Friday, October 17, 2008

Had it with the HÉV

You could argue that a cycling blog isn't the proper venue for a rant on Budapest Public Transport (BKV). However, I think it's just the place because decent public transport is a pre-condition for a comfortable, car-free lifestyle. I use a bike for almost all local trips spring through summer, but come fall time, when the weather turns and the days get short, I use BKV more and more.

For my commute from downtown Budapest to Szentendre, I use the northern line of the HÉV, Budapest's suburban light-rail system. The trains of the HÉV system are well over 40 years old, which, I believe, makes them the oldest vehicles in BKV's rolling stock. These East Germany-built carriages were lousy when I moved to Hungary 12 years ago. Anyone who's been jostled out of their seats while clanging past Pannónia telep and Pomáz knows what I'm talking about.

The other day it was already dark when I finished work, so I rode my bike to the HÉV stop in Szentendre, and then waited 40 minutes for the first train to Budapest. In the last several months, funding cuts have forced BKV to cut back service, so departures after rush hour are less frequent. When I finally boarded, the first thing I noticed was that the lights were out. Apparently, the electrical system had failed, so only a few dim auxilary bulbs cut through the darkness. That meant that one of the main advantages to public transport -- being able to pass the commute with a good book-- was nullified.  

Then the following morning, rain forced me to abort my bike ride  half way to Szentendre and get on the HÉV again. I was startled to see that the normally bustling stop at Békasmegyer was practically empty. At rush hour! The büfé on the platform where I'd hoped to get a coffee was closed. A sign in the window explained, "Because you can't have mass transit without the masses."

It's sad -- not to mention inconvenient and uncomfortable -- to see BKV in such decline. Foreigners often remark on how terrific Budapest public transport is. And of course it's true that the city inherited an extensive network of metro lines, busses, trolleys and trams as a Socialist-era legacy. But the system is deteriorating. Aside from a couple long-overdue investments in the past few years (the installation of low-floor Siemens trams on the 4-6 line and the refurbishment of the stops of the red metro), service has been sliding. 

BKV has cut runs throughout its network, inlcuding ones that were well-used, as on the HÉV. This summer, BKV laid off a third of its ticket-booth cashiers, while also introducing a new requirement that receipts be given for all sales, even of single tickets (apparently to discourage embezzling). And since modern cash registers are unknown to BKV, the system's few remaining ticket sellers spend most of their time writing receipts by hand -- like Midieval scribes. During brighter times seven or eight years ago, you could get tickets from one of scores of new vending machines with touch-sensitive screens. Most of these are already out of order -- all of which makes it extremely difficult to buy tickets. Basically, if I want to ride the HÉV in the morning, I have to wait of 10-15 minutes just to buy a ticket (or 30 minutes at the start of the month, when riders are queueing for monthly passes). 

So it's no wonder that the HÉV is losing passengers while inbound car traffic on the adjacent four lane road is backed up 10 kilometers from the city centre. It's always depressing when fall comes and I'm not able to bike as much. But now that the transport alternative is so much less attractive, it's really got me down.

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