After Hours

Planes, trains and automobiles

Since late last year OBB, Austrian railways, has operated a direct service from Cluj in Romania to Vienna. It’s all part of the European Union’s opening up of the continent’s railway networks. The journey takes an hour less than the CFR (Romanian railways) service from Cluj to the Romanian capital Bucharest, despite the route being more than 200 kilometres longer. It’s also cheaper.

Getting around emerging Europe has long been a test of one’s resolve. Although things have improved a little since low-cost airlines began operating in the region a decade or so ago, travelling from point to point within the region can still be tiresome.

For a start, the vast majority of low-cost airlines still focus on highly profitable routes from emerging Europe to the western part of the continent. There are few flights which link cities within the region. Getting from Sofia to Vilnius, or from Warsaw to Yerevan for example usually requires a layover, and journeys often begin with a flight going in entirely the wrong direction. This is not conducive to inter-regional cooperation, business or tourism.

Trains should be a cheaper, if not quicker alternative, but across the region these are by and large not an option, at least if you are in anything resembling a hurry. Almost every country in emerging Europe has neglected its railway network for far too long. Journey times in some places are slower now than they were two decades ago. The shortest route by train from Bucharest to Kyiv for example takes 30 hours and requires a change of train in Chișinău. Less than 20 years ago the trip could be done in 26 hours, with no need for a change of train.

A lack of direct flights and express train services would not be such a huge problem if the region’s roads were not in such appalling shape. Unfortunately, motorways are few and far between and driving anywhere in emerging Europe (with a few notable exceptions, such as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and parts of Poland) is a test of patience and nerves. Besides, we should be discouraging people from driving long distances at all. Alas, until the train is a viable option this is merely wishful thinking.

For the sake of the region, both economically and environmentally, emerging Europe needs to invest heavily in its railways in the coming years. Governments do at least appear to be aware of this, but railways are invariably a low priority and as a result have to make do with little investment – if indeed there is any money for investment at all. In most places, railway operators have to make do with scraps that are barely enough to cover maintenance costs. Accidents are common, delays caused by outdated locomotives and decrepit infrastructure frequent.

OBB’s new Cluj-Vienna route is a small step in the right direction, but even here the trains – which will be composed of modern, Austrian rolling stock – will have to run on Romania’s appallingly maintained (and as such slow) tracks until they reach the Hungarian border.

It’s time for emerging Europe’s governments to make upgrading their railways a priority. Until they do, those of us who travel frequently across the region will need to continue having the patience of saints.