Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy

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The Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy is a document on the development of suburban track-based transport for the Hungarian capital and its agglomeration, defining comprehensive long-term goals and the developments they require. The Strategy sets the ambitious goal of increasing the total number of passengers on suburban railway lines by 80% through comprehensive and interdependent complex investments realised until 2040. The development of the Strategy began in 2019 and was commissioned by a consortium formed by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, MÁV Magyar Államvasutak Zrt. (Hungarian State Railways) and the Budapest Development Agency. The Strategy was co-financed by the Connecting Europe Facility. During the preparation of the Strategy, the professional and the wider public had the opportunity to express their opinions and make proposals to the chapters in progress on several occasions.

Budapest and the railway

In the early years of railway construction, Hungary was part of the Habsburg Empire, and when the country’s first steam railway line between Pest and Vác opened in 1846, Budapest was not a capital yet, moreover it did not exist as a single city. Pest was barely an intermediate stop on the line, aimed to connect the imperial capital, Vienna, with the Lower Danube region. The programme of the suppressed 1848 Revolution was only implemented after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, when the country reconciled with the Habsburgs and gained partial independence. The period leading up to World War I brought  never seen economic growth to the Hungarian Kingdom, which back then was larger than the current size of Poland. A dense railway network was created. Budapest was established in 1873 by the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda districts on the two sides of the Danube, which quickly became the centre of railway developments and a very rapidly growing capital. All 15 currently existing railway of Budapest were built at that time. The structure of the railroad network has not changed signficantly in the past 110 years.

Agglomeration processes

The demographic situation, however, changed dramatically during the same period. The agglomeration of Budapest was populated in multiple waves. People who moved to the central region from the more distant parts of the country often settled down in this area. Also, at certain times there were strong waves of people moving to the agglomeration from Budapest. In both cases, the motivating factors were the more rural, greener environment and the lower property prices. The dream of purchasing a detached house with a garden offered a calmer and healthier lifestyle. The immense growth of settlements in Budapest’s agglomeration in the 1990s, after the regime change, could be linked to the desire to own a private car and experience a new way of freedom. Since 1960, the population of the inner part of the capital has been halved, but at the same time the population of the entire metropolitan region, that is Budapest and its surrounding areas combined, has actually increased. This trend seems to continue. The current projections indicate that the population of Budapest will grow by 2.76% by 2040, while the population of the entire metropolitan region will increase by 13.25%. Needless to say, that the majority of people living in the agglomeration look for work, education, commercial and entertainment opportunities within Budapest, and commute daily to the capital. As a legacy of the socialist system, the rustbelt of the abandoned, industrial sites and their infrastructure is still largely underutilized in the capital. The idea of a compact city has just begun to spread among professionals and decision-makers. Thereby the challenges of the expanding agglomeration is expected to stay with us for the upcoming years. Unless we intervene, problems originating from commuting will cause challenges in the future.

3 out of 10

The lines of the suburban railway network reach most of the important agglomeration settlements, but in many populated areas stops have not been built. The quality of the services is a serious issue. Due to the neglected and, in some cases, single-track lines the desired travel speed and service density is not achievable. There are diesel engine operated lines around Budapest. Railway stations and stops are ruined, with no wheelchair accessibility, which does not make railway an appealing option for passengers. The vehicle fleet has partially been renewed, but there are still 40- 50-year old trains in service. The biggest problem lies within the capital. The railroad network was not significantly developed since World War I, almost all suburban lines arrive at terminal stations, and do not provide connections to the city or the public transport system. Railway lines often pass over metro and tram lines without stopping. Left without high-quality public transport options, the majority (2 out of 3) of the growing population of the suburbs commute by car. Only 3 out of 10 people use public transport, while this number is 6 out of 10 people within Budapest. Every third car on the roads of Budapest during peak hours comes from the agglomeration, and every second kilometre travelled by car within Budapest is driven by someone who lives outside the capital. It is, therefore, safe to say that the traffic problems of Budapest clearly originate from the agglomeration.

Why don’t we build more roads?

In Central Hungary, which is in Budapest and Pest County combined, the number of cars has increased from 1 million to 1.25 million since 2010. The growth in the agglomeration was double the amount of the capital, 36%. It is simply impossible to build enough access roads for so many cars. Even if we could, it would make no sense, because the city’s internal road network would not be able to take more vehicles, not mentioning the problems of the parking capacities. On average, commuters spend 37 minutes in traffic jams every day, which corresponds to HUF 300 billion of social damage every year. This multitude of cars contributes significantly to climate change. Transport in the region emits 4 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Transporting a passenger to a given distance by rail costs only a third of the CO2 emission than by car. According to Hungary’s National Climate Change Strategy, a 52-85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2050 compared to 1990. This requires railway to have a bigger share in metropolitan traffic. By 2030, 30% of road freight transport of more than 300 km distance will have to be diverted to rail and by 2050 it must be increased to 50%. Increasing the share of railroad in commuting is essential to achieving these objectives. In summary, the transport problems of the Budapest metropolitan region can only be solved by the development of the suburban railway network.

The solution: railway

Surveys suggest that almost twice as many people would use the suburban railways if the service improved in quantity and quality. The data collected from the already developed lines show the same with traffic more than doubled and nearly doubled on the recently reconstructed Esztergom and Székesfehérvár lines. Detailed and thorough investigations have been carried out by municipalities, with traffic modelling, time series data analysis, analysis of foreign examples and needs assessment employed in the process. Similar results obtained by mutually reinforcing methods can be considered credible. It can be established that in every settlement where the suburban railway is already available, developments would trigger significantly more commuters to choose the railway, and the rate of increase in the number of passengers depends on the number of people living along the specific line and the rate of development. Where high capacities are already available, for example on the recently refurbished lines, further growth is expected to take place at a lower rate, while up to four to ten times more passengers are expected to switch to an improved rail service at settlements currently serviced by slow, ageing, poor quality, infrequent trains.

 

  • According to the modelling, the number of railway trips within Budapest can be increased more than four times
  • Studies show a potential 63% increase in suburban rail travel
  • An increase of approximately 10% is assumed in long-distance and international travels
  • All these combined, the number of passengers serviced by MÁV-Start in the metropolitan region could be more than half a million per day, which would be an 80% increase in total
  • In particular, the number of trips directly affecting Budapest and the suburban areas is expected to increase by 97%
  • Based on traffic surveys, the proposed railway developments are expected to switch approximately 115,000 commuters from driving to travelling by train

Permeable centre

The railway node of Budapest has reached the limit of its capacity in its present form. The main reason for this is can be found in the centre. During peak hours, the number of trains cannot be increased on most internal sections. As a result that, trains can only run hourly on many of the more external sections of the railroad network. Both long-distance and suburban trains arrive at one of the three terminal stations while some special lines have their special terminals. Moreover, the inner, crowded sections leading to the terminal stations are in the worst condition, because only 3% of the money spent on railway track development has been spent on the sections within Budapest since Hungary’s accession to the EU in 2004. There is no practical way to substantially increase the capacity of the terminal stations, as it would require huge territorial demands in the inner city. The only solution to this problem is to move beyond and untie the rigid system of terminal stations. On the one hand, this path allows for a quantitative increase in capacity with the Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy aiming to more than double the number of trains crossing the city border at peak hours. On the other hand, by developing inner city connections, it will enable suburban commuters to reach several points of the city and at least three metro, plus tram and bus lines instead of a single terminal station. In addition, this solution will create rapid transit network elements for urban transport that are equivalent to metros on completely new routes.

Southern Belt Railway

The transit railway station of Kelenföld plays the role of a gateway to the Buda side. From here, the Southern Belt Railway runs to Keleti, one of the terminal stations on the Pest side of the city and the agglomeration lines of Pest across the Danube. The capacity of this route, however, is completely loaded since most of the railway traffic in Hungary passes across the Danube here. On the other hand, this line lacks stops. The development of the Southern Belt Railway will increase capacity by laying track number three and partially number four, as well as installing three new stops at the backbone of urban transport and supporting large property development projects in the rust belt. The development has already started with the reconstruction of the Danube Bridge and its extension from two to three tracks. It is planned that 6 to 10 trains per hour will pass through this section in each direction. The Southern Belt Railway will be continued with the external belt railway to connect the suburbs of Pest and North Buda. The inclusion of the North-Western agglomeration in suburban transport is also an objective, and new stops must be built there as well. The first of these has already been opened.

Railway tunnel under the Danube

The key development of the Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy is connecting the abovementioned Kelenföld railway station on the Buda side with an underground railway tunnel to the Nyugati railway station on the Pest side. This planned tunnel would partially transform the current Nyugati terminal station into a transit railway station, while Déli railway station, the terminal station on the Buda side, would be completely moved underground as a transit stop. The area of Déli railway station and parts of Nyugati railway station could be freed for a large-scale urban development project. The underground railway tunnel would dramatically increase Budapest’s railway throughput and radically expand the number of urban and suburban destinations directly accessible by railway lines arriving from the agglomeration.

The tunnel is planned to have the following parameters:

  • Approximately 4.5 km long
  • Two electrified railway tracks
  • For passenger transport only
  • Maximum capacity: 24 trains/hour per direction, which is a capacity to cover not only suburban trains but also long-distance railway lines
  • As little as 2-3 minute intervals between trains using the same track
  • More flexibility in organizing railway lines
  • Better access to the inner city
  • Railway to play a more significant role in city transport
  • Multiple new connections without transfer created
  • Shortened travel time for many passengers
  • Significantly higher railway capacity in Budapest
  • Allows the redevelopment of the entire area of today’s Déli railway station and large areas around Nyugati railway station by freeing them up
  • Eco-friendly as it transfers a lot of commuters to railway instead of private transport
  • Low noise load due to underground routing

The suburban railway lines (HÉV)

The situation of the suburban railway lines in Budapest and their surrounding areas are unique. The abbreviation “HÉV” stands for “railways of local interest” in Hungarian. In terms of technology, they are separated from the railroad as they run on direct current. In terms of organization, they either belong to one of the Budapest transport service providers or MÁV, the Hungarian State Railways. Currently, MÁV-HÉV Zrt. is a subsidiary of MÁV. Their reliability as isolated lines is legendary. However, the condition of the tracks has deteriorated, the vehicles are outdated, mostly 40-50 years old. Their biggest deficiency is their structure itself as these lines do not form a network, with the two southern suburban railway lines not even reaching the Budapest metro network. Therefore, the Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy first outlined the reconstruction, interconnection and underground conversion of these two lines, namely the H6 Ráckeve and the H7 Csepel lines, to Kálvin tér, i.e. to the inner city and the metro network. As a long-term objective, the line is planned to be continued in a tunnel to be connected to the northern H5 Szentendre line. As seen from the above, the “small-scale” plan with the suburban railways is exactly the same as with the normal railroad, i.e. to create a metro-like rapid transit line under the city centre with access from the agglomeration areas at both ends. In fact, this North-South suburban and urban rapid transit network would be partially integrated with the metropolitan railroad network, and the suburban trains of a railway line would enter this tunnel from the north and south. (From the Esztergom and the Kunszentmiklós lines.) A full vehicle replacement project on the three mentioned lines (H5, H6, H7) has already begun, the public procurement tender for 54 units of 120-metre trains is currently in progress. As per the long-term plans, the eastern Gödöllő suburban railway line (H8) and the Csömör feeder line (H9) must be connected to the M2 metro line plus renovated and equipped with new vehicles.

Branch lines

Some of the lines of the normal railway network arriving in Budapest are in the fortunate position to serve almost exclusively suburban purposes, even though all of them are connected to other railway lines at their external ends. Among these, the Esztergom line has undergone complex reconstruction in recent years, during which it was electrified and in parts a second track was laid. Although travel times have not improved to the desired level, partly due to the existing geographical conditions and the sub-standard quality of the sections within Budapest, the result of the development is a huge success, with the number of passengers more than doubled. Once again, there appears to be capacity shortage on the line passing through one of the most popular suburban areas of the Buda side. However, the other branch lines are in poor condition, and their complete reconstruction is part of the plans with partial dual-track setup, so that trains could follow each other 15 minutes apart on the inner sections and 30 minutes on the outer ones. Where necessary, new stops and accessible platforms must be installed on all stations. The line to Lajosmizse also needs to be electrified.

Main lines

Most of the railway lines leading to Budapest are of mixed use. Freight trains, international and domestic long-distance services also use them in addition to suburban traffic. Therefore, on these dual-track electrified lines, increased service frequency outlined in the Budapest Suburban Railway Node Strategy necessitates additional capacities and the separation of trains by speed. The plan is to have trains running in every 15 minutes or more frequently on the internal sections and every half an hour on the external sections during peak hours. If the plans are fully implemented, passengers can travel from each line to several directions in the inner areas of Budapest, passing many points of the city. Two railway lines run east from the capital to Szolnok, and according to the plans, these will be relieved by a new dual-track line to be built to Monor, which will also create a track-based transport to Liszt Ferenc International Airport. To the west, on the Vienna line, there are additional tracks planned, which may also provide high-speed connections to Bratislava, Vienna, Prague and Warsaw in the future. To the southwest, the two lines run parallel to the commuter town of Érd and then on to Székesfehérvár and Pécs, so the dense traffic is divided on a total of four tracks. (Both lines have been reconstructed in recent years.) The renovation of the line to the northeast to Miskolc and Košice is currently in progress, with additional tracks being built on the inner section. To the north, on the inner section of the main line running to Vác and Bratislava, four tracks are listed in the plans all the way to the “Dunakeszi gyártelep” stop.

Vehicles

The suburban railway transport in Budapest is probably in its best shape as far as the vehicle fleet is concerned. The 123 Flirt multiple units with 200 seats each purchased from the Swiss Stadler in several tenders, and their double-decker sister, the 40 Kiss multiple units with 600 seats each, will cover the entire current suburban traffic with modern, low-floor, air-conditioned vehicles with good acceleration, but further development projects will require additional vehicle purchases.