INTRO: Europe’s newest state railway authority has inherited a network in poor condition owing to deferred maintenance of infrastructure and rolling stock. Some EU funding has been agreed for signalling renewal, but Ljubinko Dedovic* suggests that much more investment will be required

ON JANUARY 1 2003 Montenegrin Railways came into existence, with the division of the former Yugoslav Railways network into separate companies in Serbia and Montenegro. Zeleznice Crne Gore (ZCG) has spent the past six months assessing the condition of its inheritance, and the picture is not good. A long-term shortage of funds for maintenance or investment in modernisation has led to a high degree of technical obsolescence.

Railways came late to Montenegro. The first route was a 43 km narrow-gauge line from Bar to Virpazar, built by an Italian company in 1908. The standard-gauge line from the capital Podgorica to Bar was not completed until 1959, and the route into Albania was built by Yugoslav Railways as recently as the 1980s.

Total length of the ZCG network within Montenegro today is 329·5track-km, comprising 250route-km of main line and 79 km of station tracks. The entire standard-gauge network is single track, and only the Beograd - Bar line is electrified. Only 16 route-km is cleared for operation at 80 to 100 km/h, and on 56 km the maximum speed is just 60 km/h. None of the network is able to support operations at more than 100 km/h, which is what the market now demands. Similarly, on about one-quarter of the network axleloads are limited to 18 tonnes, against an international standard of 22·5 tonnes. Lack of funding for major renewals, and the deferring of routine maintenance, mean that track, signalling, telecommunications and the overhead line equipment are all showing signs of obsolescence.

Difficult terrain

The Montenegrin rail network operates though very hilly terrain, with a high proportion of bridges and tunnels. Total length of the 121 tunnels is 58 km, which is almost 20% of the entire network. There are over 550 bridges, of which the 122 largest have a combined length of 8·8 km. Maintenance costs are high, and some bridges require regular attention because of geological conditions which cause them to slip. Such repairs must be done quickly at short notice, and this can be very expensive.

All routes have been disrupted by landslides and avalanches, especially in the winter months. Over the next few years ZCG plans to build a number of artificial tunnels, regrade dangerous slopes, and install landslip warning signals to improve the safety and reliability of operations.

The very poor condition of much of the infrastructure means that it is becoming difficult to guarantee regular, economical and safe operations. The Niksic - Podgorica route is particularly bad, and even the Vrbnica - Bar main line is quite unsatisfactory. As a result of the poor state of the signalling and telecommunications equipment, traffic delays are almost a daily occurrence. Emergency repairs are frequently needed, but there is a continual shortage of spare parts.

On the electrified main line between Vrbnica and Bar, the average age of the signalling and telecommunications equipment is around 27 years. Most equipment on the non-electrified Niksic - Podgorica line is more than 40 years old, whilst the signalling on the line from Podgorica to the Albanian border has not been touched in the 18 years since the line was built.

Many of the buildings inherited by ZCG are also in a poor condition - stations, freight depots, workshops and equipment rooms. If they are to be made fit for further use, it is vital that repairs and technical upgrading get underway quickly.

Main line in decay

As part of the trunk route from the Adriatic coast to Beograd, the 169 km ZCG main line from Bar to Vrbnica forms a key component in the trans-European network. It is vitally important to both Montenegro and Serbia, as the principal link between the two countries.

Unfortunately, this significance is not reflected in its condition, which is certainly not adequate to meet today’s requirements. Top speed on the Montenegrin section is 75 km/h for passenger services and 60 km/h for freight, although the route can accommodate the European standard 22·5 tonne axleloads. It is 27 years since the line was electrified, and little effort has been made to keep the route up to modern standards. Indeed, the lack of regular maintenance and long-term neglect has seriously weakened its ability to perform.

It is essential that efforts are made over the next few years to revitalise the whole Beograd - Bar corridor, because of its economic significance for both Serbia and Montenegro, and its wider role in the Balkan region.

The 56·5 km Niksic - Podgorica line is probably in the worst condition. Services may have to be suspended unless repair work can begin very soon, although closing the line would have serious negative consequences for the local economy. Even the most rudimentary maintenance has been deferred for the past 15 years. As a result, train speeds are now limited to 30 km/h, and the maximum axleload has been cut to 18 tonnes.

The only alternative to repairing the railway would be the construction of a new road between Niksic and Podgorica, which would probably cost more than upgrading the railway. It would have a negative environmental impact, and would increase reliance on expensive imported fuel, which cannot be in the long-term interest of Montenegro’s economic development.

Ironically, the section of ZCG’s network in the best condition is the line that sees the least use. The 25 km Montenegrin section of the international route from Podgorica to Shkod