On the 2nd of March 2014, with much ado, in front of numerous TV cameras, the reconstruction of the railway line Kumanovo – Beljakovce started, as the first phase of the project for the construction of the railway line to Bulgaria. The start of the building of the railway line in its length of 30.8 km was announced by the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who then revealed many ambitious plans about the development of the railway infrastructure.

“If other projects that were accomplished or are under construction or will be realized in the next several years are taken into account, the investments into railway infrastructure are close to 1.5 billion EUR,” said Nikola Gruevski on the 2nd of March 2014.

Since then, several governments changed – the cabinets led by Nikola Gruevski, Emil Dimitriev, the first government led by Zoran Zaev, the technical government led by Oliver Spasovski, and now the current government led by Zaev – and yet, the railway line between Kumanovo and Beljakovce is still under construction. The investments of 1.5 billion EUR into the railroad infrastructure from today’s perspective seem like a joke.

What is the progress of the first phase of the construction of the railway line to Bulgaria?

The previous contractor for the construction of the railway line from Kumanovo to Beljakovce has started the works that were planned in this project, but it can be stated that much was started, but nothing completed. Most of the groundwork, the channels under the main future line, including the many local road underpasses had been completed. Still, the protections of the slopes are yet to be finished, including the majority of the drainage channels. The upper surfacing of the railroad tracks (threshold, railway tracks) are in place at around 6km of the future line, informed EPTISA Makedonija company. They are tasked with the supervision of the construction works at the railway line and are part of the multinational Spanish company EPTISA, which is specialized in construction projects such as this one.

The objects from the lower surfacing (the foundations and the pillars) have been built at the majority of overpasses, underpasses, and bridges. Bearers for all the overpasses have been built but haven’t been put in place, and what remains is for all bearers for underpasses to be built including the bridge over Pchinja river and the upper surfacing for most of the objects to be finished. The only tunnel that is of this project has been finished. The high construction structures, the station buildings, warehouses, signaling rooms and the telecommunication facilities have been finished up to a shell construction.

“In accordance with the progress reports that are submitted to us as employers by the supervising engineer, 55% of the physical works in the field have been accomplished. The contractor has started all construction works planned with the project, but they were not completed,” informed the investor, PE NRM’s Railroads – Infrastructure about the current building phase of the railroad line Kumanovo – Beljakovce.

The German company Wiebe, as the former subcontractor of the railway line, on the 29th of May 2020 submitted a notification to the investor about the termination of the agreement and this caused the building of this infrastructural project to stop and the machinery and the material from the construction sites were withdrawn. With this outcome, the supervision of the construction works at the moment is preparing the resume of all works finished, and this will be followed by new tender documentation and call for a tender for the selection of a new contractor that will finish the building of the railway line.

“During this critical period for the whole project, the Supervision’s efforts are directed towards finishing the activities and meeting the obligations that follow in a situation when the construction agreement has been terminated,” stated EPTISA Macedonia.

The company which is supervising the building of the railway line between Kumanovo – Beljakovce explained that the set deadline for finishing this project was breached twice. The first deadline was set for the 15th of September 2017 when the constructor (German company Wiebe) has filed a request for the deadline to be extended until the 20th of February 2020. It also demanded compensation for damages, based on certain conditions that have contributed to delays in the construction works.

“The main problem occurred due to unplanned (additional) works when an additional expropriation was necessary and for that, additional time was required. This was one of the reasons why the deadline was extended for 20.02.2020,” explained EPTISA Macedonia.

The supervisor says that during the summer of 2018 both parties have started negotiations for an extension of the construction works deadline.

“The Supervision has made its evaluation based on the principles that were discussed and negotiated by both parties in order to come up with a compromise and mutually acceptable solution, as well as to set a new contractual basis for the successful accomplishment of the Project by signing an annex to the agreement for construction works with a new deadline until the 20th of February 2020 and a compensation (33.93% of the amount that was requested by the contractor,” said EPTISA Macedonia.

EPTISA Macedonia informed that before the second deadline expired, the contractor of the railroad line, on the 20.12.2019 has filed a new request for an extension of the deadline for finishing the construction works until 06.04.2021 and a new compensation. The Supervision has analyzed the new request on part of the contractor and has determined that the contractor has failed to demonstrate and prove it has a right to extend the deadline for finishing the construction works until the 6th of April 2021 and a right for compensation. The request was rejected as unfounded in accordance with the agreement.

“During the building of the railroad line, a need arose to accomplish unplanned and additional works in order to finish the railroad line, which as a result increased the scope of work. On the other hand, the contractor wasn’t able, due to lack of resources (machines and personnel) to finish the works within a reasonable and real deadline,” explained the Supervisor.

The PE for Railroad Infrastructure confirmed this information also stated that the most important moment that influenced the possibilities for successful and timely implementation of the agreement for construction works was the contractor’s weak technical and personnel capacities and its lack of engagement in the accomplishment of the construction activities on the field compared to the planned dynamics.

“The need to accomplish unplanned and additional works that imposed themselves during the building process of this railroad line referred generally to mistakes in the technical documentation. These were successfully corrected and solved with an annex to the agreement for construction works, protective and safety measures for the population that lives near the construction yard, additional protective measures for the archaeological locations,” said the PE for Railroad Infrastructure for Meta.mk.

Meta.mk contacted the other side for an official statement i.e. Wiebe company which was contacted four times by sending them questions through e-mail on their reasons to terminate the agreement and withdraw from the building of the project. The first mail was sent on the 19th of June and the last on the 23rd of July, but we didn’t receive any answer to our questions.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications in a statement for Meta.mk stressed that the RNM’s Government and its ministry expect from the PE for Railroad Infrastructure in the shortest time possible to prepare all of the documents necessary for publishing a new procedure for the selection of a contractor and supervisor for the Kumanovo – Beljakovce railway line.

The PE which is the project’s investor said that the building of the project’s first phase for a railway connection with Bulgaria will continue next year.

“Taking into account the procedures and the usual time frame of the international calls for the selection of a contractor, the continuation of the building of the railroad line between Kumanovo and Beljakovce is expected to start during 2021,” informs the PE RNM’s Railroads – Infrastructure.

There are no problems with the second and the third phase of the railroad to Bulgaria

While the construction works have reached an obstacle during the completion of the first phase of this project, at the moment, the deadlines for the selection of a contractor that will build the section from Beljakovce to Kriva Palanka in the length of 33.9 km are still far. During the second phase of the international tender, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has selected eight companies, which entered the race for the selection of a contractor of the railway line to Kriva Palanka. If the procedure for the selection of a contractor is accomplished as planned, the building of the railway line between Beljakovce – Kriva Palanka would start towards the end of the current year or at the start of 2021.

Unfinished pillars of the railroad line between Beljakovce and Kriva Palanka close to Kratovo

“The pause in the construction works during the first phase of the Kumanovo – Beljakovce section until a new contractor is selected will not influence the start of the construction works in the second phase of the Beljakovce-Kriva Palanka section. The construction works can continue parallel at both railway sections with the initial focus on the building of structures in the second phase,” explained the PE for Railroad Infrastructure.

And the third and most complex section of the railway to Bulgarian with a length of 23.4 km, as in the moment, it is in a phase of preparation of tender documentation for the selection of a contractor and supervisor. The railway from Kriva Palanka to the border crossing Deve Bair will cost over 350 million EUR, and so far 60 million EUR of non-refundable aid from the European Union has arrived. The project documentation for the building of the third phase has been completed.

The economic growth is hindered by the delays in the building of capital projects

Despite the conviction of state authorities that the project for the building of the railway line to Bulgaria is implemented without obstacles and that only the first phase is facing obstacles, the experts strive for evalution of the effects of the loaned assets for this project.

“The borrowing itself is not a problem but the assets should be used rationally and productively, thus creating basis for presumptions that because of these investments the economy will be growing faster in the future and it will create preconditions for easier repayment of the debts. Consequently, the evaluations that some of the assets were borrowed cheaply is simply not true, if those assets are stuck, as is the case with the railroad line to Bulgaria,” explained Finance Think for Meta.mk.

The Finance Think calculations indicate that the investments in the hard infrastructure – the road and railway – with the scope of around 5% of the GDP have the potential to increase the economy’s growth rate by 1 percentage point and if the efficiency of the implementation of the investments is increased (a better prioritization, the narrow points are quickly passed, etc) then this effect can be increased, as well.

“Practically, the railway to Bulgaria is a significant segment in the Corridor 8 that is connecting the Adriatic with the Black Sea. Its economic significance is big, not only for the connection of the countries through which it will pass through, but for the trading connection of these countries with the rest of the world. In that sense, the investment in railroad connecting as part of the Corridor 8 probably has an even larger multiplicative effect for Macedonia compared to other road and railroad investments,” Finance Think remarks.

But this doesn’t refer only for the whole Corridor 8 or the railway to Bulgaria, but the finishing of the Kumanovo- Beljakovce railway line could contribute to the development of the railway transport in the Kumanovo region. The municipality of Kumanovo is the biggest local self-government in the state with over 100.000 inhabitants and is located 40 km from the capital. Corridors 8 and 10 merge in this municipality and with its location, the building of Corridor 8 can only contribute to faster economic growth for Kumanovo and a better life for its citizens.

Despite this, the current data show a minor use of railway transport in the Kumanovo region. The railroad line between Kumanovo and Beljakovce was functional until the start of the ’90s. At the moment, the passenger railroad traffic in Kumanovo is used by only 3.000 passengers annuall,y even though according to all European standards, this city could have been connected with Skopje with a city-suburban railroad. The data provided by the State Statistical Office show that during 2018 only 48.971 tons of goods were transported from the Kumanovo railway station.

The main reason for the extremely low use of the railroad is the fact that the main railway station in Kumanovo is located 4 km outside the city, in the Cherkesko Selo. If the building of the Kumanovo-Beljakovce section was finished, the railway line would be passing less than a kilometer from Kumanovo’s city center. With a finished first phase of the railroad to Bulgaria project, Kumanovo would gain an additional, second railway station in the city (Kumanovo – novo) including two new stops near the Lopate village and the Pero Chicho suburb.

The new railway line that will pass around the city on the northern side could secure many more passengers using the train in the intercity traffic between Skopje and Kumanovo, including the development of the industrial zone in Kumanovo. Despite these real benefits that the city would have, so far there is no firm deadline when the first train will run on the Kumanovo – Beljanovce railway line and what is even less known is when the same train might reach the Macedonian- Bulgarian border.