The days are numbered for Prague’s largest railway yard

Bubny railway yard

The oldest and largest railway yard in Prague is soon to disappear. It will be replaced by a modern development with shops, apartments, offices and all kinds of other facilities as investors are ready to pour money into the area. In this edition of Spotlight, we look at the past and the future of the Bubny railway yard in Prague.

Prague areas Holešovice and Bubny,  photo: CTK
The River Vltava makes a big curve in Prague. After passing through the historic centre, below Prague Castle and under Charles Bridge, the river turns 180 degrees to flow further to the west. The part of Prague surrounded by water on three sides is known as Holešovice and Bubny. What today is one of Prague’s upmarket, chic areas, must have been a bucolic idyll some two hundred years ago, as old maps only show meadows and scattered farms and cottages. But then the first train arrived.

The first train arrived in Prague in 1845 at the newly constructed station, known as Masaryk Station since 1919. The line was built by the state Austrian railway company and stretched from Vienna to Dresden. Bohemian entrepreneurs embraced the new invention and small, local and industrial railway lines were soon built around the country’s industrial centres. The area of Holešovice and Bubny were ideal to host a major railway junction as it is close to the centre and the land there was cheap. Miroslav Kunt works at the National Archives in Prague.

“The first train went through Prague – Bubny in 1850. It was a train of the Northern Railways of the Austrian Empire, and it went from today’s Masaryk Station in Prague to Děčín and further on to Dresden in Saxony. At that time, there was no actual train station there; that was built later by a coal railway company that also started transporting people to Prague. The main station building in Bubny was built in 1873.”

By the end of the 1870s, a huge railway yard had already been built, dividing the area of the Holešovice Peninsula into two parts – one close to the river, the other close to Letná and the Prague Castle area. Miroslav Kunt says the size of the facility was impressive.

“Work in Bubny began in August 1871 and progressed very fast, with material from recently demolished Prague city walls. The whole station was built on three levels. One of them featured the train station proper which was originally conceived as a service station and not for passenger transport. It had an office building with flats, a warehouse. The next level had large railway workshops, and the third level featured an engine house that could service up to 16 locomotives.”

The railway yard was used until the 1970s, although its finest hour came right after the Second World War when more than 1,000 workers were renovating Czechoslovak Railways’ locomotives and carriages, damaged in the war. Soon after that, plans were designed to convert the area, by then practically in the city centre, into a new development but it wasn’t until two years ago that Czech Railways sold the whole 25-hectare area to a developer, for 1.1 billion crowns, or nearly 67 million US dollars. The Prague-based Orco Property Group, a real-estate tycoon on the markets of Central and Eastern Europe, has impressive plans with the area that match the long-gone fame of the biggest railway hub in Prague. Nick Waring is the head of the Prague-Bubny development project.

“In Holešovice, it’s a mixed-use development, so it’s basically a city within a city. We’ll have 6,000 square meters of office; we’ll have retail, residential, university, a hospital or a medical facility, hotels and leisure facilities. The future proposal is to have the railway station integrated within the retail development on the south side of the development which is also linked to the metro.”

The company is ready to spend 72 billion crowns, or more than 4.3 billion US dollars, on the project, and will have to sell many of its assets to be able to afford such an investment. The development should also connect the two parts of Holešovice.

“What we have done is that we got a transport solution which had been developed by a company called Systematica. It’s supposed to be one of the best companies in the world, they are supported strongly by CMA, and they are sub-consultants. The idea is to disperse the traffic as much as possible away from the site but also to integrate the east and the west of the current railway sidings, linking the east and the west of Holešovice. There is a scar running through that area at the moment.”

The defunct railway yard, however, still features seven original buildings, including the main station building and a period water tower. Seven objects were listed as protected monuments in 2006 but the protection of five of them has been recently lifted as the Culture Ministry decided that they their historical value was not very high. Michal Zlámaný, from the Research Centre for Industrial Heritage at the Czech Technical University in Prague, says he’s sceptical about the preservation of those monuments but he hopes that the developer might understand what their values is, and keep them.

“Demolition would not be necessary even though the protection by the National Heritage Institute was removed. There are values which are, I hope, understandable to the investors and developers. The values of those buildings are both inherent to the railway heritage, and in the fact that the monuments are witnesses of the industrialization which completely changed the way people have lived in the last 200 years. The railways industry and the railway lines themselves are important parts of the Industrial Revolution.”

Martin Krise,  photo: CTK
When asked about the fate of the original service buildings within the Bubny railway yard, the project’s manager Nick Waring, of Orco, was not very clear about their plans.

“We are hoping to integrate as much as we can of those buildings within the design. There’s one building in particular that we will definitely integrate, and that’s the water tower. We are thinking of using that as an estate management office, or integrating it into a performing arts facility.”

Architect Martin Krise, a member of the preservationist association Club for Old Prague, believes that the Bubny project might help the rest of Prague in that it will take away some of the pressure on developments in other, historically more valuable areas.

“The central part of Prague is occupied by the historic reserve, formed by several former mediaeval towns. Demands for more space can only be fulfilled in other parts of the city rather than in the historical centre. The area in Prague – Bubny is therefore a big promise because it can hold the new development without disturbing too much the historical core of the capital.”

One such generous project – the huge Palladium shopping mall which was built inside former barracks in the city centre – is complaining about lack of customers. Mr Krise also points out that the developer must make sure that the project will not become just a dead mass of glass and steel. The developers assure, however, that the Bubny project will be so amazing that no such thing can happen there. The development in Prague – Bubny will begin in 2010 and is expected to be completed eight years later.