Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 02:51:22 AM EST
I continue the catch up with the news of the last three months on the subject of cross-border connections, which is a litany of what can go wrong. Let's start with the worst, the Balkans, where the last two and a half decades saw the near-elimination of international passenger trains:
- First there were the Croatian and Bosnian Wars and sanctions in the first half of the nineties.
- Then there was the NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999.
- Then austerity-hit Greece cancelled all international trains in early 2011.
- Then at the end of the same year, night trains to Italy were cancelled because national train operator Trenitalia left the partnership.
- The latest and biggest cull came at the end of last year, when also austerity-hit Croatia cancelled most international services.
- Worse: the track access charges set by Croatia's infrastructure manager were so high that Serbian State Railways also cancelled its connection to Sarajevo, which used Croatian tracks in transit (hat tip to Migeru per email).
The rail part of Croatia's post-independence transport infrastructure policy was always a strange mix. While the fact that most money was poured into new or restored road infrastructure fit into a regional (and global) trend, there were signs of ambition: pre-war lines and train services were restored quickly with propagandistic effect, the line to the port of Rijeka got extensive maintenance when it was switched from DC to AC voltage, detailed plans of a parallel new high-performance line were drawn up, and domestic rolling stock manufacturing was re-established. However, at least in the last few years, maintenance must have been cut back to near zero, with predictable results. Those now cancelled international trains regularly ran hours late (as I noted in a warning last year), which surely didn't improve ridership and thus income. This infrastructure deterioration recently reached crisis level: a number of derailments, speed restrictions and domestic service cancellations (again hat tip to Migeru per email).
An express train arrives late on a weed-infested track in the station of Krievci on a summer morning in 2011, also adding another 15 minutes to the already one-hour delay of the Venice–Budapest night train on the single-track line
The situation isn't rosy in Western Europe, either, although for different reasons. Let's take connections between Belgium and the Netherlands. At the end of January, in Flop of the Fyra, Nomad reported that new problems with a long troubled high-speed train type led to their withdrawal from service, and with that, a significant reduction of cross-border connections (only Thalys high-speed trains remained). I noted in a comment that the December start of Fyra service across the border also coincided with the cancellation of (surcharge-free) conventional train services between Brussels and Amsterdam. One would think that these trains could just have been re-started as replacement service for the stopped Fyra. Not so: both the train paths ( = timetable slots) and the trains themselves have been re-assigned to resp. for other services, thus Belgian and Dutch railways were scrambling to put something together. It wasn't until 18 February that a rudimentary and slow Brussels–The Hague service was established.
Let's move back south, to the border of Italy and Austria. At the end of last year, Munich–Rome night trains were threatened because Italian infrastructure manager RFI got serious about a 2007 EU regulation regarding the selective control of door locks (used to unlock doors only on the platform side), requiring full compliance from the start of this year, and German sleeper coaches weren't compliant. Since then, I read that the real issue was that Trenitalia implemented the regulation on its rolling stock (including the locos hauling the night trains from the border) using a non-standard locomotive–train interface. At any rate, the night trains were saved by a temporary agreement – but local trains fared worse. The transit trains connecting the Austrian cities of Innsbruck and Lienz via South Tyrol (using both cross-border links) were replaced by buses, part of the train services re-started three weeks later.
The route of the above-mentioned night trains, the Brenner Route, sees heavy freight traffic on both road and rail. The connection is to be accelerated and upgraded with the 55 km Brenner Base Tunnel (64 km with the mid-tunnel connection to the existing Innsbruck bypass), which is in the state of advanced preparatory works (exploratory and access tunnels, launch caverns for the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) of the main tunnels). The BBT may not open before 2025, but, to cope with the increase of traffic, the capacity of the connecting line is to be enhanced all the way to Munich.
Austria already opened the aforementioned Innsbruck bypass in 1994, then continued it with another 40 km of line doubling (mostly in tunnels), and have advanced plans for the remaining 25 km until the border. On the German side, the first 25 km from Munich were quadruple-tracked by 1999. The remaining 70 km until the border, however, only got past declarations of intent with an intergovernmental agreement in June last year. But the German government is dragging its feet even after: on 7 February, German federal transport minister Peter Ramsauer angered Austrian colleagues with a call for a route that stays in Austria as long as possible, to reduce the cost of the German section. Only about 7 km would be saved, but with them, the difficult part: the cross-border section follows the Inn river where it cuts across the northernmost chain of the Alps, meaning tunnels. The route Ramsauer implied would mean a big change of plans: it would be on the opposite side of the river, thus Austria would have to start over with planning and geological exploration on some 40 km.
Another long-troubled cross-border upgrade project concerns the Upper Rhine Line, which connects the Swiss cities of Basel and Schaffhausen but mostly runs on German territory. Electrification would facilitate the use of the line by trans-Alpine freight traffic (to relieve other lines) and passenger transit trains between the two Swiss cities, as well as enhance domestic and cross-border commuter traffic centred on the Swiss cities and local traffic in Germany. However, for years Germany dragged its feet on financing, then NIMBY protests started. At last the tendering of the Schaffhausen end could go ahead last year. However, the financing of the rest was again thrown into limbo by the withdrawal of the canton of Aargau in January. The cantonal government justified their decision with low interest and displeasure with recent Swiss-German intergovernmental agreements. They meant the ones regarding air traffic (that is, the limitation of night flights at Zurich Airport in response to noise pollution complaints from Germany) and taxes (meaning the limited voiding of bank secrecy to tax German tax evaders). The source quoted in the link was the Green member and leader of the cantonal government (which is FPTP-elected yet all five major parties are represented), so I'd be really curious about a detailed justification of this position...
The busiest (and only electrified...) connection between Germany and the Czech Republic, the Dresden–Prague line, follows the Elbe river where it cuts across the Ore Mountains. In the nineties, a frequent piggyback service for road freight was established on the line. You'd think such an environmentally friendly way of transport will get continued support, but no: it was discontinued in 2004, after improvements to the road alternative (the parallel highway and the end of customs controls after the Czech Republic's EU accession), showing the real priorities of transport policy.
On the rail route, there have been only limited upgrades: a quadruple-tracking of the first 17 km from Dresden and straightened curves for 160 km/h on a c. 50 km/h section halfway to Prague. A new line bypassing the scenic but slow border section across the mountains was long in discussion, but without any firm promises. Now there is at least a small step forward: at the end of January, the governments of the Czech Republic and the German state of Saxony requested EU funding for preliminary studies.
View from the train window across the flooding Elbe river at the sandstone walls near Kurort Rathen this February (sorry for the weather- and dirty window-related bad quality)
Seven years ago, in Another Great Game, I called attention to nascent ambitions in Central Asia to create rail links that would also draw transcontinental traffic between East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The February issue of IRJ contains a number of articles about the status of most of these plans, so here is a little overview from north to south (with a map from IRJ below them):
- The only two routes on which direct China–Europe services materialised both involve the Trans-Siberian: one uses the classic route via Mongolia, the other cuts across north-eastern Kazakhstan (see RNB18).
- The most ambitious project in 2006, a new standard-gauge line all across Kazakhstan and then south along the Caspian Sea to the Iranian border, has apparently been abandoned due to political risk. But at least the broad-gauge connection along the same route is progressing, with the line along the Caspian Sea across western Turkmenistan nearing completion and the last stretch in central Kazakhstan (Zhezkazgan–Saksaul'skaya) being included in the action plan of the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation Program (see RNB18 again).
- A second link between China and Kazakhstan, with a gauge-changing station at Korgas, has been opened on 22 December 2012. While its primary role is bilateral for now, it offers a significant short-cut along the existing route to Iran (via eastern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).
- Independent Kyrgyzstan doesn't have a rail network worth its name, only links to its neighbours. The country is now trying to attract investors for a central line by emphasizing that it would offer an even shorter route for transcontinental transit traffic, and provide access for mines. The problem: most of it would be in the mountains, requiring expensive superstructure.
- The cheapest and shortest route would run along the Fergana Valley (that is mostly in Tajikistan) and northern Afghanistan. It could easily be built all standard-gauge (if Afghanistan chooses standard gauge and Tajikistan, another country without a proper network, is fine with mixed-gauge). Of course, this route is also the politically riskiest and thus least likely to be completed any time soon. Still, the eastern end, the Herat–Torbat line that links Afghanistan and Iran, nears the end of construction. (The map below also shows the Tajik border–Kunduz–Mazar-e-Sharif sections as under construction, but I saw no such news.)
All but the first of the above routes continue across Iran, where several domestic construction and upgrade projects are on-going. At Iran's western borders, the situation is less rosy: lines are progressing towards Iraq and Azerbaijan, but not yet across the border, and Lake Van in Turkey forms a gap for now filled by a train ferry, but I suspect the long-planned line circling the lake won't go ahead until the definite end of hostilities with the PKK.
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In RNB22, I will conclude the catch-up on my three-month backlog with stories on financing, open-access fortunes, and new rolling stock.
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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.