If you are planning travels through the Balkan region this summer, it is worth bearing in mind that the pattern of rail services has changed radically over recent months. And the changes are not generally for the good.
Croatia is gearing up to join the European Union this summer and rather perversely celebrates its accession to the EU-Club by axing rail services across its frontiers. So much for internationalism and freedom of movement!
Rail links from Croatia
The fastest train of the day from Zagreb to Vienna has been axed. There are now no services on the route from Zagreb to Vienna via Sopron and the sole remaining direct train between the two capitals is the once-daily service via Maribor and Graz.
Many services have been axed in eastern Croatia, among them all trains on the route from Osijek (Croatia) to Pécs (Hungary). The through sleeping cars from Vincovci to Munich have disappeared. While last year there were four trains each day from Zagreb to Belgrade, now there is just one.
Croatia’s evident lack of enthusiasm for trains has international repercussions. Sarajevo is hard hit by the changes. The daily trains from Sarajevo to Belgrade and Budapest both slipped quietly through eastern Croatia en route to their respective destinations, but line closures in Croatia mean that the international services which relied on them have all been cancelled.
This leaves Bosnia decidedly isolated from the rest of Europe’s rail network. Residents of Sarajevo looking to connect to the wider world by train must now rely on a single train — a once-daily train from Sarajevo to Zagreb via Banja Luka.
Greek rail changes
Greece has imposed on itself a measure of isolation. In 2011, it axed all train services across its borders. A limited cross-border service was reinstated at weekends between Macedonia and Greece in July 2012, but that too was dropped after a few weeks. We are not aware of any plans for renewed cross-border trains to or from Greece in 2013.
Rather to our surprise, though, one rail service within Greece has recently been reinstated. Thrice daily InterCity services now link Thessaloniki with Florina.
The Balkan Express
Frequencies have been thinned on the important routes from Budapest to both Belgrade and Zagreb, and the sole daytime train from Belgrade to Sofia (called the Balkan Express) is presently suspended. That leaves just one train each day running from Serbia into Bulgaria. That’s the overnight service linking the two capitals, which is a bit short on creature comforts. By all accounts, it does not have any sleeping cars nowadays, and the only concession to luxury is a single couchette coach.
Whether the Balkan Express will be reinstated is a detail that the relevant railway administrations keep secret. That affection for secrecy has long been a distinctive Balkan talent. Train timetables are hard to come by. They are often aspirational statements rather than definite commitments. We have waited for trains that never came, but elsewhere have been happily surprised to discover a rail link where we thought none existed. It does however make travel in the region all the more interesting.