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Modernization at 27 Miles per Hour

Can Serbia's once-proud railways recover from their woeful state? From Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

by Federico Sicurella 4 November 2013

Serbian Railways was founded in 1881, a few months before its founder, Prince Milan Obrenovic, was crowned the first king of the Kingdom of Serbia. In 1884 the rail link between Belgrade and Nis was inaugurated. The first trains on that section travelled at an average speed of just under 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour. In Serbia today, more than a century later, the situation has changed little. The average speed of passenger trains, by the most generous estimates, is around 44 kilometers per hour.




Though aware of the slow pace of Serbian trains, the passengers on the international train leaving Belgrade for Bar in Montenegro on 16 September expected to reach their destination, 400 kilometers away, in the “normal” 11 hours. They certainly did not imagine it would take 32 hours. A series of mechanical breakdowns caused interminable halts in the Serbian countryside, then the last straw: the electrical cables were hit by lightning, forcing the train to stop for six hours in a dark tunnel. Feeling obliged to respond in an exemplary fashion, the management not only reimbursed the passengers' fares but also fired two employees and reduced the wages of seven others held responsible for the failures.


The Belgrade railway station in November 2009. Photo by Kgbbristol/flickr.


Despite the slow rate at which trains go, the Belgrade-Bar line is considered a masterpiece of modern railway engineering. Taking 20 years to build and costing 104 lives, the line has 254 tunnels, 435 bridges, and the breathtaking viaduct of Mala Rijeka, the highest in Europe. Its opening in 1976 was a cause for pride in socialist Yugoslavia. On those tracks, connecting the Danube with the Adriatic Sea, trains arrived at their destination in seven hours, even touching 120 kilometers an hour. But over the last two decades the state of the line has noticeably deteriorated. In 2006 a train derailed in a canyon resulting in 47 deaths and about 200 people injured.




The condition of the Belgrade-Bar track is a reflection of the general situation of the country's railways. As director Dragoljub Simonovic acknowledges, “Today the railways are in a state of extreme difficulty, both for their infrastructures and for safety.”


Only one-third of the network is electrified, the rails are in a very poor state, and some carriages are 60 years old. The last five years have seen about 100 derailments, thousands of departures cancelled, and traveling time practically doubled.


But Simonovic says the railway system is an important resource, noting that in 2013 it transported 6.4 million tons of goods and 4.7 million passengers, generating an income of 17.2 billion dinars ($205 million). But the situation of the service remains critical. Branko Vuckovic wrote in Slobodna Evropa: “Trains that often derail even traveling at 40 kilometers an hour because of bad maintenance, level crossings not adequately signed, delays of several hours and obsolete wagons, all give a picture of the dramatic situation which the Serbian railways have been experiencing for many years.”


As if this were not enough, Serbian Railways has to cope with increasingly frequent thefts. The thieves take anything that can be sold on the scrap market: bits of carriages, copper cables, electric components, rails, and sleepers. These thefts, apart from the economic damage they do to the company, cause serious safety problems. On the Subotica-Sombor line this year a train derailed because someone had removed bolts by the hundreds from the rails. In 2012, 400 meters of rails were removed from the Novi Sad-Orlovat line. In many other cases thefts have led to slowdowns and the temporary closure of some lines.




The present decline of Serbian Railways originated with the post-Yugoslav transition. The wars of the 1990s and the economic sanctions imposed on the Milosevic regime took the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Since 2000, although with some improvement, the railways have not been able to reestablish themselves as an efficient and profitable public concern, thanks also to scandals of corruption among the management.


For this reason in recent years the Serbian government has encouraged private investors, both local and international, in order to modernize the network and make it competitive. The possibility of total privatization resulting in liberalizing the market is obviously in discussion. But, unlike other countries in the area, such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, this has not yet been implemented, despite pressure from the World Bank and European Union.


Over recent years the Serbian government has asked for loans amounting to 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) for modernizing the track and buying new engines and rolling stock. The principal financiers are the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Russian government. The European backers' priority is to renew the rail track corresponding to the Pan-European Corridor 10, which links Salzburg and Budapest with Thessaloniki. Further funds have also been given to improve Belgrade's suburban network, whereas Russia is investing in restructuring the once-glorious Belgrade-Bar line. The agreement was signed at the beginning of the year and work should begin in 2015.




One of the most painful aspects of the Serbian Railways' crisis is the deterioration of its international connections. While it was possible in socialist Yugoslavia, today traveling by train between Serbia and other countries nearby is neither practical nor easy. The most disheartening case is the interruption to the Belgrade – Sarajevo line that took place last year. Closed for the first time in 1990 on the eve of the war, the line was reopened in 2009, with great enthusiasm and expectations for its possible contribution toward the reconciliation of the two capitals. And in the last 12 months direct connections between Belgrade and other capitals in the region – Zagreb, Budapest, Bucharest, and Sofia – have also been canceled or greatly reduced.


Another illustrious absence is the Orient Express. This train, which has become a luxury tourist attraction, has not passed through Serbia for four years. The lesser-known Balkan Express has taken its place, offering 200 passengers every year the chance to relive memorable occasions of the past. Tito's renowned Blue Train has also, in its way, survived: once used by the Yugoslav president to entertain the most important heads of state of non-aligned countries, it too is now a tourist attraction.


In Vojvodina, however, there is a particular category of train tenaciously resisting extinction: the sinobus, literally “bus on rails.” Twenty years ago these rotund, diesel vehicles were common, carrying up to 20,000 passengers a day. Today five remain, which are used daily by about 400 people to travel among Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Pancevo, and Kosanicka Raca. Even if they are slow, infrequent, and often unreliable, the sinobus are much loved, above all by those who have used them to cross the endless plains of the Pannonian Basin. How far the daily activities of the Vojvodina inhabitants, including small scale contraband, were related to the sinobus is recounted in this research. The sinobus is synonymous with reduced consumption, agility of movement, and comfortable travel. Who knows, the redemption of the hapless Serbian Railways might begin here.

This article originally appeared on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

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