The railway deal aims to significantly reduce travel times, improve passenger and freight transport and increase competitiveness.
By Tzvetina Borisova and Alakbar Raufoglu for Southeast European Times -- 08/11/11
The regional railway would cover all of Southeast Europe. [Reuters]
With the goal of creating a high performance railway network to connect countries in Southeast Europe, Turkey ratified an agreement as part of the Southeast European Co-operation Process in late-October.
The deal, signed in Thessaloniki in May 2006, vows to significantly reduce travel times between countries in the region, improve the quality of passenger and freight transport, and increase the competitiveness of railway transport in the Balkans.
It also pledges to deal with costly border delays by eliminating requirements to have trains stop for customs and passport controls. Instead, appropriate controls would be conducted during the journey.
The planned network will cover the region with 16 transportation axes, carrying commercial goods at speeds of up to 130 km/h, with plans to increase speeds to 160 km/h and 220 km/h where possible by 2020.
Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Montenegro and Moldova are all included in the planned network.
Officials in Ankara, which ratified the deal on October 28th, say the high-speed railway network project "sounds more beneficial now than it did years ago".
"Everyone in our region -- from east to west, from Asia to Europe -- can benefit from it," the Turkish Parliament's Transportation Commission Chairman Idris Gulluce said. "An efficient transport system is essential to the economic and social advancement of both Turkey and the Southeast European countries."
"[Southeastern Europe] is now facing the realities of the global economic crisis, while in the Asian part of the world, people fight against the hardships of restricted freedoms. Turkey, being in the middle of the two, tries to connect and help both," he added.
Turkey's former Transportation Minister Oktay Vural, on the other hand, argues that the participating governments must be more organised and make sure the project is financially justifiable.
"Years ago we had lots of railroad drafts [projects] with regards to connecting Europe and Asia, but years pass, and those become more expensive," he explained, adding that a consortium must be created by the participating countries.
When it comes to Turkey, "the government should be transparent during the whole process: what are the procedures; who gets the tenders, what are the prices? What we see right now is that the participating countries give more political, rather than economic [based] statements."
Sweden's Bertil Hylen, who advised the EU on the development of the Turkish State Railways, says that given the long distances and relatively small population in the region, high-speed rail would have difficulty competing with air transportation.
"Many Western European railways with high-speed services are still overstaffed, uneconomic and need huge public subsidies for a not very attractive service. The situation in Eastern Europe [and Turkey] is even worse," he explained.
"Eastern Europe should seriously consider what kind of railway it needs in the future and how to get there. The focus should be on rail freight," the expert pointed out.