I’m just back from speaking at a Transport Community event in Belgrade. The trip to and from Serbia, and some of the discussions at the event I was attending, were quite an eye opener (I documented much of it on Twitter here). But seeing the problems with Serbian rail with my own eyes, and starting to understand the problems, gave me an idea…
2021 is the EU Year of Rail. And one of the components of that is that Community of European Railways and the European Commission are running a “Connecting Europe Express” – a kind of promotional train that is running right across Europe in September and October this year. You can find a map of where the train is going here.
The problem is that at the moment the details of what is going to actually be on board this train are… well… non existent.
So here’s an idea.
Turn the Connecting Europe Express into a Conversation Europe Express. And make those conversations about the state of Europe’s railways, and what to do to solve the many problems railways face.
Here’s the Express route through the Western Balkans:
When the train crosses the border between Vincovci (Croatia) and Šid (Serbia), the conversation needs to be about the absence of Public Service Obligation contracts in rail. There used to be a daytime train on the Zagreb – Vincovci – Šid – Beograd route, and it was cancelled due to COVID and there is no date for its return – because the Croatian and Serbian railways and governments cannot work out whether to subsidise a cross border service, while they each can subsidise the trains in their own territories. And even an interim solution – where a few Croatian services would run as far as Šid or Serbian ones as far as Vincovci – seem out of reach too. So use that leg to highlight that problem.
Or when the train runs from Niš (Serbia) to Skopje (North Macedonia), the conversation needs to be about border controls – and how speeding them up can speed up the whole trip. The Serbs and the Macedonians have plans for all border formalities to be carried out together at the Tabanovce crossing – meaning passengers and freight are all controlled at the same place, rather than being controlled twice (once on either side of the border) – a good story to tell that could be replicated elsewhere. The trip between Niš and the border to North Macedonia would also be a chance to view some very run down and outdated infrastructure, with speeds on that part of the route not exceeding 40km/h and with debate needed to overcome the problems there.
Repeat this for every leg. What would make things better for the railways? And how could these problems be solved?
Those are the discussions that need to happen. How could they happen in this project?
Attach two carriages to the train – a dining / discussion car, and a sleeping car:
Invite applications for a dozen or so different people to travel along for one leg or more – politicians, campaigners, journalists, bloggers, Youtubers etc., allowing them to see up close the issues railways face on each part of the route. And these people can then use their networks, and their take on railway issues, to start the conversation online – from the train.
Sure, some of the stories about railways that need to be told are uncomfortable ones. But meaningful discussion is important, and might actually result in the seed being planted for some change.
If instead the Connecting Europe Express does not begin to confront rails problems, it will be an empty PR stunt, whereas actually we need something better than that!
Images used in this post