How feasible is the Serbian rail investment plan?
The Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić announced that the Balkan country will invest more than six billion euros in railway projects. The plans sound very promising; however, it seems that their success will be assessed in the long term.
Brnabić shared the news a few days ago while welcoming the Connecting Europe Express train in Belgrade, which coincided with the Western Balkans Railway Summit 2021 event in the Serbian capital. The investments in Serbian railways are also supported by the European Union, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
As Brnabić underlined while announcing the news: “the goal of Serbia is to completely modernise the railway traffic and connect with all countries in the region and the EU by rail”. The overall rail investment will account for six billion euros. Passenger and freight traffic will have a fair share of funding.
If we break down the project, Serbia wants to invest more than two million euros in the Belgrade-Novi Sad high-speed railway line, two billion euros in Corridor 10 between Niš and the border with North Macedonia and 700 million euros in Corridor 10 between Belgrade and Niš.
What is the added value?
Of course, investments in rail are always welcome as long as they change things for the better. The Serbian plans are pretty impressive, but rail professionals remain reserved concerning their outcome. For instance, Dejan Nikolic, CEO at MBOX terminal in Niš, explained that the six billion investment plan sounds great because the rail infrastructure in Serbia is in very bad shape.
Nevertheless, he was hesitant regarding their value for two reasons: first, the modernisation upgrades need to be on time, and secondly, they need to target the right parts and needs of the infrastructure. Whether this is going to be the case, he is unsure. Specifically, he used the Belgrade-Subotica line upgrade example, which aimed to enhance connectivity with Budapest in Hungary but remains a big maybe. The project has been in the works for years now but is still unfinished; that is why Nikolic fears that the recently announced plans will have the same fate.
What if everything goes by plan?
If everything works fine and the investments take place timely and consistently, then the added value will be significant. First of all, the Serbian network will be suitable for more and faster trains, while the terminals will also benefit. “Modernisation is critical because capacity will increase. Terminals will be able to receive more and longer trains since they will overcome the current limitation of only 550 metre-long trains”, Nikolic underlined.
Yet, even in this case, the Serbian government needs to show consistency. As Nikolic explained, modernising parts of the Serbian railway network is not enough to reach better connectivity. In contrast, the government needs to work and upgrade the rest of the network so that rail freight will gradually face fewer restrictions. Finally, and most importantly, there is another bet that Serbia needs to win: maintaining the infrastructure. “Upgrading the network is one thing, but finding the resources to maintain it, in the long run, is another. Serbia must modernise infrastructure and find a way and keep it up to date without letting it fall into disuse. Otherwise, it is going to be the same story every few years,” Nikolic concluded.