Czechoslovakia’s first bullet train (‘Slovenská strela’) being restored to full glory

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In the 1920s and 1930s, Czechoslovakia created a national railway network linking fragmented lines of an archaic Habsburg system. The aim was not simply to modernize the infrastructure. It was to help forge and later cement a national identity by fostering connections between its peoples. The culmination of the interwar project was a high-speed train dubbed the ‘Slovak Bullet’, now being restored to its original glory.

“Travelers do not even notice the speed at which this train winds through the countryside, like a slippery eel… This quite light train is equipped with modern diesel-electric motors for a fast, smooth start. It also has a special ventilation system – since open windows at speeds of 130 km/h would cause excessive drafts. Last but not least, there’s a well-stocked buffet, serving delicious food and drink.”

– a Czechoslovak Radio report, made on one of the early trips of the legendary Slovenská strela, or Slovak Bullet.

The cherry-red, high-speed train began services between Prague and Bratislava on 13 July 1936. The scheduled journey took 4 hours and 51 minutes – an hour and a quarter less than by steam train. Less than three years later, the travel time was reduced a further half hour, as engineers found it could travel safely even faster than first thought.

Josef Sousedík, the “Moravian Edison”

The man behind the train’s ground-breaking electromechanical transmission, inspired by automobile technology, was actually a Czech inventor named Josef Sousedík, known in his day as the “Moravian Edison”. In 1927, he had adapted his personal Tatra sedan to use an electric motor, and is said to have a “eureka” moment when driving through the countryside.

In short, Sousedík developed a hybrid train engine. Its ignition drew on an electric motor, which was also utilised on hills and around bends, while the powerful combustion engines propelled the iron horse on open stretches of railway line.

The Slovak Bullet’s carriage exterior and interior were no less impressive – conceived by Prague-born modernist architect Vladimír Grégr (a protégé of Josef Gočár), who later also worked on the Barrandov Terraces of property developer Václav Maria Havel (father of the late Czechoslovak and later Czech president).

With such a pedigree, Slovak Bullet restoration coordinator Jiří Střecha told Czech Radio when work began two years ago, no expense has been spared, and the attention paid to historical details is second to none.

“This train is a national cultural monument, which enjoys the highest level of protection for cultural heritage in the Czech Republic. That puts it in the same category as say the crown jewels or Karlštejn Castle.”

The importance of the railways to the Czechoslovak government – in Prague – in cementing a national identity among Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenians, is well documented. When construction began on what is today’s longest tunnel in Slovakia, at nearly 4,700 metres, President Edvard Beneš declared, “No mountain range is too high to divide the Czechs and Slovaks or to thwart Czechoslovak unity.”

That effort at unity in the First Republic – which the Slovak Bullet came to embody – would soon be sorely tested. In March 1939, Nazi Germany declared Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist, and erected a border between the nominally independent puppet state of Slovakia and so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

In July, engineer Josef Sousedík’s pioneering hybrid train engine underwent a test of an altogether different nature – a technical stress test. Workshop manager Andrej Balyog told Czech Radio that getting the entire drive system going is the greatest challenge.

“It means reviving a system that no one in the world knows. We only rely on paper documentation, so it will be a touchstone for all of us.”

Now, after years of intensive work, and at the cost of tens of millions of crowns, the restoration of the Slovak Bullet is nearly complete, right down to the upholstery of the carriage seats and dining car kitchen tiles. The first official test drive of the Slovak Bullet is set for early autumn.