Lake Balaton, 90 km from Budapest, is the largest lake in Central Europe, and a major tourist destination. As tourism developed in the second half of the 19th century, railways were built along both northern and southern shores (Hungarian lines 29 and 30). There is a connecting line around the east end (30b), but not a complete circle. There is a 5 km gap at the western end, but with a detour you can still travel around the lake by rail.
Tihany peninsula on the northern shore: image by Lohen 11, CC 3.0 licence…
This post looks at upgrading the lines to meet summer demand, including a circular rail line, and rationalisation of rail access, especially at the eastern end. Lake Balaton is 80 km long, and about 8 km wide in the central section. There are mountains to the north (Bakony), and the northern shore is hilly and indented. The lake itself is at 105 m elevation. The southern shore is straighter, level and has an almost continuous beach.
The railway on the southern side (line 30) runs parallel to the beaches, almost in a straight line. On the northern shore, Line 29 winds around the hills with many sharp curves. Line 30 is electrified, but despite being an international main line, it is mainly single track. Neither line has enough services to meet demand in summer – but they could not carry them anyway. The low quality of the lines illustrates the low status of rail travel in Hungary.
Function of Balaton rail lines
There is a historical pattern of rail travel to European resort areas. Locomotive-hauled trains left the large cities, ran as express trains for many hours, and then served small resort stations in tourist regions. That is no longer viable, but the price of faster service is that passengers must change trains – and carry less baggage.
Services around Lake Balaton should be split into three categories. First there is the main line along the lake shore to Nagykanizsa, a route through the region toward northern Croatia, Slovenia, and and Trieste. A parallel Balaton high-speed rail line was proposed here earlier, which would also be the main route to Zagreb. Secondly, there would be services providing access to the lake region, some stopping at all stations, but mainly inter-regional services stopping every 30-50 km. Finally there would be services inside the region, primarily along the shores of the lake. There should be a limited number of interchange points, between the different types of service.
Interchanges: trains from outside the region would serve only these stations…
Given the number of tourists, a ‘lake shore metro’ around Lake Balaton would be justified. That would require double track on the entire route, and electrification on the northern shore. The southern section, from Balatonszentgyörgy to Balatonaliga, is 78 km long, with 29 intermediate stations. The northern section from Tapolca to Balatonakarattya is 84 km long, with 30 intermediate stations. Station spacing is about 2650 m on both lines, so new stations are probably not necessary, but the simple halts must be upgraded. The line around the western end of the lake from Tapolca to Balatonszentgyörgy is 35 km long, with 10 stations in use, a spacing of 3500 m.
It is not a good idea to run all-stations trains around the entire lake, a 200 km ride. Delays are inevitable, and circle lines amplify delays. For journeys across the central section of the lake, ferries provide shorter routes anyway. Instead services would be split into overlapping lines – for instance Fonyód – Siófok – Balatonalmádi and Fonyód – Keszthely – Tapolca. (The largest town, Siófok, would provide interchange with long-distance services, and would be overloaded if it was also a terminus for regional metro lines).
Possible split of lakeside services…
In addition to electrification and double track, the lines must be upgraded. That is less of a problem on the southern shore: Line 30 has few curves, and usually enough space to improve them. Line 29 on the northern shore has short straight sections, separated by frequent sharp curves. Improvement is difficult here: the railway is squeezed between roads and housing. The current line speed of 80 km/h can probably not be increased.
The two cab videos below show the difference between the two lines: first Line 30 from Balatonszentgyörgy to Siófok…
then the curving Line 29 on the northern shore, starting from Tapolca…
A regional metro, with frequent trains in summer, is not compatible with frequent long-distance services, or with fast trains. The proposed high-speed rail line is a precondition for a regional metro on the southern shore. It would have no stations, but two link lines would allow some high-speed trains to serve Siófok, and then rejoin the high-speed line (HSL).
Through freight services must also be kept clear of Lake Balaton. That requires restoration of Lines 27 and 49: they provide a north-south bypass of the lake, on the eastern side (Veszprém – Lepsény – Dombóvár). For through east-west freight, the main lines 20 and 40/41 already provide an alternative.
Click to enlarge: Hungarian rail map by JolietJake_(Hu) with CC 3.0 licence…
The eastern approach
The main line from Budapest (30a) was always the most important railway line toward Lake Balaton. It passes through Székesfehérvár, a railway junction 60 km from Budapest. The northern and southern lines to the lake split 10 km further on, at Szabadbattyán. The southern line (30) runs via Lepsény, and has a good alignment. The first lakeside station is at Balatonaliga, 35 km from Székesfehérvár. Line 29 to the northern shore winds past a few villages, with badly located stations. As a route to Lake Balaton, it has no advantages over the southern line: it could carry a residual local service into Székesfehérvár.
With a new link to the northern lake shore line, and major upgrading, the Székesfehérvár – Lepsény – Balaton line could carry all traffic from the east. The proposed parallel HSL would carry all traffic from Budapest to destinations beyond Nagykanizsa. With or without the HSL, there should be four tracks available, between Székesfehérvár and the lake. Fortunately, the new link from Lepsény can be combined with closure of the gap in the lakeside railway, allowing a new service around the eastern end of the lake. Szabadbattyán station would then lose its function, as a junction between the northern and southern lakeside lines, and might be closed entirely.
At the eastern end of Lake Balaton, there is an escarpment just behind the shore. Both Line 29 and Line 30 drop about 40 m to the lakeside, descending along the escarpment itself. A new link between Lepsény and Line 29 could do that too, between Balatonaliga and Gáspártelep. However, the escarpment is geologically unstable, with two visible landslides. A tunnel is probably simpler than stabilising it with concrete walls, and would have less impact on the environment.
The tunnel would start behind Balatonaliga, near the motorway junction, and then run parallel to the lake shore. After passing under the edge of Gáspártelep, the line would emerge from tunnel, cross a small valley, and join Line 29 toward Balatonkenese. To close the circle around the lake, a short additional tunnel is needed, connecting to Line 30 just south of Balatonaliga. The junctions between these tunnels, and their junction with the existing lines, would be grade-separated. Passenger traffic would be intensive here: trains around the lake cross trains from the Budapest region.
The new tunnel would have no stations, but there be a new station on the connecting line at Balatonaliga, below the existing station. The ‘lake metro’ trains from the direction of Siófok would serve this station, and then continue to Balatonkenese.
There are alternatives for this arrangement. The new links could run on the surface further inland (in green on the map), but they would be longer. Line 29 west of Székesfehérvár could be replaced by a new line along the M7 motorway. In fact both lines between Székesfehérvár and the lake could be relocated to a four-track line alongside the M7. The tunnel proposed here seems the simplest option.
Access from the north: Vienna
Historically, there was no direct main line to Lake Balaton from Vienna (Wien). The proposed high-speed rail line Vienna – Maribor would run via Sopron and Szombathely. The proposed Drava plain HSL would diverge from the Maribor line at Szombathely, and run via Zalaegerszeg and Nagykanizsa. Although Zalaegerszeg is closer to Lake Balaton, there is no connecting rail line, and there never was.
HSL south from Vienna to Maribor and Drava plain…
With the proposed high-speed lines, Szombathely would be about 120-130 km from Vienna (and also linked to Graz and Maribor via Szentgotthárd). The best option for access to Lake Balaton would be upgrading of the route to Tapolca, over parts of lines 20, 25 and 26. The corridor is 101 km long: only Line 20 is electrified, with some double track. With full electrification, double track, and upgrading, an inter-regional service could run from Szombathely to Tapolca in 70 minutes, with one stop at Celldömölk. Even without a HSL this makes sense: Szombathely itself has a population of 80 000, and would benefit from a better link to Lake Balaton. However it is another 80 km from Tapolca to the east end of the lake, and the northern shore line is unsuitable for through fast services.
Access from the north: Veszprém
Veszprém is the only large town on the northern side of the Bakony range, and it is on the main line Budapest – Szombathely (Line 20). It is only 11 km from the lake in a straight line, but the terrain is an obstacle. Nevertheless, a line to Alsóörs was built in 1909, an extension of Line 11 from Győr. It was closed 60 years later. (There was also a freight siding between Line 27 and Balatonfűzfő, but is also closed.)
The old line highlighted in blue…
A line from Veszprém to the lake is logical, and a Veszprém – Balatonfüred alignment would maximise its utility, serving the central part of the lake. There are local plans for a light-rail line, partly re-using the old alignment. (An alternative route via the old freight siding was also proposed, but that would be too indirect).
The old railway started at 210 m elevation, climbed to 280 m, and then descended to about 110 m on the lakeside, using a winding alignment around hills and ridges. In Veszprém itself, the alignment is largely built over, and near the lake it is surrounded by houses (built for the lake view). In the southern half of Veszprém, part of the old line might be re-usable with some demolition, and the section through the fields south of the city can be restored. Otherwise, a completely new alignment is needed. That would include a new north-south route through Veszprém, with at least 3 km of tunnel, and an 8 km tunnel to the lakeside line.
If the geology is favourable, the shortest option is a line from near the old Szentkirályszabadja station to Csopak (3 km east of Balatonfüred). The tunnel would drop from 280 m to 120 m, and this 2% gradient is acceptable for modern electric trains. The line would have one intermediate station in Veszprém, approximately at the present bus station in the centre, perhaps in cut-and-cover tunnel.
Like the old railway, a new Veszprém – Balaton line could be operated as part of a regional line from Győr, but it might be more appropriate to operate it as part of the ‘lake shore metro’. That would simplify operation: light metro-type trains would be more suited for the climb to Veszprém, and a tunnel section there.
Access from the south-west: Nagykanizsa
Nagykanizsa would be served by the proposed Balaton HSL, and would be the interchange point for travel from the south-west, toward the western half of Lake Balaton. However, the city is 45 km from the lake, too far to extend the proposed ‘lake shore metro’. Instead, passengers could use two inter-regional lines toward the lake, and a residual regional line Nagykanizsa – Fonyód.
An inter-regional line along the southern shore of Lake Balaton would 154 km long, from Nagykanizsa to Székesfehérvár. It would have only two intermediate stations, Fonyód and Siófok. An inter-regional line Nagykanizsa – Keszthely – Tapolca requires a new west-to-north curve at Balatonszentgyörgy, to avoid reversing trains. Depending on its alignment, the route might be slightly shorter: 50 km from Nagykanizsa to Keszthely. It is another 25 km to Tapolca. Logically, this line could be combined with the inter-regional line from Szombathely to Tapolca, making it 176 km long.
Two interregional lines…
Along the lake shore, inter-regional trains might not be much faster than the ‘lake shore metro’, but they would be more comfortable. A train journey with more than 30 stops is unattractive, for that reason alone. On Line 30, modern trains serving stations at 3-5 km intervals could certainly average 60 km/h, and the inter-regional trains about 85 km/h. Along the whole length of the lake, the time saved would be up to 25 minutes, compared to an all-stations train.
Access from the south
There is no main line toward Lake Balaton, from the south or south-west. There are three rural lines, but only Line 36 from Fonyód to Kaposvár is useful as a link to the lake region. Kaposvár is the capital of Somogy County, and it is also on a through Budapest – Croatia route (Line 40/41). With double track and electrification, Line 36 could carry a fast service to the western end of Lake Balaton.
A Fonyód to Kaposvár service could be extended over Line 41 and 40, to Pécs, the main city of south-western Hungary. This is the current main railway to Pécs, but the alignment across the Mecsek range is indirect, in the form of a ‘Z’. A combination of high-speed lines, proposed here earlier, would create a new main route to Pécs. The HSL Budapest – Novi Sad would connect via a triangular junction south of Szekszárd, to a HSL Szekszárd – Pécs. The next step would be a high-speed line Győr – Székesfehérvár – Szekszárd. Although primarily intended as an alternative high-speed route from Vienna to Belgrade, this would also provide a fast line between Pécs and Székesfehérvár, by changing trains at Szekszárd. With the much higher speed on the new lines, this would be the fastest route from Pécs to the western end of Lake Balaton.
The proposals above would substantially restructure services to the Lake Balaton region, and along the lake itself. They start from a desirable pattern of services, and stipulate the infrastructure that is needed. Implementation can be phased: it is obvious that double-tracking on the southern side (Line 30) is the first priority.
Some additional infrastructure is possible on the northern shore, but it is not a precondition for the proposed restructuring. For instance, the route from Tapolca to Balatonfüred could be shortened by a new alignment north of the Badacsony hill – about 5 km long, with 1500 m in tunnel. However that would have a very low priority, so long as the rest of Line 29 has so many speed-restricted curves.
One proposal can be ruled out: a rail line across the lake at the Tihany peninsula, which is a protected landscape with significant historical buildings. A low bridge would obstruct boats, a high bridge would be extremely intrusive, and a tunnel would pass under the deepest part of Lake Balaton, making service of the peninsula difficult. However, a shorter tunnel (3 km long) could start from the southern line between Zamárdi and Szántód, and terminate at an underground station on the southern tip of the Tihany peninsula. That would not substantially alter the pattern of services proposed here.