THE growing investment in rail in the Balkans has been highlighted by the Connecting Europe Express, which passed through a number of countries in the region last week as part of its journey across Europe.

Speaking while visiting the train as it arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, on September 13, Serbian prime minister, Ms Ana Brnabic, said her country’s goal was to completely modernise its rail network and connect with its neighbouring countries and the wider European Union (EU) by rail. Brnabic said Serbia has more than €6bn in rail projects planned on top of the more than €600m spent on rail since 2014, and added that the country aims to promote rail as the primary mode of transport for both passengers and freight.

Planning is underway on projects including the Nis - Dimitrovgrad and Subotica - Szeged lines, as well as the Pancevo - Vrsac - Romanian border and Valjevo - Vrbnica projects.

“We are actively working on project documentation for the high-speed railway from Belgrade to Nis, which will be largely financed through EU grants,” she says.

Brnabic received the Connecting Europe Express at Belgrade Central Station, with the train’s arrival coinciding with the start of the Western Balkans 2021 Rail Summit in Belgrade. The train was also welcomed by minister of construction, transport and infrastructure, Mr Tomislav Momirovic and deputy director general of the sector for Mobility and Transport in the European Commission, Ms Maja Bakran Marcic.

The summit, which was opened by Mr Matej Zakonjšek, director of the Transport Community Treaty Permanent Secretariat, focussed on both projects and financing along with rail policy and operations in the region.

“Adequate financing of rail projects is a priority for the Western Balkans,” says Community of European Railway (CER) executive director, Mr Alberto Mazzola. “In fact, an efficient rail system in the region will enable central Europe to be better connected via rail to potentially very important commercial partners, such as Turkey and the Middle East. We must take all opportunities to remind the EU institutions that the TEN-T network should also include the Balkan route.”

This was echoed by Bulgaria’s minister of transport, information technology and communication, Mr Hristo Alexiev, as the Connecting Europe Express stopped in Sofia, Bulgaria, on September 16 after also travelling through North Macedonia and Greece.

“Currently, railway projects worth Lev 3bn ($US 1.79bn) are being implemented with European funding,” he says. “In the last 15 years we have made great efforts and implemented huge investments in the railway infrastructure, and our main goal remains the completion of the main European corridors passing through the country.”

Alexiev said there was an emphasis on developing intermodal freight traffic, as this would guarantee better conditions and more competitive prices for the transport service, which would benefit the economy.

“Digitalisation in the railway sector is another aspect of our work that has serious potential, and we must accelerate the transformation of railways into modern innovative enterprises,” he says.

On September 23, the Connecting Europe Express is due to stop in Kraków, Poland, after a 1520mm-gauge version completed its journey through the Baltic states. The train can be tracked in real time here.