Athens to Bucharest: Where European railways head next

Wally Iber Bulgaria, a country so small it has a population slightly smaller than the one that lives in Hollywood, decided to improve its transportation system by building the country’s first modern railroad in…

Athens to Bucharest: Where European railways head next

Wally Iber

Bulgaria, a country so small it has a population slightly smaller than the one that lives in Hollywood, decided to improve its transportation system by building the country’s first modern railroad in 1892. The Skanderbeg Chain-Line linking Budapest and the sea had its beginning in Athens and was built with the help of John H. Dalton, the US postal carrier born in Ohio and a leading figure in railroad history.

A century later, the Skanderbeg, built out of field brick in 1920, was transformed into the 1930s-era Skanderbeg Electric Railroad connecting Sofia to the central town of Varna. The plant making the leaded glass had all but vanished by the time Bulgaria broke the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and these underpopulated countries were able to strike out on their own. Bulgaria’s railway system, with only 50 miles of track, must have had serious constraints: as Klebowska points out, the single-lane rail carriages could get stuck when on the curves, leading to derailments.

While Nikola Tesla’s arguments for a “twilight line” connecting Sofia to Moscow were legendary, to this day the idea has not been realized. Nikola Hézić, the head of the Ministry of Transport and a former vice chairman of the country’s Railway Stock Exchange, has hopes that a railway could become a catalyst for a wider network: He has organized a project to upgrade and modernize the section of track near Sofia and plans to propose construction of a new train line, the Odrislava – Brindisi-Kinvara line, the building of a communications hub, an environmental complex, etc. The current price tag for this would be $1.7 billion.

What’s missing is a less expensive solution: although Klebowska estimates that five miles of corridor would be needed for a modern railway, its current infrastructure makes the likelihood of the construction of a new line very remote. “The return potential [of the Skanderbeg Electric Railroad] is really very little,” said Klebowska.

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