The revolution that has changed the rail system in the Czech Republic

During the first half of 2012, rail passengers in the Czech Republic enjoyed the first significant change in years in the quality of train travel. A new operator began to operate the main rail route between Prague and Ostrava, together with the government-owned Czech Railways.

The EU engine pulls the Czech train

In 2006 the Czech government decided to open the passenger railroad market to full competition. In this way the government yielded to the EU which demanded that its member nations abolish the government rail monopoly. In wake of the decision, the Rail Infrastructure Authority was formed to deal with service providers who wanted rail route allocations.

Private transport companies wasted no time. The most serious investor, Radim Jančura, owner of the successful bus company Student Agency Express demonstrated an ambitious vision but met with a frustrating bureaucratic entanglement, high initial costs, and the Transport Minister's refusal to approve government assistance.‏

In December 2009 a European Parliament directive came into force which enabled it to demand that the Czech government subsidize private entrepreneurs and choose them in open tenders. Jančura realized that the big opportunity had arrived and set up a new company named Regiojet which specializes in regional rail transport at cheap prices. The government, however, signed a ten-year contract with the state-owned rail company, days before the EU directive came into force. In reaction, Regiojet came out with an extensive advertising campaign in order to prove that their project was cheaper than that of the state-owned company, but without success.

The Italian wind that brought change

The announcement by Italian public transport company Ferrovia Nord-Milano ‎of the sale of nine Škoda 99E2 rail cars was an important step in the revolution. As the rail cars were made in the Czech Republic, the company received the Rail Infrastructure Authority's approval.‎ ‎Regiojet bought the rail cars and began to provide transport services to passengers on the busiest route in the country – between Prague and Ostrava – without subsidy entitlement (unlike the Czech rail company). Nevertheless, the many passengers enjoyed service at a level they had not previously experienced: seats were booked in advance on the Internet; at the entry to the train, attendants greeted the passengers and presented them with a free newspaper and a bottle of water; menus were given out in the train, where sushi, croissants with meat or cheese, and even French quiche could be ordered, all at competitive prices. In all the passenger cars, Wi-Fi and electric sockets were installed.

The change caused the national company also to upgrade the service, lower the price of tickets, and even examine the feasibility of splitting the trade unions in the company.

All's well that ends well, at least in the Czech Republic

The positive effect of competition caused the Czech government to reexamine previous contracts and agreements that had been made with public transport companies. The entrance of new players to the local rail routes as well is only a matter of time, and the main winners are, of course, the passengers.

Could some of the steps that have been carried out in other countries such as the Czech Republic be implemented in Israel? Time will tell ...

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