Monday, July 19, 2010

AFP: Romania's rail transport victim of neglect

18 July 2010

(BUCHAREST) - Romania used to have one of the most extended rail networks in Europe, but after years of neglect many of its 11,000 kilometres of track are in a "catastrophic state," experts say.

While the European Union promotes a shift from road transport to rail in order to preserve the environment, Romania seems to follow the opposite path.

Between the fall of the Communist dictatorship, at the end of 1989, and 2009, the number of passengers travelling by train was cut 407.9 million to 70.3 million, according to the National Statistics Institute (INS).

And the fall is set to continue this year, experts say.

"Passenger traffic could drop by 10 percent in 2010," Liviu Pescarasu, director general of CFR Calatori, the passenger branch of the national railway company, told AFP.

By contrast, the number of personal cars more than tripled in 20 years, from 1.3 million in 1990 to 4.24 million in 2009, according to the INS.

"Under Communism, cars were a luxury. People had to wait for years to get one," Pescarasu said, explaining the recent fascination with road transport.

"What happens in Romania is a bit similar to what happened in the second half of the 20th century in France, where tramlines were dismantled because everyone thought the car was the future," noted Stefan Roseanu, secretary general of the Romanian railway industry association.

France then started re-installing costly tramlines decades later, when the environment became a major concern, he added.

Besides the "cultural" change, Romanians are also reluctant to take the train because of the deterioration in travelling conditions.

"The infrastructure is in a castastrophic state and that slows down the speed on many routes," Roseanu said. Or causes long detours.

Trains are often delayed by one, two or three hours. The average commercial speed is 50 kilometers an hour when the standard set by the EU on key pan-European corridors is 160 km/h.

Despite major improvements in the confort level of carriages and fresh raspberries being sold on board in the summer, passengers are gettting weary.

For months, a bridge seriously damaged by torrential rains severed the direct rail link between two of Romania's tourist highlights, the medieval cities of Sibiu and Brasov.

According to official figures, 40 percent of the tracks and 96 percent of the bridges need to be fixed.

"Romania needs to invest more in its rail infrastructure which is rapidly declining because of a lack of adequate maintenance," the European Commission told AFP.

"The lack of dynamism of the rail sector in Romania is certainly not good news for the overall economic climate."

Giant car maker Ford is an example.

"Ford invested in a new plant in Craiova (south). They want to produce 1,000 cars a day in the future. But at this point, they cannot move 1,000 cars a day out of the factory because the road and railway infrastructure is not sufficient," the US ambassador in Bucharest, Mark Gitenstein, said recently.

Some progress is expected as railways are being modernised with funds from the EU, as for instance the line between Bucharest and Constanta, on the Black Sea coast. Today it takes about five hours to make the 225-kilometer journey, more than in the Communist period.

Travel time should be cut to two hours and a half by mid-2011, Transport minister Radu Berceanu said on Thursday.

However, speed will still be reduced on certain segments as two bridges on the Danube were not included in the initial renovation plan, said Radu Irimia, deputy general manager of the European project for the national railway company CFR SA.

Work to modernise the bridges is expected to last until 2015, added the manager, who has been trying to speed up some key projects since his appointment earlier this year.

A hard task. On the Bucharest-Campina route, recently modernised with EU funds, the lack of maintenance has already led to speed limitations, a source close to the project told AFP.

The Transport ministry, which did not reply to AFP questions, usually invokes the lack of funds in times of crisis to explain the lack of investment in infrastructure.

Romania has so far received 610 million euros from the European ISPA Fund but it "has not received any amount yet from the Cohesion Fund or the Structural Funds for the period 2007-2013," according to the European Commission.

Around 1.85 billion euros of these funds is meant for rail infrastructure.

Prime Minister Emil Boc last week called on the transport minister -- sometimes called the "minister of roads" by railway employees -- to improve the absorption of European funds.

"For years, there was no real political will to invest in the rail in Romania," Roseanu said.

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