This article was updated on Wednesday 28 November, to reflect comments and advice received after its initial publication on 23 November. We have included additional material on the cancellation of international services from Serbia and Hungary to Bosnia which transit Croatian territory. We are particularly grateful to David Turpie, a member of the team at Thomas Cook Publishing which compiles the European Rail Timetable, for drawing our attention to these issues.
Here is a little tale of how railways rate in the mindset of some economists. Croatia is a country with relatively low levels of car ownership (at least compared with many European countries), and a decent rail network. True, that rail network suffers from a legacy of historic underinvestment and the efficiency of the network is not helped by the shape of the country.
The Croatian economy is in bad shape, not helped by recession in the Eurozone countries that are Croatia’s principal trading partners. The country is gearing up to join the European Union (EU) next year, and the EU is pressing Croatia to implement structural reforms in inefficient state-owned industries. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been pressing a similar agenda, encouraging the Zagreb government to trim expenditure in all but essential public services. A comprehensive IMF review of the Croatian economy, just published last week, emphasised downside risks and the need for further fiscal consolidation.
In a sensible world, a country’s passenger rail infrastructure might reasonably be judged as a national asset. And running trains on that network might be deemed a worthwhile public service. But Croatia has deferred so totally to the economic pieties dictated by the IMF and the EU that it is now scrapping many train services. The cuts come on the second weekend of December, when many European countries — including Croatia and her neighbours — introduce new train timetables.
The axe falls particularly harshly on international links from Croatia. The accountants at Hrvatske Zeljeznice (Croatian Railways or HZ for short) incline to the view that a train running on a foreign railway might better be deployed on home territory (or, even better, left at home in a siding). So much for a spirit of internationalism. HZ is cutting key services even to its future EU partners.
The principal train linking Zagreb with Budapest will disappear from the timetables. With a travel time of just over six hours, the Kvarner was hardly a high-speed express, but it has been a mainstay of the international schedules. A slower service will still link Zagreb with the Hungarian capital.
Vienna has for the last twenty years developed into a significant player in the regional economic framework and the Croatian economy has benefitted from inward investment from Austria. No doubt the direct train service from Zagreb to Vienna helped cement business links between the two capitals. From 9 December the fastest train of the day will be axed.
Many other long-standing international links are being scrapped. The useful IC310 morning train from Zagreb to Villach (and the balancing IC311 return service in the afternoon) is being cancelled. Across the shared border of Croatia with Hungary, several local services are being cancelled completely — this is peculiarly perverse as there have been a number of EU initiatives to promote mobility over that very border. The timetable specialists at Thomas Cook Publishing are reporting that from 9 December there will be no rail services at all across two border crossings: Murakeresztúr to Kotoriba and Magyarbóly to Beli Manastir.
Croatia’s future EU partners have not been singled out for particularly savage treatment by the HZ management. The cuts are across the board and apply equally to links from Zagreb to elsewhere within the former territory of Yugoslavia. So from 9 December, the overnight train from Zagreb to Sarajevo (train number 399 southbound and 398 return) slips from the schedules. So too does the direct train from Belgrade to Sarajevo (train number 451 outbound and 450 return). This train relies upon HZ collaboration, as it crosses Croatian territory on its journey from Serbia to Bosnia. It has in recent years been trumpeted as a symbol of peace returning to the central Balkan region. Its cancellation from 9 December is a step backward. We also understand that the evening train from Zagreb to Belgrade (the EC111 Sava) is no longer set to run over the border into Serbia, but will end its journey at Vinkovci in eastern Croatia.
Trains that transit Croatia seem particularly hard hit by the new arrangements. The IC 259 (Drava) from Budapest to Sarajevo (and the 258 return) will cease running after 8 December. This seems like another perverse cancellation. The remote eastern Slavonia region of Croatia (and particularly the city of Osijek) has benefitted from being on an important north-south rail link. No longer!
The new rail schedules for Croatia, and indeed the whole of Europe, will be included in the December 2012 issue of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, which is published on 28 November. That book gives the first opportunity for those outside the rail industry to get a good overview of how the pattern of European rail services will look after the 9 December timetable changes. We hope that officials from the EU and IMF will study the Croatian section of the book with care. It documents the folly of treating railways as liabilities rather than assets.
You can see a preview of major changes to the schedules in the Newslines listing on this website. We are grateful to Brendan Fox and his colleagues in the timetable team at Thomas Cook Publishing for allowing us to show those Newslines listings on the Europe by Rail website.