A rail block in the Balkans

By bne IntelliNews August 17, 2010

Aleksandar Dimishkovski in Skopje -

When the construction of a railroad connecting the capitals of Macedonia and Bulgaria began almost 15 years ago, no one expected that a century-old idea would take more than a couple of years to be realized. Nine years after the project was suspended due to a lack of finance, no one today believes Skopje when it promises that it will be finished sometime soon.

"I hope that in 2011 we can secure the necessary finance," was the latest pronouncement from the Macedonian transport minister, Mile Janakieski, in early August following a meeting with his Bulgarian counterpart, Aleksandar Tsvetkov, in Sofia. Janakieski said he expects construction of the unfinished railroad to Bulgaria to start at the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012.

In practice, though, it's this kind of empty promise as well as bouts of political point scoring that have been the only two things added to the project over the past decade since it stalled in 2001. That construction was initiated by the current largest opposition party, SDSM, when it was in power in the period 1994-1998 has been used by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE as an excuse to prolong the project. The head of SDSM, Branko Crvenkovski, who was prime minister at that time, is often blamed by VMRO-DPMNE for the failed attempt to build the railroad and his administration's lack of proper plans on how to carry the project through which have cost the country both time and money.

Half-baked

The problem remains firmly on the Macedonian side of the border. Bulgaria has only 2.5 kilometres to build to the Macedonian border, but only one-third of Macedonia's 89-km section has been built at a cost of more than €100m. Worse, it's unclear if and how much of those constructed segments can still be used. For that purpose, Janakieski has announced that a new feasibility study will be done in September, which should cost around €500,000.

Most depressing is that this has actually been designated a high-priority project for Macedonia. The planned railway running between Skopje to Sofia is part of Corridor VIII, one of the 10 Pan-European transport corridors identified by the EU as crucial transcontinental links needing substantial investment to enhance Europe's transportation infrastructure.

Macedonia's National Programme for Railroad Infrastructure (2008-2012) lists two basic priorities to improve the condition of the rail system: investments in improving the existing infrastructure that will enable trains to move at speeds in excess of 120 km/hour and building the railroad infrastructure that's part of Corridor VIII - an east-west route across the Balkans from Constanta on Romania's Black Sea coast to Durres on the Adriatic in Albania.

Figures in this National Programme show what a tall order this will be. The last major investments in Macedonia's railroad infrastructure were done almost 40 years ago. In fact, the majority of the existing infrastructure was constructed between the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. For example, the sections from the border with Serbia to the Greek border, which are now part of Corridor X, were built between 1873 and 1888.

Three countries of the former Yugoslavia - Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia - recently signed a declaration to form a joint railway company, whose main goal will be to secure faster movement of people and goods through Corridor X. Given Macedonia's decrepit infrastructure and the fact there's been no serious investment in the past 20 years, those trains will face a major "rail block" when they enter Macedonia.

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