An excellent route for rail freight transport linking two important ports – Trieste, on the Mediterranean Sea, and Constanta, on the Black Sea – cannot reach its full potential due to a missing link in the Western Balkans.
Of all this corridor, Pancevo – Stamora Moravița – Timisoara rail section is the only one non-electrified, there is a simple track and the lack of investments has reduced the speed of trains.
The lowest speed, under 70 km/h, is that on Pancevo – Vrsac section, while on the other segments, the speed is between 70-100 km/h. In brief, the connection is not attractive for operators, at least not right now. “Budapest – Belgrade section is almost completed. Belgrade – Pancevo – Stamora Moravița – Timisoara section is very important, but it has not been given the attention it deserved. Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, we are losing all connections because of this missing link”, declared Robert Dobre (photo), Director of the Strategic Projects Division of the Romanian Ministry of Transport.
This transport route starts from Trieste, in Slovenia, continues through Croatia, passes through Zagreb and then through Serbia, through Belgrade to finally enter Romania, crossing Bucharest and ends in Constanta. Actually, it is a connection between TEN-T corridors B-A/Mediterranean, Mediterranean, Orient East Mediterranean/RD and Rhine-Danube.
Significant investments are necessary
The only modernised sections on this route are Slavonski Brod – Tovarnik (Croatia), Tovarnik – Stara Pazova (Serbia) and Bucharest – Constanta (Romania).
In Slovenia, modernisation works are underway between the Port of Koper and Dobova and between Dobova and Zagreb, in Croatia. Connections could be built from this route, towards south east – Athens and Istanbul, in the north – to the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, to the west – towards the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the south-eastern connection is not attractive either because, as Railway PRO reported, the railway infrastructure on the Romanian coast of the Danube to Calafat Vidin New Europe Bridge is in a poor condition and modernisation works are expected as late as next year.
Major failures in the region
However, it is not just Trieste – Constanta route that has problems. There are major failures across the whole region of the Western Balkans, as Alain Baron, interim Director of the Permanent Secretariat of the Transport Community (TCT) emphasised.
This structure was agreed in 2017, after nine years of negotiations between the six countries in the region, on the one hand, and the European Commission, on the other hand. The Secretariat of the Transport Community was established this year, based in Belgrade, Serbia, and the interim director was established at the end of January.
First recruitments took place on May 6 and 20-25 officials will come in the next months. The budget for the current year was established at EUR 1.7 million and at almost EUR 3 million for 2020. The number one priority of TCT is to reduce as much as possible the differences between the transport systems in the Western Balkans and those in the European Union.
On the long-term, TCT plans to support all partners in the region in their ascent to modern transport systems. TCT’s activities will focus on two pillars: assistance in preparing and implementing projects and support to transpose and implement the EU legislation in the transport sector and connected services. “Most countries have the capacity to transpose the legislation, but do not have the technical capacity to implement it”, explained Alain Baron.
A regional strategy is mandatory
Key priorities to increase the efficiency of the transport system in South-East Europe consist of a mix of reforms and infrastructure development, regional strategies to harmonise national to European policies and finally the drive towards innovation, new technologies and decarbonisation solutions.
“We must create a regional strategy. It is necessary to change the mentality in the region, to make it seek for more innovation in the organisation of transport and we need strong political commitment to achieve all these objectives”, added the Director of the TCT Secretariat.
There are three priorities for 2019- 2020 of the Western Balkans countries, which got together on 4 July in a summit in Poznan. The first one refers to an action plan to create a regional railway strategy through
interoperability, market opening and corporate governance. Next, there is the promotion of road safety by financing the operation of removing the road black spots (road safety black spots). The third priority envisages the elimination of border crossing bottlenecks in order to optimise the traffic of goods.
Western Balkans lie at the heart of the EU transport system
“Western Balkans are at the heart of the European Union transport system and railway networks in the region are incorporated in those of the community area. By adopting EU’s technical rules and standards, Western Balkans railways can play a key role in reconnecting the Balkans to the rest of Europe”, said Alain Baron. He added that the three corridors that will be extended towards the Western Balkans are: the Mediterranean, Orient-East Med and Rhine-Danube.
WB Rail networks are embedded with the EU ones. Through the adoption of EU’s common operational rules and technical standards, rail in Western Balkans can play a key role to re-connect the Balkans with the rest of Europe. The priority sections of the corridors have been identified so as to maximise the use of different types of financing – national budget, European funds (pre-accession instruments), international financial institutions, loans and so on.
It is notable that access to financing through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) is very limited because the regulation stipulates that “actions in third countries can be supported by means of financial instruments if these actions are necessary for the implementation of a joint interest project”. Priority projects located on European corridors must be identified and implemented until 2020.
Alain Baron explained in detail why a regional railway Strategy for the Western Balkans was absolutely necessary.
15 times more money for roads than for railways
First of all because railway performance in the region is very low and these six countries have to adopt the EU standards included in the Fourth Railway Package.
For the moment, the networks are fragmented and noninterconnected, while infrastructure investment policies are not coordinated. Consequently, investments in roads are 15 times higher than those in railways, said Baron. Therefore, more than a third of the railway network in the region is in a poor or very poor condition and the performance level is by 50% lower than European standards.
“We can easily notice that over 50% of the Comprehensive Network has major superstructure problems (tracks, sleepers and ballast). This is the direct consequence of the lack of maintenance in the past 30 years. The objective of the future has to be appropriate maintenance focused on the recommendations of the Connecta Study”, said Alain Baron.
He explained that the first set of measures has to focus on three priority areas: market opening (national
legislation changes and their implementation to enable non-discriminatory access to railway infrastructure, as well as the mutual acknowledgement of train licenses), governance (initiation of regional consultations to put into practice the institutional reform and railway sector restructuring in conformity with TCT) and interoperability (implementation of European technical specifications, technical and railway safety regulations and a plan for ERTMS deployment).