Pietro Eivitano’s first experience of Bosnia-Herzegovina was aboard the state railroad.
“I have been riding trains my whole life, first to high school and then to university,” the 23-year-old pharmacy student from Bari , Italy said, “but I will never forget the trip from Mostar to Sarajevo .”
It wasn’t the breath-taking scenery along the Neretva River valley that captivated Eivitano.
“The temperature was plus 40 degrees, not even a puff of wind on the train, no air-conditioning and we had to stand the entire trip. Also, the train was extremely dirty and full of insects. I am a backpacker and it doesn’t bother me too much,” he said, “but I would never recommend anyone to travel on this train.”
Eivatano’s experience is not unique. Reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) traveled by train from Sarajevo to Zagreb and back and found everywhere that both tourists and BiH citizens are dissatisfied with their train system. Most prefer to drive or take a bus.
The result is low ridership, fewer tourists and the loss of valuable revenue.
BiH railroads carried just 1.17 million passengers last year. By comparison, trains in neighboring Croatia took on more than 46 million passengers over the same period. In Serbia , 6.5 million ride the train annually. Before the war in the 1990s, even BiH railroads could boast of 20 million passengers a year.
“Dear passengers, the train from Ploče via Sarajevo to Zagreb will be 15 minutes late,” is the kind of announcement that nervous passengers in the Sarajevo train station hear every day.
“It would be a miracle if it came on time,” mutters one passenger.
Passengers say they have come to expect hard travel by train.
It takes 10 hours to get to Zagreb, almost twice as long as by car. Trains must stop for 15 minutes at each entity’s borders to swap locomotives because the two entity railroads don’t have an agreement to use each other’s engines. Passengers complain of other unexplained stops.
Bosnian trains average only about 45 km per hour, slowed by tracks in need of a major overhaul. That work has been planned, but could take a decade to complete and cost taxpayers more than 300 million KM.
During long rides you can’t buy a cup of coffee, a sandwich or a cold drink on the train because railroad officials say food services don’t make a profit.
There are heaters or air-conditioners that aren’t used or don’t work on the trains, leaving passengers sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. Windows are often stuck closed, and if passengers manage to pry them open they risk not being able to close them again.
The toilets are so filthy that passengers avoid them.
Modern amenities found in European train systems such as sleeper cars, internet service and satellite television are unavailable. Tourists can’t even make reservations on the internet, a service otherwise available all over the world. FBiH Railways does not even have a webpage.
The way the network is structured is also a problem.
“Tourists ask for trains more than for buses. They are often disappointed when we show them a timetable with only a few routes that only depart early in the morning or late in the evening. They wonder why they don’t operate more frequently and we’ve also heard comments that the trains are too slow,” said Neira Kulo, 24, who works at the Tourism Information Point in Sarajevo.
While most BiH citizens know to go by car or bus, tourists, unaware and expecting Europe ‘s generally well-run railroad systems, frequently encounter surprises on local trains.
Eivitano is one of these tourists. He is traveling through the Balkans with a friend, Carlo Pitone.
“Yuck, that was disgusting,” Eivitano says leaving the bathroom. He couldn’t use it, he says, because it was smeared with excrement. He said he couldn’t use the toilet in the last train he rode either.
“The trains are too slow and stop all the time, I really don’t understand why we need so much time for such a short distance,” grumbles 20-year-old Pitone. When told they are on the fast train, the pair laugh. “What is the slow one like, then?” they say.
Sitting with them is Emina Rešić, a 20-year-old architecture student traveling from Sarajevo to Zavidovići, her birthplace.
She uses trains about once a month and loves them, she says. “They are romantic.”
But even this supporter has complaints: “Trains are often late and here it is normal that they are up to 15 minutes late, but anywhere else in the world that isn’t normal.”
Narcis Džumhur, director of Željeznica Federation BiH, claims that trains are not regularly late, but passengers think otherwise.
Sulejman Jusufović, 46, was angry as he left the Sarajevo train station after learning the train for Mostar would be 100 minutes late. He decided to postpone his trip.
“I am currently on vacation with my family and we’ve lived in America for 15 years. I missed an important appointment tonight. I will still take the train tomorrow morning because my sons have never ridden on a train, and we bought the tickets already. This is a disgrace.”
BiH passengers are more accepting of conditions. Almasa Kahić, 50, is traveling from Sarajevo to Maglaj to visit her sister.
“For me it’s good because it’s cheaper than the bus. However much it’s cheaper, it’s good for me,” she said.
The railroad has a plan to improve passenger traffic with a 62 million KM investment in new trains from Spain in addition to investment in tracks. The “Talgo” trains are designed to work on Bosnia’s poor rails and will allow for a modest increase in speed on most rail lines.
The railroad’s biggest supporter is current prime minister Nedzad Brankovic, who served as the director of FBiH railroads from 1993 to 1998. Brankovic said a major investment in staff training and new equipment is needed and that the process is already underway to replace aging equipment.
“Lets not talk about it. Those are trains that we got 20 or 30 years ago and the only solution is investment in development,” Brankovic said. “I invite you to continue this conversation in 2011. I invite you to see then what I am talking about today.”
The costs, however, are staggering. Bosnian taxpayers already subsidize the railroads with 25 million KM per year in FBiH and 27 million KM in RS. This equals about 55KM for each passenger in the Federation and 36 KM in the RS. By comparison, Croatia only gives about 16 KM per passenger. Even with these subsidies, the railroads lose 75 million KM in the Federation and 1.7 million KM in the RS. And most of the massive infrastructure investments, which could amount to 800 million KM, will ultimately be paid by taxpayers.
At the same time, the railways invest very little in marketing, so many citizens don’t even know when and where they can go by train. Railways employees say they themselves don’t do much to attract passengers and increase the railways’ income.
“Many citizens are surprised when I tell them that there is a train for Budapest , because they didn’t know,” says Divna Kapetanović, who has worked for 22 years at FBiH Railroads’ Passenger Transport Department.
Sadik Beširević, a professor at the traffic school of the University of Sarajevo spent some of his career in railways. Wistfully, he remembers the days when stations overflowed with passengers.
“Young people travel in groups, laugh, get on trains which are luxuriously furnished, fast, and you are in Doboj in an hour and a half and not three like now. Today, railway stations are sad, a passenger here and there, no trace of their former glory.”
Beširević remembers wagons with sleeping cabins, white carpets, and clean as pharmacies.
But while some of the complaints are about the trains, most of the complaints are about the poor service, lack of amenities and poor maintenace – the issues that drive passengers away.
“The railroads do have a problem with passenger traffic: the fact is there is no passenger traffic. To have passenger traffic you need passengers.,” said Goran Filopovic, Task Manager with the European Commission. Filopovic doubts the new trains alone will bring passengers back.
“We will need years to get back to that level,” Kapetanovic admits.