Krasimir Krastanov reports on a strategic plan designed to bring about modernisation of the Bulgarian rail network

IF THE RAIL network in Bulgaria is not brought up to date, there is a serious danger that the national economy could be damaged.

Recognition of this fundamental fact prompted the Ministry of Transport & Communication to discuss with train operator BDZ-EAD what actions must be taken to ensure that the national railway can develop in line with expectations between now and 2015.

As a result of this discussion, plans were put in place to analyse trends in the rail sector. On the basis of this work a development programme has been drawn up, and projects prioritised within a national transport plan.

The European Union's proposals to develop a pan-European rail network are very ambitious, with key milestones set in 2015 and 2030 for completion of various projects. This means that Bulgaria needs to complete work on Corridors IV and X by 2015 and on Corridors VIII and IX by 2030. Should this not happen, Bulgaria risks being left decades behind in terms of economic development. This would clearly have a negative impact on its relationships with the various EU member states.

The main document in the strategic programme sets out the development needs for rail from now until 2015 and beyond. The goal is to develop safe, competitive rail transport offering good quality service. This will require completion of the railway reform process that has already begun, full liberalisation of the transport market, development of new products, and integration with the rest of the European network.

Funding proposals

Several key strands in the strategy have already been confirmed. Objectives and parameters have been set out for each element of the investment programme, together with proposed funding sources and the results that are expected. Total cost of the reform and modernisation packages amounts to €4·9bn, equivalent to €545m a year from now until 2015. Private investors are expected to contribute €1·2bn, with international funding sources providing €2·2bn. Around €1·5bn will come from the national budget.

A fundamental tenet of the programme is the introduction of full liberalisation on the 4318 route-km network managed by the national rail infrastructure company NRIC, as envisaged by the European Commission's directives applicable in the EU. This will include access by non-Bulgarian operators to the rail network from 2007. Closely allied to this will be modernisation of the network to give a degree of interoperability. Provision will also be made for leasing out sections of the network to concessionaires who could form joint ventures or joint stock companies with foreign partners.

Segmenting the market

Major change is envisaged with the launch of a separate company devoted to passenger traffic. This would have its own rolling stock fleet and locomotives.Separate businesses would run international services and domestic inter-city services on a commercial basis, while commuter and regional services would be funded with the help of grants from national government and regional or municipal administrations.

Linked to this development is a review of products and services. At the moment express trains make frequent stops and operate at relatively low average speeds, while service quality and comfort leave much to be desired. Ordinary fast trains do not have competitive schedules, while commuter and regional trains do not run at sufficiently frequent intervals and use outdated rolling stock. In future the intention is to have products that meet specified criteria for each type of service.

International overnight services will be high-quality EuroNight trains meeting UIC specifications, with day services to Wien qualifying for EuroCity standard from 2007 and to München via Beograd by 2015. Traffic is likely to grow significantly following construction of a bridge over the River Danube at Vidin creating a more direct link into Romania.

One daytime and one overnight train would run to each of the Balkan capitals, and there are plans to develop services and increase rail's market share of the seasonal tourist trade to and from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

If these plans come to fruition, BDZ-EAD envisages that passenger traffic will increase by 4·9 million in 2007 and by 7 million in 2015, translating into an extra 470 million passenger-km in 2007 and 560 million in 2015. To achieve this train-km will need to rise by 3·85 million in 2007 and by a further 1·75 million in 2012. This should help to ensure that the existing market share is retained.

Freight plans

Proposals call for a substantial increase in the volume of freight traffic by 2015. To achieve this, the existing freight business will have to be dramatically overhauled, with new routes and innovative products, including shuttle services and block trains. These changes will be introduced first on the Sofia - Plovdiv - Burgas and Sofia - Gorna Orjahovitza - Varna corridors.

Service quality agreements will include guarantees that consignments are delivered within 24 or 48h, and trains will run to a fixed timetable. Market pricing will be introduced, with preferential rates offered to attract new business, especially with logistics services.

Plans call for rolling motorway services to be launched on international and domestic routes during 2006. The first would run from Svilengrad into Serbia and Montenegro, and through Hungary to Wels in Austria; a pilot service will start by the end of March.

Later, rolling motorway services will be commence on a route from Svilengrad to Ruse and then north into Romania. Plans also call for block container trains to be introduced on routes from Sofia to the Black Sea ports of Varna and Burgas.

Once these services are up and running, about 10 to 15% of the lorries currently crossing the Bulgarian border at Kalotina, Kulata, Vidin and Ruse bound to or from Varna and Burgas are expected to switch to rail.

Productivity to rise

Modern information systems and asset management technology will be developed and introduced in each market segment at a cost of €10m. This will lead to productivity improvements, and by 2007 there will be 950 fewer staff on the payroll. The expectation is a 15% rise in staff productivity, measured in tonne-km per employee. Further reductions in staff are expected by 2015.

More line closures and withdrawal of loss-making lightly-used services look inevitable, with 320 km likely to be closed and passenger services to be withdrawn from 1200 route-km. Closing 42 stations by 2015 will cut costs by €6·5m a year. Around 700 jobs will go at BDZ-EAD and 950 at NRIC by 2007. Further savings will come from the elimination of 145 staffed level crossings.

Pan-European corridors

As much as €1854m has been earmarked for investment related to completion of the Pan-European corridors across Bulgaria, helping to form a landbridge linking Western and Central Europe with the Middle East and Asia. This is expected to lead to a surge in the volume of rail transit traffic, and estimates suggest that tonnage in 2015 could be double that carried in 2001.

As part of the programme, 40 computer-based interlockings are to be installed, and the use of train radio extended. More significantly, electrification of 350 route-km will permit heavier trains and ensure better use of the existing electric traction fleet.

In parallel, rehabilitation of 1450 km of the main network not forming part of the Pan-European corridors is planned over a period of at least seven years. This will include upgrading of traction power supplies and track, allowing speeds to be increased and safety improved.

* Krasimir Krastanov is a PhD student, holding an MSc in engineering from the University of Transport in Sofia. He can be contacted at krasi_krastanov@yahoo.com

  • CAPTION: Passenger traffic will be revitalised with segmentation of the market so that inter-city services can be operated profitably
  • CAPTION: Improvements planned for commuter services should contribute to BDZ-EAD carrying many more passengers in 2007
  • CAPTION: Major changes are envisaged in the freight business with the launch of block container trains and rolling motorway services

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