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The tracks to nowhere

November 14, 2013 - Steve Murch
When I'm driving and cross a railroad track, I generally look one way or the other because it's not normally a view we see. There is the sense of “what is around that bend” that is part of a general curiosity humans have. We are explorers by nature, and we want to know what is out of sight or unknown.

Maybe that's part of my interest in looking down the tracks — trains can take us to the spots we want to see. I've never ridden a train for any great length, never wanted to be a train conductor nor collected trains, but still find them interesting modes of transportation. I've always been a guy who liked the journey as opposed to the destination. What is there along that way, and why do people live where they do instead of somewhere else?

I also have an interest in geography, economics, history and social sciences. So, right in my wheelhouse was an Associated Press story about high-speed trains in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Eight years ago, the country purchased a fleet of high-speed trains from Spain as part of its hoped-for rebirth following a bitter war. Unfortunately, those trains haven't been used and are sitting in Sarajevo, parked there since their arrival.

Several factors are involved, but all of them lead to one overriding issue — the tracks aren't good enough. Here's a country that wanted to move past its civil war and move its people forward. Yet, poor planning and foresight, bad economic decisions, and myriad other factors have caused the country to remain in poverty and struggle.

We probably are safe in betting that Bosniaks also look at the railroad tracks and wonder what is around the bend. They probably have a different reason, one that might be “will these tracks help me get to somewhere else, to a better life.”

The entire AP story is below.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — They were seen as a shining example of Bosnia's rebirth from war: a fleet of high-speed trains built-to-order in the West. Eight years later, they haven't made a single ride.

The reason: They're just too fast for Bosnia's 60-year-old rails.

"It's as if you bought nine Ferraris and ... no roads to drive them on," said Samir Kadric, an official with the publicly-owned railway company that bought the trains.

The saga of the trains captures some of the bitter ironies of this war-scarred nation that remains mired in poverty and strife. The nine super-fast trains that Bosnia bought from Spain for 67.5 million euros ($90 million) pack a maximum speed of 240 kilometers per hour (150 mph) — but they have been parked at a side track in Sarajevo since they arrived from the factory of Spain's Talgo company.

Meanwhile, passengers ride trains that are 40 years old, running at a maximum speed of 70 kilometers per hour (45 mph) — and pay back the loans for the high-speed trains through taxes.

The purchase "turned out to be a mistake," admits Kadric. Not only are the tracks too old to handle the trains, he explained, there's no money to maintain them, meaning they just decay as they sit idle.

Before Bosnia's 1992-95 Civil War, trains here ran faster and were more frequent than they are now, two decades later. That's partly because of wartime destruction that exceeds one billion euro ($1.35 billion), with only a third of that sum having gone so far into reconstruction.

Bosnia also came out of the war ethnically divided into two autonomous regions — one dominated by Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats. Each region accordingly runs its own part of the railway network. So as trains cross different regions, they must also change engine and crew, which slows them down further.

Kadric's Bosnian-Croat railway company is split between a train operator and a track operator, which goes to the root of why there are new trains without new tracks.

The train operator bought the high-speed fleet in hopes the infrastructure would follow suit. But the Bosnian-Croat regional government never came up with the 300 million euro ($400 million) the track operator needed to invest in new rails able to handle high-speed cars.

The few repairs that have been made have only made things more complicated: Tracks in some areas match EU standards while others use equipment 140 years old, as workers light the way with gas lamps.

"Whoever ordered those trains should have asked himself where we will drive them?" said passenger Elvedin Gazic. "Whoever was giving money for this — our money — should have had some common sense or ask someone who knows."

Nobody has been held responsible so far for the mismanagement.

Like all other public companies, Bosnia's divided state railway companies have been used by the political elite to maintain social stability by employing unneeded workers.

But the job largesse stagnates wages and saps funds from maintenance. This year, Bosnian Serb railway workers went on strike for 44 days because of low wages and equipment they say is falling apart.

The current management of the railways is focused on damage control: It hopes to rent the nine Talgo trains to Turkey so at least the vehicles pay themselves off.

 
 

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