Railway station referendum runs out of steam

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A referendum took place over the weekend in Brno, the Czech Republic's second largest city. It was to decide if the city's main train station should be moved from its current location in the center of the city. As Martin Hrobsky reports, the vote - that was meant to get people involved in the democratic process - failed to catch the attention of most of the city's inhabitants.

The fate of Brno's main train station has been a subject of debate for over 80 years. The problem has less to do with its location then its capacity. The station was built at a time when trains were slower and smaller, unfit to handle rail traffic today.

The city of Brno finally thought they had a solution: rather than modernize the station, they would build a new one about one kilometer from its current location, placing it outside of the center of the city. Supporters of this plan believed that it would allow for the revitalization of a new area, because the new station would become a hub for travelers and business.

Many people have argued against the move. This led to the referendum being called. One of the plan's opponents is Petr Machalek whose organization supports the modernization of the station in its current location and has actively urged people to vote. He explains why:

"A train station in the centre of Brno is much better for the people because it is ideally located where all the tram lines meet. Also, we think the planned new location could be used in a way that is much more efficient and more environmentally friendly for the whole region."

On Saturday afternoon I stopped by one of the voting stations and caught-up with some people after they placed their vote, this is what they had to say:

Woman1: "I voted yes because I don't want the station to move. Rumour has it that the councilors themselves bought the land which they now want to sell to the city at a higher price. Also, I think the transport changes are unnecessary."

Man1: "I like the station where it is and I don't think the city will grow as much as to need a new station."

Woman2: "I voted yes, because I travel by train very often and it's better for me the way it is."

In order for the referendum to be binding, at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote had to do so. And what happened? To the disappointment of the people I talked to, including Mr. Machalek, only 25 percent bothered to show up. Although an overwhelming 89 percent voted against the move, it is now likely that the huge project will go ahead.

What does this say about democracy in the Czech Republic? It would seem that Czechs are becoming increasing skeptical of the democratic process. Only 28 percent of people voted in the European Parliamentary elections, many people argued they did not vote because they knew nothing about the European Parliament. Could it be possible that three quarters of the people in Brno know nothing of the city's main train station? Regional elections are just around the corner in the Czech Republic, and with turnout rates as low as this, the chances of this trend coming to an end are quite slim.