By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries—
Chile wasn’t the only subterranean tale this past week. The news that engineers had burrowed through the Gotthard Massif to create a 57 km-long tunnel deep under the Alps was accompanied by plenty of news reports predicting a revolution in European rail transport.
Don’t hold your breath. The first trains will not run through the new Gotthard tunnel for another six years. Clearly, some of the pundits who dubbed the Gotthard route one of the great missing links in Europe’s rail network obviously didn’t quite appreciate that the existing Gotthard tunnel already carries several trains an hour under the Alps. The point about the new tunnel is that it is deeper, longer—and when trains do eventually start using that new route they will be able to travel faster than through the previous tunnel which is now 130 years old.
The main missing links
But the Gotthard story set us thinking about what really are the key missing links in Europe’s rail network. And we have come up with three flights of cartographic fancy, each of which would hugely enhance connectivity. All suggestions are probably utterly impractical and don’t make a shred of economic sense. But wouldn’t it be great if instead of creating yet another tunnel through the Alps, someone would burrow under the Tatra Mountains to link the Polish railhead at Zakopane with the Slovakian rail network at Poprad.
Next up on our wish list would be a railway linking Norway’s two railheads north of the Arctic Circle. A new line along the coast from Bodø to Narvik would be a treat.
Our third fantasy would extend the railway that ends on the coast of Croatia at Ploce south along the coast, thus giving a rail link for the first time to the delectable Adriatic resort of Dubrovnik.
It is interesting that the fine folk who compile the monthly Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable evidently share our thinking on the importance of these missing links as all three of our dream journeys feature as bus routes in their timetable. Buses in a train timetable. Impostors, you might say, but these are three links where even the most devoted rail traveller must resort to road transport.
The Albanian connection
And as we dream, we have another little idea. That line to Dubrovnik might usefully be extended south along the coast into Montenegro and on across the border into Albania. It is a curiosity of Europe’s rail map that the Albanian rail network exists in splendid isolation. Not a single passenger train crosses the country’s borders. Albanian trains are deliciously antiquated and unbelievably cheap. Indeed we judge the 295 lek fare (less than $3) for the train journey from Podradec in the country’s east to the Albanian capital, Tirana, is the finest investment we’ve ever made. There are few more entertaining ways of passing six or seven hours.