The expressions of immense happiness when we await someone close, the goodbyes said through tears with those that are traveling far away, sending people in the army or to studies abroad, the kisses, the hugs, the laughter, cannot be seen anymore at the platforms of one of the biggest railway stations in the Balkans.
At the Railway station in Skopje, not many farewells can be seen for departures for shopping travels to Trieste or Thessaloniki or on a vacation in Split or Bar. All of these places are connected by the train as a means of transportation and past habits of Macedonian citizens to travel with it.
The data provided by the State Bureau of Statistics showcase an enormous decrease by 12 times the number of travelers in 2018 compared to the ’80s of the previous century.
Last year, the train was used by 540.000 passengers, which is around 40.000 more compared to 2017. But, these numbers are much less than three decades ago when by train traveled approximately 5 to 7 million passengers annually. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia marked the end of the railway’s golden age.
Old trains and bad hygiene
Starting from 1992, the Railway of North Macedonia has had under 2 million passengers annually, due to which the company still cannot recover from on its feet to this day. An additional worsening of the situation can be noticed in the last 6 years when the number of citizens traveling by train has fallen to less than a million.
The low cost of airline tickets for travels abroad along with the rise of the number of cars in the country, the rise of illegal taxi drivers who took over the intercity traffic and the insufficient servicing of the trains have contributed to the fall of the interest for traveling by train.
Regular poll research regarding the passengers’ rights that are conducted by the Agency for Regulating the Railway Sector, show that the citizens have a large number of complaints about the use of the train as a transportation mean. The last annual report about this agency work in 2017 states that the passengers mostly complain about the old trains, the small number of wagons and the bad hygiene.
The citizens demand the introduction of purchasing the train tickets electronically, to be able to make ticket reservations several days before the travel and the access of wireless internet on the same trains and the railway stations.
–Among the most important things that would encourage the examinees to use railway transportation are hygiene, punctuality, speed, and comfort – stress the Agency for Regulation of the Railway Sector.
The average assessment of the standards of service quality during traveling by train in the country for 2017 was 2.62. The citizens’ assessment between sufficient and good almost coincides with the experts’ opinion on the same subject.
-The small number of passenger trains that are traversing the railroad lines in this country is one of the reasons for the minor scope of passenger train transportation – said prof. Zoran Krautovski at the Constructions faculty.
Professor Krautovski stresses that many actions will have to be done in order to prevent the outflow of passengers using the railroad. For eg. the ticket tariff will have to be changed aka its fixed prices. Citizens who will purchase tickets earlier should pay less and the passenger who will purchase a ticket in the last moment before a half-empty train leaves the station should pay the cheapest ticket.
Among other measures, he suggests the possibilities of introducing a coordinated timetable of trains and public transportation in the larger cities, setting points for renting bikes at the railway stations and allowing transportation of bikes on trains. It is very important to combine the railway and the public transportation with one ticket, with which the citizens will not have to pay twice in order to reach their destination.
Only one train daily from Skopje to Kichevo
The current timelines at the Bus station Skopje and the Railway station showcase that the train is traveling the same distance almost as the same as the bus, and sometimes even faster than the bus, from the cities that are connected by railroad with the capitol. The train from Skopje will reach Kichevo in 2 hours and 4 minutes while the busses will take from 2.02 to 2.45 hours in order to traverse this distance. The distances between Skopje and Bitola, Gevgelija, Veles, and other cities are identical.
Still, what diverts citizens away from traveling by train is the number of departures from Skopje. Between Skopje and Kichevo only one train is traversing on a daily basis while during the workweek there are 19 busses. Also, Skopje and Bitola are connected by 4 trains daily, out of which only 3 are working. On the other hand, the passengers between these two cities can travel with 13 buses daily. The small number of departures of trains is decreasing the number of transferred passengers using this type of transportation.
Actually, today, one can travel abroad by train from the Macedonian capital only to Prishtina , while the international train towards Belgrade and Thessaloniki is active during the summer period. This state of the railroad in our country arrives in a period when the neighboring countries such as Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria are already building fast rails and are planning to introduce superfast trains between Belgrade and Budapest, Thessaloniki and Athens, including Sofia and Plovdiv.
Empty stations and financial debts
The dying out of the transportation is contributing to the decrease of the usage of the railway station in Skopje, that is empty and is waiting for the authorities to think about its enormous potential. The experts are stressing that this object should be put into use in order to enliven the railway especially due to the fact that in many European countries there is a speeded development of the train traveling to shorter destinations. In Macedonian conditions, that would mean the introduction of more local trains between Skopje and Veles, Tetovo and Kumanovo, but also putting into function the intercity and suburbia railway that would encompass the introduction of a direct train to the International Airport Skopje.
When suggested to increase the number of departures of trains, the Railways of North Macedonia – Transport stated that there is a lack of locomotives with wagons that could be used for this purpose.
-It is a fact that the number of relations (departers from and to Skopje) depends on the available rolling stock – stresses the state railway company.
The Railway of the Republic of North Macedonia – Transport in its documents that it is preparing each year it stresses constantly that the state should invest more assets in its development. The government already informed that until 2019 it plans a “financial injection” of almost 7 million euros to cover the losses in the railway passenger traffic while last year it invested 6.7 million euros from the state budget for the same purpose.
Still, the national railway’s business plan for 2018 shows that the government’s subventions aren’t even close enough to cover the annual costs for maintenance of the railway passenger traffic. Last year’s revenues from the passenger traffic were expected to be 7.8 million euros including the approved subventions from the government for this purpose. But the total expenditures were projected to over 14.4 million euros where a loss was expected to be in the amount of 6.6 million euros.
The insufficient assets that the railway is receiving only increases its debt what, according to the last calculations done by the Ministry of Finance, is around 45 million euros.
– For a more efficient operating of the passenger traffic, a bigger participation of the state is needed without which the company will not be able to achieve any gains – stress the North Macedonia Railways – Transport for its business plan for the year of 2018.
Throwing rocks at our trains
Apart from the necessary assets for covering losses, for a significant increase of the railway passenger traffic, it is necessary to renew the rolling stock. The state railway company states that they have 6 new motor compositions from Chila at their disposal, including 1 older diesel motor composition and 11 passenger wagons that can travel with a locomotive. With such rolling stock, the railway could only maintain the current timetable, but not to introduce additional departures in the passenger traffic.
The worsening of the condition of the everyday operations is also caused by stoning of the trains and setting obstacles on the railroad tracks, that are discouraging the passengers to travel by train and are additionally damaging the rolling stock.
In the period until 2020, the national railway company plans to invest in modernizationa nd reconstruction of 3 defect motor compositions, including 12 passenger wagons. For the renewal of the broken rolling stock in the period between 2018 and 2020, 4.9 million euros were planned to be invested but in order to accomplish this plan it is necessary for the financial condition of the company to be improved including the improvement of the offer and more efficient working and a help from the state.
In order to illustrate this, the planned revenues from the ticket sales in 2018 were 810.000 euros, which is approximately 10% of the total revenues from the passenger traffic and this amount is not enough to cover even basic operational costs.
The enormous fall of the traveling by train in North Macedonia can best be illustrated if a comparison is made with the situation in Montenegro. This country has 3.5 times fewer citizens, and 4 times fewer railway tracks length compared with our country. Yet, the data provided by the Montenegrin Statistic Bureau “MONSTAT” stress that in 2018, in Monte Negro 992.000 passengers have traveled by train, which is almost twice more compared to our country.
Instead of increasing the attractiveness of the option to travel by train, the last published report of the Agency for Regulating the Railway Sector’s operations, it states that people who use trains these days are those who are forced to use this mode of transportation.
-Passengers who are using the railway, state that the first condition and a priority for them are the economic aspects and the low costs for this type of transportation – states the report.
During work days, the train is used mostly by the able-bodied population while during the weekends only pupils and students are taking over the primacy in the wagons. At the same time, the citizens of Veles and Skopje are those who use the trains mostly and this has resulted in the biggest number of departures between these two cities.
The experts are warning that the dying out of the railway passenger transportation is very easy to accomplish but the return of the trust of the clients afterward would be extremely difficult to establish again.
-If the people lose the habit to use a certain transportation system or a travel route, after that it will be very difficult to attract them again – said Krakutovski who stresses that we have to study the positive experiences from the developed countries and then to apply them as ideas for the development of the railway passenger traffic.
Author: Bojan Blazhevski