TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Anniversaries: 20 Years of the Belgrade-Bar Railway: Headaches on Rails
11 June 1996
Recently the railway marked its 20th anniversary but the idea to build the line is much older. If you disregard the romantic writing of the Srbske Novine in 1855 which dreamed of a rail line between Belgrade and one of the Adriatic ports, the first serious consideration to linking Serbia's Danube region and the Adriatic sea came late last century. Serbian wanted a rail link from Prahovo via Nis, Kosovo and the Drim river valley with the Albanian port of Medova south of Skoder. Strategically the calculation was clear: unlike Belgrade which was very near the border with the Austro-Hungarian empire, Prahovo was the only Danube port on the border with Romania (and through it a link with "mother" Russia was established) while the line to the Albanian coast, regardless of the fact that the area was under Ottoman rule, followed the line of future conquests and the exit to the "Serb sea". Serbia even managed to get Turkey's approval to build the railroad but the Austro-Hungarians saw the trick and stopped construction.
After World War I and the creation of Yugoslavia, priorities changed along with rail line: now Belgrade had to be linked with the southern Adriatic coast. To do that, Yugoslavia got 100 million dollars in gold from the US but the railway wasn't built: money was needed for other more urgent railroads.
That didn't suppress the new construction ambitions and between the two world wars several versions of the railroad were drawn up. The biggest problem was the Montenegrin mountains and agreement wasn't reached on an exit to the sea. Boka Kotorska (i.e. Kotor, Risan and Tivat) were the main choices but the problem was that Boka is traditionally a naval port and not quite right for a merchant marine port. Two potential directions were mentioned most often: Visegrad then through the Drina valley down to Niksic and on to the sea (or down the Lim valley from Visegrad which is similar to what we have now); or via the existing Ibar valley railroad to Kosovo Polje and Pec then on to Montenegro and the sea. Local patriotism was not to be disregarded: every MP and minister lobbied to get the railway running through his village or town. Three main points were decided on finally: Belgrade, Visegrad and Kotor. Just prior to World War II, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia grew financially stronger and started building the railroad. About 14 kilometers were laid from Belgrade to Valjevo, the Bela Reka tunnel was drilled and some facilities were erected but then the war came.
After the war the new communist authorities dropped the Drina valley in favor of the Lim valley perhaps because the areas they chose were politically "better" than the Drina valley where the communist-royalist war had been fiercest. Kotor and Buljarice were dropped in favor of the port of Bar which the Italian Compania d'Antivari had started building in 1906 and held concessions there until the war. Construction started in 1952 but died out by the late 1950s due to a shortage of funds. Croatian experts discreetly campaigned against the railroad, fearing that Bar would provide fierce competition to ports in Dalmatia. Croatia even saw a doctoral thesis claiming the Belgrade-Bar line would never be profitable.
In 1966, the federal authorities adopted a law on federation funding to complete the line and two years later 50 million USD came in from the International Development Bank. Work began, but in 1971 constitutional amendments were introduced giving the Yugoslav republics greater independence. The federal state stopped financing the Belgrade-Bar railroad and Serbia and Montenegro had to pay up. Serbia's parliament organized a public loan and the authorities even got school children involved in the loan under the slogan "The train leaves in 1973".
A strike force of stage artists toured Serbia collecting funds for the line. Montenegro also had a public loan. Some 900 million dinars were collected and the railroad was finally completed, not in 1973 but in 1976.
To justify the project, the press said the railway was 476 kilometers long, with a fourth of it (114.4 km) running though 254 tunnels and 234 bridges; that 240 youth work brigades toiled on it; and that the railroad is a worthy achievement. No one mentioned how many people died during construction but we know the railroad took the lives of 103 people. In the meantime there were no big railway disasters apart from the abduction of 18 passengers in Strpci in February 1993. That was when everyone found out that the railroad runs through Bosnia for several kilometers but the station (unlike the village of Strpci) is in Serbia.
Since May 28, 1976 when it was formally opened, official figures say 50 million people traveled the line and about 40 million tons of freight (officials at the opening ceremony mentioned six million tons of freight and 19 million passengers a year). The socialist authorities traditionally like big figures. The line is the only competitive passenger line but the situation is worse in terms of freight. The railroad never managed to become Serbia's main access to the sea since more goods were taken to Kotor and Rijeka than to Bar. But the railway did transport raw materials for the steel foundry in Smederevo, wheat and Yugo cars while goods that demanded quick loading, better organization went the other way. Even the breakup of Yugoslavia, which made Bar the only deep sea port, didn't bring the railroad any luck because sanctions were imposed. Unlike 1991, when 4.5 million tons of freight went to Bar by rail, just 400,000 tons were transported in 1994.
One of the first logical steps by the international community when the embargo was imposed was a maritime blockade. Approaches to Bar were sealed leaving a trickle of goods coming in but through Bar.
The suspension of the sanctions did not bring any joy since the blockade is still on for the Arabs and the special control of ships in Brindisi isn't encouraging anyone to come to Bar, port director Petrasin Kasalica told VREME.
Port officials expect a lot of the planned modernization of the railroad improved Budapest-Belgrade-Bar transport. Kasalica mentioned consultations in Bar on the topic with closer links to Bucharest and Bari but he voiced regret that last year's meeting with a Hungarian business delegation didn't provide any specific results. He blamed limitations in inter-state relations and the bad state of the railway.
"Under market criteria, Bar and the Subotica-Belgrade-Bar line have an absolute advantage over other ports and lines. Thesaloniki is 200 km further from Belgrade and to get there you have to cross two state borders with a higher foreign currency transport cost than transport to Bar. Burgas is 600 km further than Bar and can't be competitive with us because of truck and rail transport problems. Konstanza has problems with transport on the Danube and transferring loads. Those are big ports but with transport problems."
The competition should not be disregarded, especially not Croatian ports. Not even hatred lasts forever and Bar port authorities will have to start thinking along those lines. In the modern world, access to the sea in the traditional (national) sense is losing its importance and deals are done with the cheapest and most efficient ports not under patriotic criteria. Bar is planning a second stage of port construction: new wheat silos, a livestock terminus, warehouses for fruit and repairs as well as a more modern container facility to reach the planned capacity of five million tons a year. All that is expensive.
Repairs to the railway which should have been completed last year also cost money and the Montenegrins are complaining that Serbia is stalling. When a VREME reporter asked Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic when repairs would start, he said his government urged the federal government to start work three times last year and added that there was no reply. "Montenegro's obligations extend from Gostun to Bar but repairs there would be senseless unless the parts of the line through Serbia are repaired."
Montenegro railways company director Dejan Drobnjakovic told Pobjeda daily last May that trains on the Belgrade-Bar line are two hours late on the average and added: "We know of many internal weaknesses. Every cafe in town has a fire extinguisher taken from our trains." He said the most important thing is that the railroad is safe but a denial came immediately: first, on May 27, a night train jumped its tracks near Kolasin and on June 2, train 810 (Bar to Belgrade) jumped its tracks near Mojkovac. An eloquent Montenegrin railway man who has been working on the line since it was completed said: "In hyperinflation when an egg was worth three railway tickets people said 'how fortunate, the railway's cheap'. I used to say: 'we're in trouble, the railway's cheap'. Now we're paying the price for preserving social peace through cheap food and transport in the form of faulty locomotives and wagons, decaying tracks, trains running 3-5 hours late and jumping tracks."
Railway men know best but they can't afford to be totally honest and frighten people away. Add to that the fact that the Belgrade-Bar line is probably the best in the country and the picture is complete.
© Transitions Online 2020. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
Published by Transitions o.s., Baranova 33, 130 00 Prague 3, Czech Republic.