinced that we will drawdown all of the money from OPT 1. I am justified in thinking this by the fact that we have accelerated the project preparations for a number of new structures. We also have sufficient back-up projects in reserve. As such we have made up for any backlog which was caused by the suspension of investment activities in the past.
A large number of structures were begun last year. To what degree has this fact been reflected in the number of temporary line closures which could complicate train travel?
The scope of the investment activities is, and will be, completely exceptional. Construction will take place not only on the large corridors and on the modernisation of the railway junctions, but also on non-corridor lines, some of which will undergo so-called revitalisation. However, given that nothing comes for free, we will also have to take into account a large number of temporary line closures. We have never had limitations to this extent at any time in our history. When discussing the temporary line closures we must enter into complicated negotiations with the carriers, because this represents significant intervention in their capacity on some lines. We ask passengers for tolerance and patience, especially with regard to any train delays or any problems which the introduction of a replacement bus service may give rise to.
The preparation of each investment is a long process. How is the RIA getting ready for the next Operational Programme on Transport period from this point-of-view?
We currently know roughly how much money we will have available for investments in the following period. We will leave nothing to chance after our experiences from the past. The project preparation is moving forward at full steam so that we can smoothly follow on with other structures. There is no cause for concern, provided there is no obstruction from the point-of-view of the selection of the contractors. We have learnt our lesson from OPT 1. We more or less had to learn the rules on the fly. It was new for us and occasionally very complicated. We were also sometimes surprised at the amount of problems and delays which could occur. I currently have a number of perfectly prepared projects for OPT 2 lying on my desk. We are much better prepared.
Can you give us some examples of large-scale projects?
One large structure involves the modernisation of the Ústí nad Orlicí railway junction where the investment amounts to around 1.1 billion CZK. This has also been co-financed from OPT 1. The railway station in Ústí nad Orlicí and the line safety equipment, including the connecting line in the direction of Lichkov, will undergo modernisation. The work will also include the construction of a new bridge across the Tichá Orlice River.
The Olomouc Main Railway Station is also undergoing reconstruction. The structure has total investment costs of 2.2 billion CZK and it has also been co-financed from OPT 1. The goal is to increase the line speed up to 160km/h and in doing so to reduce travel times and improve the technical parameters and as such to increase travel comfort. The construction work should be completed in 2016. Wheelchair access to the platforms for individuals with reduced movement plus modern information systems etc. are all standard in our modernised railway stations.
Last but not least, I would also like to mention the great feat of engineering which will be the new Ejpovice Tunnel in the Pilsen Region. It will be built within the framework of the modernisation of the Rokycany–Pilsen line (National Transit Railway Corridor III). The construction is co-financed from OPT 1 and it involves investment costs of 6 billion CZK. The tunnel will consist of two independent tunnel tubes for each track and the length from the eastern to the western portals will be 4,150m.
Another example involves the highly necessary modernisation of the railway station in Karlovy Vary which includes the construction of a new two-storey station building.
All of the work involving the modernisation of our main network lines respects the European requirements for interoperability.
What do you say to those critical voices according to which too much money is being spent on the reconstruction of railways at the expense of road and highway construction?
This is associated with the fact that the preparation of railway corridor construction is much simpler than the construction of highways. We do not have so many problems with purchasing land, because for the most part our modernised corridors lead along the existing lines, and we do not have to deal with massive protests from citizens’ initiatives as is the case during the construction of new highways either. Of course, we do have some difficulties, but they are significantly less than in the case of roads. And it would be a pity to lose billions of crowns from European grants merely because the roads cannot be constructed due to legal impediments.
It is also necessary to realise that all European countries are upgrading their railways. We also want to improve the quality of our rail transport so that we can compete with roads and the regions are supporting us in these efforts. In those areas where the rail corridors have been completed, for example between Prague and Ostrava or Prague and Brno, a lot of people prefer to travel by train rather than use the clogged highways. The railway is capable of being a means of transport for the 21st century, but it must, of course, be appropriately modernised in order to do this. This is another reason why we are pleased to note that the European Union ‘is a fan’ of railways.
What do you think of the transformation under way on the Czech railway?
I understand that the separation of the original railway company between infrastructure and carrier was somewhat painful for the older railway generation. These employees have always considered themselves to be part of one big family. We adhered to the directives of the European Union in this regard, although it is interesting that not every country went down this route and the models applied in the organisation of the railways are quite different in European countries.
Pavel Surý graduated from the Industrial Railway Secondary School in Břeclav and subsequently studied Management, Marketing and Logistics at the Jan Perner Transport Faculty of the University in Pardubice from 1994 to 2000. He began working as a Dispatcher and in 1999 he became the Transport Deputy to the Business Director at the Brno Operations Directorate. Pavel has been in management since 2005 and he became the Director of the Regional Operation Centre in Brno after three years. In 2012, he became the Head of the Brno Regional Directorate. He has been Director General of the RIA since 1 June 2014.