On the (rail)road to nowhere?

On track for the future?

There’s an interesting commentary on New Europe’s web site[1] on the state of the railroads of South Eastern Europe (SEE). It draws on a recent report on the topic, published by the World Bank.[2] The article was written by Hido Biscevic, a former diplomat, a journalist and newspaper editor, and now the secretary-general of The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), successor organisation to the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.[3]

The item is basically a wakeup call to the area to get on with some inter-regional cooperation in developing modern rail structures. Biscevic highlights the World Bank’s call for investment in developing European corridors as a necessary boost for international trade.

Whereas the online summary introduction of the WB report paints a gloomy picture, Biscevic manages ultimately to draw some optimistic conclusions for the SEE region.

World Bank Abstract (extract)

“The railways of South East Europe and Turkey experienced significant declines in traffic volumes in 2009. This reflected the impact of the international financial crisis unleashed in the last quarter of 2008 and its contractionary impact on the economies of the region and elsewhere. Lower traffic volumes translated in most cases into a serious deterioration of the financial performance of the state-owned railways. This brought home the costs of failing to implement essential reforms to improve the operational and financial performance of the sector when the economy was strong. In Romania in 2010, large-scale layoffs were announced at short notice for the state rail companies. The situation is similar for the Bulgarian state rail incumbents; they face an acute liquidity crisis, and will require additional state aid merely to keep running. The lesson of these events is clear: it is unwise to delay implementing state railway sector reforms during good economic times, because the consequences can be too severe if a financial downturn occurs before those reforms have been taken and properly implemented.”[2]

Potential for optimism

Biscevic predicts that: “When the Bosporus Europe Express Corridor becomes operational, by using two under-sea tunnels in the Straits, direct rail-link between EU market and China will become a reality. Cargo trains will travel from Brussels to Beijing… The railway system reforms and reconstruction in the region could become a charger of a broader economic and social development, somewhat of the “coal and steel” impetus to the general modernisation of the war-torn region, in material but also in mental sense, stepping up cooperation and integration, as “coal and steel” ingredients pushed the post-war development, cooperation and integration of Europe.”

He also provides some examples of the current state of the railways of the region: “I remembered how the Belgrade–Sarajevo railway was recently opened after almost two decades and how unearthly it looks from the European perspective that this journey last for almost nine hours, changing locomotives with every crossing of state, entities and God-forbid what other borders. I remembered what it looks to sit in a poor passenger wagon in Albania and how more than fifty percent of freight wagons in Serbia are useless.”

An example close to home

Reading the article, I was reminded of the situation that exists between Bulgaria and Macedonia. To travel by rail from Sofia to Skopje, you have to transit across part of Serbia. A plan to link the two capitals has been “on the stocks” for quite some time – a complete century, in fact! All that’s missing is an 85-90 kilometre section in Macedonian territory.

The Bulgarian section is complete, following a burst of activity in the mid-1990s, and currently ends at the border town of Gyueshovo. Even in the 21st. century, there has been little or no progress – just a succession of hollow statements by politicians of both countries. For example:

“In a meeting at the Bulgarian border village of Gyueshevo in 2003, the Presidents of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania agreed to boost the development of Pan-European Transport Corridor No. 8 – from the Bulgarian Black Sea ports to the Albanian ports on the Adriatic via Macedonia…”[4]

Or, this – from 2002:

“Foreign Minister Passy and his Macedonian counterpart Minister Slobodan Casule signed a joint letter for securing political and financial support from international institutions, including NATO, EU, Stability Pact , and the World Bank for the construction of Sofia-Skopje railway.”[5]

Meantime, a more recent (December 2010) optimistic forecast by Deputy Prime Minister of Macedonia, Vladimir Pesevski, in an interview for Macedonian TV channel Alfa, said that “the Macedonian government is optimistic that the realisation of the project for a railway connection between Sofia and Skopje, which has been around since the first decade of the 20th century, will start in 2012.”[4]

I hope to live long enough to take the train to Skopje, one day, to visit the site of the statue of “a warrior on horseback” (now erected – see image below)! Well, I’ll have to be patient – another online publication stated in July last year that ”For at least ten more years the trains from Bulgaria to Macedonia will pass via Serbia”.[6]

Skopje's financial (and nationalistic) preoccupations – the past, not the future

Gyueshevo station

Gyueshevo station – still waiting!

Bulgarian railways today

The only people I can quickly think of who use Bulgarian trains are my in-laws. Everyone else uses a car or bus to get around the country. Bulgarian Railways carried a mere 4% of internal passenger traffic in 2008. Between 2000 and 2009, the WB report noted a decrease in passenger traffic of 38%, with a drop of 48% in freight. Yet, tomorrow, I can travel first-class from Sofia to Plovdiv (156 kms) for 10.10 Leva (about €5, one-way). So, why would I prefer to travel by bus, for at least 25 Leva? A paradox – but one that partly explains in microcosm why the entire region’s railroads are in such a mess.

Bulgarian State Railways network

Bulgarian State Railways network - 4,150 kms

Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) quick facts

Extent of rail network: 4,150 kms, of which 971 are double tracks; 2,833 kms are electrified, which, at 68% of the network, is well above the EU 27 average of 52%. Network density (length of network, divided by country’s surface area): 83%, relatively high for EU. Currently, BDZ is struggling with extensive debts: liabilities of more than 500 mn Leva; awaiting approved temporary loan of 140 mn Leva, and longer-term WB loan of 600 mn Leva. (2 Leva = approx. €1). Ticket prices regulated (and kept low) by the Bulgarian state. Despite financial problems, slowly carrying out new investments in locomotives and passenger rolling stock. Reputation suffered with a fatal accident in 2010, after which 80% of trains were announced to be legally defective. Many routes very slow, trains are dirty, services poor, personal security against robbery not guaranteed – typical of several EU countries, then, and not only in the Balkans!

BDZ web site (BG and some EN)

The full World Bank report is available to download as a PDF file HERE (278 pp.)

Source [1]: NewEurope

Source [2]: World Bank

Source [3]:  Regional Cooperation Council

Source [4]: SNA

Source [5]: SNA

Source [6]: standartnews

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