The End of The Line

by Tom Zahn - 2007-12-30

Herein lies my dilemma. While I wish to be straightforward and critical about travel by train in the Czech Republic, coincidentally, I also wish to promote the use of trains. The fact that attitudes of Czech Rail employees have not changed significantly since socialist times, is perhaps the most characteristic flaw in an otherwise forgivable system. Necessary improvements, which at first make matters worse, and a slow phase out of old equipment can be tolerated when the personnel are at least prepared to explain such inconveniences. In the absence of any service ethic, however, one can only say that a ride on the Czech Railway is akin to adding insult to injury. Fortunately, there is a mechanism to provide client feedback, and it is therefore the purpose of this article to encourage anyone with a compliment or a complaint to take full advantage of these so called Books of Wishes & Complaints.

As part of my work, I am regularly asked to comment about different means of travel throughout the region. Having spent the past 13 years assisting travelers to find there roots in rather remote places, from one side of central Europe to the other, I have experience with most of the methods possible. Since I am based in Prague, certainly the Czech Rail system figures quite significantly in my own travel. I have used this railway on a daily basis for nearly 6 years. Thus, I typically pass along these following four points concerning travel by rail:

First – Checking the Schedules

The process of planning travel, especially in another country, is ever changing. The days of simply booking a flight, and taking care of the other details only after you have arrived is hardly possible anymore. As well, expecting a local agent to know everything about your destination is also asking too much. Thus, planning is no longer passive, nor should it be taken lightly. Still, in this day and age, an ever increasing number of travelers expect to simply go “on-line” and sort out all the details (lodging, transportation, activities, etc.). A fair word of caution. Buyer beware! If nothing else, the internet has proven itself to be less than reliable. So what is to be done for example if you wish to find and book a ticket for a train? Welcome to the Czech Railway world wide web timetable;

     (http://idos.cz/connform.asp?tt=a&cl=E5)

Here you can locate a wealth of alternatives for travel domestically within the Czech Republic, and to a limited degree, also for international destinations. What a great first step! The schedules are informative and may be printed, or sent by e-mail to third parties. What is unfortunately missing is a regularly updated account of those routes which may have regular delays or interruptions. Even when rail construction interrupts service for several months at a time, there is still no mention that this may require a transfer by bus, or that delays should be expected. Furthermore, it can be rather unsettling to be asked to leave a train unexpectedly, and crowd on to a waiting bus, with luggage in hand. While it may not be a big deal, if your accustomed to this sort of thing, for those who are trying to keep to a carefully prepared timetable, this is rather unsettling. Thus, the timetable “on-line” should only be a point of reference, and it is best not to count on this system to run according to the posted schedule. The rule of thumb here, expect delays, transfers and missed connections.

Furthermore, the timetable link cannot be used for ticket sales or seat reservations. For this one must go to http://eshop.cd.cz/ , but here you will find information only in Czech. Otherwise, the timetable link is full of information. Herein is another caution, be sure to note all symbols attached to a selected route. These inform you of exceptions to posted times and dates. as well as travel with bicycles, wheelchairs, etc.. The rule of thumb here is to take nothing for granted.

One characteristic of travel by Czech Railways are long, mostly unannounced, delays. Some trains are equipped with public address systems, but seldom, if ever, are these used to explain delays in English. While not too frequent on fast trains (R) or specials (Sp), these delays are normal on the branch lines, serviced mostly by 2 and 3 car diesel powered wagons. This results from a lack of  sidings on these lines, and consequently trains will sit at stations for what seems like an eternity, until a clear stretch of track can be assured. Making a connecting train under these circumstances can be rather nerve wracking.


Second – Ticket Office (Information)

Sadly, this is where the Czech Railway system comes up the shortest. With so much invested in new lines and equipment, customer service appears to have been overlooked. While there are exceptions to this, they are few and far between. Certainly, this is where the most improvement is needed, beginning by removing barriers separating ticket and information clerks from passengers. The most significant of these barriers is language, and while it is foolish to believe that linguistic skill is a criteria for such a job, certainly human relations training could not hurt. When a clerk safely behind a thick barrier does not wish to assist a distressed passenger, there is not much to be done.

It goes without saying that conductors, sales clerks, an information officers expect passengers to simply put up with delays and ride without any questions or complaints. And why not? After all, theirs is a thankless job. If it weren’t for perks, such as housing and free travel, most railway workers would probably not tolerate such low wages. It has become all too cliché to see rail staff sharing a joke or a smoke among themselves, with no concern for passengers whose well being and comfort they are supposedly there to insure. Ultimately, it is clear that passengers are of no concern unless they somehow threaten the institution, it’s equipment or their authority.


Third - The Ride

Most trains you will find divided into two classes. Other marking on the carriages include those cars which allow bicycles, carriages, smoking, etc., as well as prohibitions (typically a line through the icon for an undesired activity). While it is usually possible to find a seat in second class, this depends greatly on the time of day, and whether it is a holiday or a normal workday. At peak times, and for those who do not wish to stand the duration of the ride, try to choose a carriage with first class seating (marked simply by the number 1).

The issue of finding a seat is especially tricky on the Local (Os) trains that stop at every station. At peak times you can almost be sure that 2nd class will have standing room only. Czech Railways does not limit the number of tickets according to the number of available seats, and consequently both local (Os) fast (R) and special (Sp) trains can be shoulder to shoulder with other passengers. While the longer distance trains have less obvious differences between classes, it is best to purchase a seat reservation for these routes in advance, since these are also known to get absurdly overcrowded, and a seat reservation gives you some assurance.

You may need to pay on the train for an upgrade, unless you purchased a first class ticket to begin with, or to bring a bike onto the train, but this supplement is not an unreasonably high amount for the comfort you should then enjoy. A conductor will have a calculator, and should print you a receipt for any additional charge. You are not required to pay otherwise.

Traveling with bicycles is the topic of an entire article, but in brief this is especially something that can be awkward, since each car has a limited amount of space, and unless you are taking a fast train (R), or an express (Sp.), you will not be able to place your bicycle into a special baggage car. So you may wind up standing beside it the whole ride, or not even being permitted to board (if the capacity for bicycles has already been exceeded).

Finally, although some of the newer trains are equipped with air conditioning, this can never be counted on. While it is almost certain with local trains that there will not be air conditioning, in fact it has more to do with the age of the equipment. Several specific routes such as Prague to Brno, Vienna, or Ostrava, are now served by the newest train in the Czech fleet. While this is more cozy than other trains, and it is seldom crowded beyond capacity, it does suffer the same “late arrival” syndrome as every other Czech train. Nevertheless, these trains sell refreshment, and it is unlikely that your trip will include a bus transfer, unless of course you wish to transfer to the airport. 


Fourth – Feedback

As you can see, I am not exactly a cheerleader for Czech Railways. Neither am I their worst critic, and so I continue to ride. If, after all my less than enthusiastic comments above, you are also resigned to a certain degree of uncertainty, you should also be aware of one tool that you have at your disposal.

As a State agency, the Czech Railway stations are required to keep a book specifically for customer feedback. This is the “Book of Wishes and Complaints”. Through this, you can express whatever frustration you experienced (in English). Although it is not uncommon to commiserate with fellow passengers, or to confront rude and belligerent staff, this hardly ever makes any difference. On the other hand, a written statement, giving a specific date, time and circumstance, based on your own experience, is sure to illicit a written response. Your comments about lack of facilities at stations (toilettes, handicap access, etc.) or rude treatment will become a matter of public record. These books, therefore, give evidence that Czech Railways still has much to improve, in contrast to those who wish us to believe that all is well. 

Finally, it is evident from popular literature and films that there is a rather special (if not romantic) folk status attached to Czech rails. Historically, this is a proud tradition, which one could say had fallen upon hard times (along with just about everything else). Much needed improvements to equipment and facilities are only part of the solution. Recapturing the pride of service that Czech Railway once boasted is essential. It would be too much to hope for, however, to think that every ride on the train would trouble free. It should be expected, however, that railway staff could be taught how to welcome and insure the passenger’s comfort and well being.

As I once explained to students outside the Main Station in Prague, “this is how foreign visitors to Prague will describe their first impression”. Indeed, a scowl from a clerk at an information window may lead someone to think that the velvet revolution was a dismal failure. Despite any romance or pride Czechs themselves might feel about their trains, they are merely being complacent about what further changes are needed. Beyond fast trains or a new coat of paint on old station, a smile from a clerk is not just a smile, but a life saver to a weary traveler. So, try not to loose your cool, but keep on smiling just the same (as you write your comments in the Book of Wishes and Complaints). Won’t the Czech Rail authorities be glad for all the free advice…?