A train to nowhere: Talgo in Bosnia

Talgo parked in Sarajevo train station (source: thehindu.com)

The Talgo trains, made in Spain, belong to the high-end trains rolling around Europe, North America and Asia. They travel at high speeds on conventional tracks and offer comfortable intercity and international travel. Bosnia (together with Kazachstan and Uzbekistan) has nine such trains (bought in , so far the good news. While the website of the railways of the Bosnian Federation (ZFBiH, there is no single Bosnian rail company) even has a link to Talgo reserations (including the tempting offer to travel in time: Register for a free Ride from 1/Nov/2010 to 31/Dec/2011), none of the trains is going anywhere. The trains had some test runs, but never entred service. Instead, the trains have been languishing for years in Sarajevom, partly in storage, partly in the open. When they were tested, they achieved the incredible maximum speed of 70km per hour. Of course, for such great speeds, it is necessary to have a train that can go 220 km per hour… Samir Kadrić from the railways of the Federation described it “as if you bought nine Ferarris and you don’t have roads to drive them on”. Besides old tracks and no realistic plan to improve them to anywhere close to the speeds the Talgo can travel, it took years to negotiate the use of the train with neighboring countries and meanwhile, the train to Belgrade no longer operates and there is only one train per day that takes 9 hours for the journey. Now the railway company does not have the money to maintain the trains, so they are not even riding at 70 km per hour, but just standing and waiting. The Talgo thus share the same fate as the Croatian-made Končar trains the ZFBiH bought in 2009 to run local lines and which the company now seeks to return to Croatia. Just for the Talgo trains, the ZFBiH payed 67.5 mio Euro which is tries to pay for by renting the trains to Turkey.

There is hardly a better metaphor for what is wrong in Bosnia today. The country cannot move on, or only at the speed of 19th century train travel in 40-year old run down cars. The alternative is there (and even paid for) but there is no plan, no will and no resources to accelerate. Instead of leapfrogging several train-generations (or in extension reforms) with the Talgo, the episode highlights that Bosnia needs new tracks, and not just for trains. The fact that nobody had to resign over this affair that raises suspicions not just about tremedous stupidity, but also corruption, also is indicative of how the scale of bad governance has created an incredible degree of hopelessness in the country.

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

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