Railway operators have cancelled 46 international routes since early December.
By Katica Djurovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 08/01/13
Numerous international train routes in Southeastern Europe have been cancelled in the past month. [Katica Djurovic/SETimes]
Citing economic difficulties and low numbers of passengers, railway operators in Southeastern Europe cancelled 46 international routes since early December. The cancellations are a sign of the broader trouble faced by the region's rail system, which has received little investment since the early 1990s. The average age of train cars is 30 to 45 years, and as result, the railways are not fuel efficient and often unreliable.
There is currently only one train that connects Croatia and Western Europe with Serbia and only one connecting Hungary and Serbia. There are no international trains from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Istanbul or Bucharest. Greece suspended all international railway routes in 2010 because of financial losses.
According to official data, only 2.5 percent of the Serbian rail network can reach speeds of 100 to 120 km/h. A quarter of Serbia's trains can go only 30 km/h. Nebojsa Bojovic, a professor at the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering, said Serbia's government should do more to support the rail system.
"There is no competition, no market or business model of organisation," Bojovic said. "The state should help through the public service obligation mechanism which was adopted by Serbia in 2005, but unfortunately is not implemented."
While Serbian railways must pay to use international infrastructure, foreign trains entering the country do not pay the fee because it is not required under Serbian law.
Until recently, European railway administrations collected the cost of infrastructure for all international trains that used their lines. But it is becoming almost a regular practice for countries to subsidize less international passenger traffic and charge fees from rail stakeholders for the use of railway infrastructure.
The railway routes to the Western Balkans and Western Europe were suspended after the Croatian railways instituted a 700,000 euro annual fee for access to rail infrastructure, which was too expensive for Serbian and BiH railways. The average annual fee in other countries is between 800,000 and 1 million euros.
Mihaela Tomurad-Susac, spokesperson of the Croatian railways told SETimes that losses from international lines vary from about 99,000 to 343,000 euros.
Many trains in the region are outdated and fuel inefficient. [Gabriel Petrescu/SETimes]
"During the economic crisis and due to market conditions such losses cannot be ignored. We had to start charging fees," Tomurad-Susac said.
Bojovic said countries should work together on the improvement of regional railways.
"Isolated and small railways networks in the Balkans cannot be efficient," Bojovic said. "There is only one solution: market opening. What we need is harmonisation of the railway system in order to achieve effects and increase efficiency."
In spite of recent cuts elsewhere, Romania's state-owned CFR Calatori railway company is trying to re-open international lines. Ştefan Roşeanu, who was appointed general manager of CFR Calatori in the summer of 2012, has plans to expand.
"We started to improve the operations of trains in relationship with Hungary," Roşeanu told SETimes. "In the next month we want to start new services in the western part of Romania, to connect Serbian and Romanian cities by trains, as there is a high demand. As soon as the second bridge between Romania and Bulgaria will become operational we will bring new trains to connect Bucharest and Craiova from Romania to Vidin and other Bulgarian cities.
"We have a partnership with Moldavian administration to increase and develop new routes as we have a large community near the border with relatives in the other country, but we also expect to bring tourists."
Damir Galo, 26, a veterinary technician from Novi Sad travels often to Hungary to visit his relatives and uses only trains.
"Railway transport is not promoted enough," Galo told SETimes. "It should be a backbone of [regional transportation] since it is cheaper than buses or cars. Everywhere in Europe, railway is comfortable, good quality and safe, while our trains are always late, dirty and dangerous. In the Balkans, trains are for those who have no other option and no money, but have plenty of time to waste."
SETimes correspondent Gabriel Petrescu in Bucharest contributed to this report.