By Miles Williams
Bratislava became a capital city in 1993, when the former communist country of Czechoslovakia was split in to the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic (usually simply known as Slovakia), following a peaceful separation, which is often referred to as the Velvet Divorce. In the years succeeding the new countries’ formations, both have seen very positive developments in their infrastructure and general day to day life, however this is often disputed by its own citizens, with a survey in 2010 suggesting over 40% of citizens in Prague (Czech Republic) consider the division a mistake. A similar survey conducted across the whole of Slovakia two years prior produced similar results. My personal opinion, having travelled to both countries and seen the current development, is that the Czech Republic has seen more in the way of visually noticeable new builds and a general aura of progress, with Slovakia catching up behind. This is also largely reflected in their railways, with ČD (Czech Railways) investing heavily in recent years across the board. Their Slovak counterpart, ŽSR, has also made investment in rolling stock and facilities, but it is noticeably lagging behind in many areas.
Unsurprisingly, the main language spoken in Bratislava is Slovak, however many places, such as ZSSK’s ticket offices have staff with reasonably fluent English, they will usually have a sign at their ticketing window indicating they speak English. German is also useful throughout Slovakia, with English being far less common the further away from Bratislava in to the country you go. Phrase books are cheap, useful and are in my opinion a polite way of obtaining help, even if you only learn basics and how to ask someone if they speak English! Slovaks are generally very friendly people, but will be far more willing to help if you try and speak the local language.
Škoda 363 147 arrives at Bratislava-Vinohrady on a Regional set, October 2018 (Photo: Miles Williams)
Transport and ticketing arrangements
Anyway, on to the transport. Bratislava benefits from its international airport being usefully close to the city (airport code BTS). Many cheap flights from budget airlines serve the airport, with Wizz Air and Ryanair being the most useful connections to the UK. I recommend using a flight comparison site such as Skyscanner to search for flights in advance. Conveniently, bus service 61 operates from the airport terminal to Bratislava Hlavná Stanica (main station), with services timetabled to take just 25 minutes end to end. This means you are capable of disembarking the plane and potentially having your first winning locomotive within an hour! Plenty of taxis are also available if you prefer to travel in private, however be aware of rogues and eye-wateringly overpriced firms who may target foreigners. I recommend an app called ‘Taxify’, which works very similarly to Uber, as the price you see is the price you pay. Accommodation is plentiful in Bratislava, be aware of booking hotels out in the suburbs at weekends, as tram routes are frequently affected by poorly advertised engineering work. The city centre is reasonably priced, and there are many hotels in the immediate vicinity of the main railway station for ease.
Slovakia, unlike its Czech neighbour, adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Amenities are generally cheap, a stark contrast to its close neighbour, Austria, known for its high prices. This is reflected in public transport, which is very reasonably priced, even in the capital. If you are interested in netting as many locomotives as you can in the Bratislava area for the best price, I would recommend purchasing a 24 hour public transport ticket for ‘Zones 100+101’ which is €3.50 for a full 24 hours from validation, on all local buses, trams and trains. This ticket would cover all the ‘local shack’ leaps for scratching locomotives, if you want to travel further north out of Bratislava, an ‘all zones’ equivalent is just €6.90. Remember this ticket is also valid on the airport bus and can be purchased from machines, giving incredible value for money. There are also 72 hour and 168 hour versions available at €8.00 and €11.40 respectively, but these are available for zones 100+101 only. Beware, this ticket is not valid on trains advertised as IC or EC. All other services do accept the ticket however, which accounts for the vast majority of services that stop at stations within the valid zones, so this won’t be an issue for most. It is also valid on Regiojet operated Os/REX services in the area. Remember to validate your ticket at a machine, located on trams, buses and on station platforms. An invalidated ticket will leave you liable to pay a fine if caught. The remainder of Slovakia’s ticketing is worked out based on distance and class of train, and results in some very unusual fares, as they are not rounded. For example as of October 2018 when I last visited, a single from Bratislava to Hronsek worked out at a peculiar €10.02.
Official information on the integrated travel ticket for Bratislava is available from ZSSK in English here: https://www.slovakrail.sk/en/idsen/ids-bk.html
ÖBB’s Siemens 2016 fleet work the hourly ‘REX’ trains from Bratislava Hlavná Stanica to Wien Hbf. 2016 019 is seen at the head of a REX service at Devínska Nová Ves (literally translated to English as ‘New Village’), shortly before crossing the Austrian border near Marchegg. The yard in the background can be seen, usually full of car trains from the neighbouring Volkswagen factory. October 2018 (Photo: Miles Williams)
Train categories and traction
Similar to its Czech neighbour, trains are divided in to the following categories:
Os – Osobní vlaky (local trains)
Sp – Spěšné vlaky (faster trains)
R – Rychlík (express trains, includes domestic sleepers)
RR – Regionálny Rychlík (regional express trains)
Ex / REX – Expresy (also express trains)
IC / EC – Intercity / Eurocity
EN – Euronight
The vast majority of services are operated by Železničná spoločnosť Slovensko, simply ZSSK (Slovakia’s state owned railway operator). Services on line 131 (Bratislava – Komárno) are operated by Regiojet, mainly using Siemens Desiro units, but fall under the ‘Os’ and ‘REX’ categories. Regiojet also operate locomotive hauled services from Bratislava to Prague.
The hourly REX workings from Wien Hbf to Bratislava hl.st are a full diet of locomotives, however they are solely worked by the rather uninspiring ÖBB class 2016 diesels. Nonetheless, all diagrams are easy to bash, with the ‘leaping shack’ being Devinska Nová Ves, around 10 minutes outside the city. Most workings are push-pull with ÖBB ‘Cityshuttle’ stock and a ZSSK standard open coach, however one working in each direction per day is operated using IC stock on a through working to and from Košice.
ZSSK’s fleet at Bratislava consists of various electric locomotives on passenger workings, including a number of communist era relics such as the Škoda class 240, known by many as ‘goldfish bowls’ from their unusual curved windscreens and fibreglass cab ends. The number of serviceable 240s continues to decrease, with many transferring to ZSSK’s cargo sector, or being placed in to storage. The fleet is currently undergoing an inspection programme following a number of failures and a severe fire, affecting 240 037, while in service from Bratislava to Nové Zámky, in September 2018.
Other classes of locomotive in use in Bratislava on passenger work include later Škoda electrics, namely 263s, 350s, 361s, 362s and a handful of 363s. Two class 381 ‘bathtubs’ are allocated to Bratislava depot, mainly being deployed on push-pull workings amongst 263s, on new double deck sets. Having said this, 381s have proven to be very unreliable, are often not to be seen in service, so it is unlikely ZSSK will order any more. Other offerings include the box-fresh Siemens Vectron locomotives, allocated ‘class 383’.
Although of course locomotives generally have booked workings, their presence can vary massively. Class 263 trains generally stay on push-pull dosto sets, which work Os services to Kúty, although there are also other workings with these sets to stations such as Leopoldov, Malacky and Pezinok.
Class 362 locomotives are allocated to many ‘R’ trains heading towards Zvolen, Banská Bystrica and also work some early morning ‘Os’ turns, and class 361 / 363s allocated to Bratislava are, in practice, distributed as required.
The new Class 383s can be found on R, RR and IC trains, with many of these still stopping within the realms of the Bratislava ticket, eliminating the need to travel further if you don’t want to. These have gradually replaced 350s, however there is still opportunity to sample the latter, including one round trip per day on EC workings to and from Prague.
Class 210 ‘coathangers’ are in use at Bratislava, but are there for shunting purposes only, and have no scheduled passenger workings. The only exception to this would be on sleeper trains, specifically for the purposes of splitting and joining motorail coaches and wagons, where haulage is technically possible, but difficult without a valid motorail reservation.
Two excellent sites I use for checking scheduled formations of trains are http://www.vagonweb.cz and http://www.zelpage.cz. You can add your own sightings if you wish, to aid others. Although the former mainly concentrates on coaching stock, it is a hugely useful tool for gauging what services are scheduled for hauled trains, and which ones to avoid.
A small number of EMUs are in use by ZSSK in the Bratislava area, with 9x class 671 Škoda double deck sets based at Nové Zámky. These work Os turns and can sometimes, frustratingly, appear in place of a hauled set. To confuse us, the push-pull loco hauled sets look almost identical to their unit sisters, so before flagging a train, check there definitely isn’t a loco on the rear. It’s not unheard of for locos to work on top of units as hauled stock in the event of mechanical failure, and it is also becoming increasingly common to see non push-pull fitted locomotives such as class 240s appear on these sets, with them having to run-round and work ‘on top’ of the cab end for their return journey.
Other sights include České dráhy class 380s, which are, in principal, the same as ZSSK’s 381s, however, there are more of them (20 in total), and are also capable of working on 15kV AC electrified lines. Class 380 locos in Slovakia are confined to EC services such as the ‘Metropolitan’ service from Prague to Budapest, and are also allocated to services in the direction of Poland.
České dráhy provide motive power for the Praha – Bratislava – Budapest corridor on ‘Metropol’ branded services. 380 016 makes its brief stop at Bratislava Hlavná Stanica platform 1 on its way to Prague, with Škoda 362 006 sat opposite. October 2018 (Photo: Miles Williams)
Bratislava hosts plenty of freight traffic, many trains originating from car factories.
Weekend travel, stations and amenities
A word of warning! Unlike many of their European neighbours, Slovakia seems to drop a large number of workings at weekends, particularly with regard to early morning runs. Check timetables to ensure a train is definitely running. Frustratingly, at Bratislava-Vinohrady station, both inbound workings each hour leave separate platforms just one minute apart, with the outbound trains arriving shortly after. Sometimes this leaves connection times of around +45 minutes at Vinohrady, with little to do in the meantime. There is a hut serving beer and other refreshments on the station however, to swallow up some of the time, no pun intended! Some workings are also worked by units at weekends, although in my experience this seems to affect travel further afield in Slovakia, less so in Bratislava.
As mentioned earlier, if you are covering the ÖBB sets towards Wien, the first station these trains call at is Devinska. The return working is around 15 minutes later, with a bit to see while you are waiting. Devinska has a large number of sidings, mainly associated with the nearby Volkswagen factory, with production booming. A large number of freight workings originate here, hauled by varying locos from ZSSK Cargo. Hauled services on ZSSK’s own ‘Os’ workings between Bratislava and Kúty also stop here. Most other services leaving Bratislava head in the direction of Vinohrady, where the lines split. There are four platforms, in a V shape. The area is generally quiet during the day, however at night time the local area is rather uninviting, the state of the station buildings being an indicator of the high level of vandalism and ‘unofficial’ use of the station at night time.
Škoda ‘goldfish bowl’ 240 013 arrives at Bratislava-Vinohrady on the final leg of its journey to the city. The station is in varying states of repair, with vegetation control and paving not currently high on the maintenance agenda! This was a very brief and welcome cloudy moment during a day of temperatures around 35° Celsius. August 2018 (Photo: Miles Williams)
Finally, Nové Mesto sees some loco hauled services during the week, with many terminating here and using the line round to Bratislava-Rača and beyond.
Bratislava-Petržalka sees mainly EMUs head in to Austria, however if you are keen, there is the 05:44 and 06:46 from there to Wien Hbf operated by an ÖBB 1116 and 1144 respectively, on double deck Cityshuttle stock. Petržalka can be accessed by bus, a 30 minute or so walk across town, or by ZSSK’s ‘Os’ workings from Senec, operated by class 671 dosto units.
Hlavná Stanica is a busy station throughout the day, and is built on a long curve. There are many places to eat and drink both in and out of the station, with tram lines number 1 and 2 serving the nearby tram terminus if you fancy heading in to town. The ticket machines on the station concourse are multilingual, but only issue local tickets. If you want to travel further afield, you will have to use the booking office. Queues can be very long in high season and at peak hours, so leave plenty of time if you have a train to catch. You can also purchase the aforementioned day tickets from machines on the street near tram stops, however these only accept coins.
Bratislava, along with the rest of Slovakia, and its neighbours, is an area rich in history, transport and otherwise, and is an excellent place to visit. Bratislava can comfortably be done in a weekend, although I would recommend a longer stay if you have time. Trains are cheap and plentiful, and there is lots to see and do if you are taking someone with you who isn’t in to trains as much as you are! Food and drink is also cheap and varied, and for those who like a liquid lunch, Bratislava’s many watering holes will ensure it is a city you want to return to.