Newsletter 16/2011 - In focus


There is no doubt that South East Europe (SEE) is critically in need of an accelerated development. But, whilst striving hard to join the European Union (EU) and meet all of the accession requirements, the region frequently forgets that not everything is about core politics – practical aspects of economic and social life are as important.

For example, would there be a better way to join the EU than to “catch its train”? 

The question for the region is how to compete with the Europe’s fast train while lagging along on the slow tracks. Yes, railways of the region are indeed in a desperate need of comprehensive rehabilitation and reconstruction. They are in a desperate need of modernization in order to better integrate the regional railway potentials into the European and wider network.

How do railways in the region function these days? Here is a reality check: it takes almost seventy hours for a cargo train from Ljubljana to Istanbul. Who could turn a blind eye to this? It takes almost seven hours for a passenger train to reach Belgrade from Zagreb! In seven hours one could make it from Paris to London and back.

Findings of the World Bank’s study Railway Reform in South East Europe and Turkey: On the Right Track? prove vulnerability of the railway transport and infrastructure in the region. The study’s facts and figures unmistakably show the unenviable state of play of railway system in South East Europe. The overall picture tells a story of a generally neglected yet potentially strategic asset of the region.

All those living and commuting in South East Europe know it the best from their gloomy daily experience – infrastructure in shambles, low train speed, poor performance, custom delays, etc.

The study made me remember my personal train experiences. Why do carriers need to spend lengthy hours at the customs? Why does it take almost nine hours from Belgrade to Sarajevo for that matter? From the perspective of an ordinary South East European passenger stories about European fast trains you take to get from Paris to London, crossing the Channel on the way, sound like fairytales. Needless to mention the effect of the EU plans for developing new corridors and modernizing its railway networks on the tormented railway client from the region.

The current economic crisis has raised its ugly head in the region with the harsh economic and social effects. While trying to find a positive angle on things in such a grim environment it is ever so evident that large scale trans-national projects such as railway reconstruction, modernisation and networking could be the best answer to plethora of burning issues besetting the region, from political to practical: unemployment, unsettled and distorted societies, dysfunctional institutions, brain-drain, refugees, etc.

Railway transportation is probably the best way for the most effective use of the geographic and geo-economic position of South East Europe, situated between the large EU market and Turkey, Middle East, even China.

With the Bosporus under-sea railway tunnel becoming functional and the Europe-Bosporus Corridor very soon operational, it is a last-minute, strategic call for the countries of the region to pool together and jointly speed up reconstruction of transportation routes across the Western Balkans.

In a sense, one would hope that railways rehabilitation and modernization in the Western Balkans and wider South East Europe would become the much needed charger of  rekindling of national economies, bearing the potentials to become the “coal and steel” of the region in terms of development, cooperation and integration.

The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), as a leading platform for advancing cooperation in South East Europe, is absolutely committed to providing full support to the region to get to the “fast tracks” as soon as possible. The EU integration, which must be kept a priority for South East Europe, needs to include development integration. The railway system reform and reconstruction could be seen as the engine to this process.

Somewhat illustrative metaphor becomes unavoidable – this part of Europe missed the train of history and strayed down the wrong railways two decades ago. Hopefully, it would not miss this train now.


Hido Biscevic, RCC Secretary General (Photo: Predrag Milasinovic)

Hido Biscevic, RCC Secretary General (Photo: Predrag Milasinovic)