High-speed rail line Shkodër – Podgorica
This high-speed rail line (HSL) would be an extension of the proposed HSL Tiranë – Shkodër. At Podgorica, it would connect to the existing 476-km Belgrade – Bar railway, which links the Danube basin to the Adriatic. The line to the port of Bar was a major Yugoslavian project, but it was built for freight, and speeds were never high. After 20 years of war and neglect, it is no longer viable as a European passenger axis. A new parallel HSL would be a very difficult project, but it is a logical link to the rest of Europe, and there is no alternative route within 100 km. If this ‘trans-Montenegrin’ HSL was built, the line proposed here would complete the HSL route, from the Danube to Tiranë.
Click to enlarge: Skadar lake and the mountains: heights are exaggerated
Podgorica and Shkodër are both located on the alluvial plains around Lake Skadar / Lake Shkodër. The foothills of the Albanian Alps / Prokletije are aligned north-east to south-west, and they reach the lake shore in places. Between the two cities is the broad Hotit arm of the lake (Humsko Blato / Hotski Zaliv), with two parallel ridges alongside it. The existing rail line curves around this inlet, with a short tunnel under one ridge. A direct route would need a long tunnel – or a 1500 m bridge, with approach tunnels under the ridges. That was all out of the question, when the single-track freight line was built in 1984. (It was out of service for many years, due to war, sabotage, and disorder).
Podgorica had a population of 136 000 at the 2003 census: that is certainly higher by now. It is home to at least a quarter of the Montenegro population. (With 58 000 inhabitants, Nikšić is the only other city, and also the terminus of the only other rail line , 57 km from Podgorica). Montenegro has no regional subdivisions, but about 300 000 people live in the southern inland part, with Podgorica as its centre. Shkodër has about 100 000 inhabitants: statistics are very unreliable, due to high internal and external migration in Albania. The District of Shkodër has about twice the city population. The only town between the two cities is Koplik (population about 10 000), 20 km from Shkodër. It is capital of Malësia e Madhe District.
The existing line between Podgorica and Shkodër is 63,5 km long. Podgorica station itself is large, and and has room for expansion: it is about 1500m from the central square (the present city was built mainly after the Second World War).
The region in 1904: Austro-Hungarian military map of around 1910
The new line would turn south-east, just south of the station, toward the village of Tuzi (the existing line has a V-shaped diversion here). At Tuzi, the line reaches the foot of the northern ridge (the one alongside the Hotit arm). The simplest way to shorten the Podgorica – Shkodër route, is a base tunnel under this ridge. The western portal would be somewhere near Tuzi. Logically, the eastern portal would be at the head of the inlet (near Hani i Hotit, the border crossing on the existing line). However, the most direct base tunnel is 9 km long. With a portal south of Tuzi, it could be 2 km shorter, but that is still a major tunnel. The base tunnel would shorten the whole route by 4-5 km.
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A more complex solution is a crossing of the Hotit arm: the alignment is the same for either a bridge or tunnel. The new line would follow the existing line past Tuzi, although with better curvature. Near the portal of the existing ridge tunnel, a new tunnel would start. Under the ridge, it would either climb, to access a bridge, or descend to tunnel under the lake. The lake is generally shallow, so the tunnel need not be deep, and the bridge need not be very high either. On the other side, another ridge tunnel would follow. The line would emerge near the Bajze freight terminal, on the existing line. It would then follow the existing alignment, for 28 km into Shkodër. The non-surface section (tunnel / bridge) would be 6 km long. This option could shorten the whole route by about 10 km, to 51-53 km. However, it is dependent on the local geology: the lake basin is a glacial depression filled with sediment, with underwater cave systems feeding it with fresh water.
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If neither of these tunnel / bridge options is technically feasible, then the only alternative is an upgraded version of the present alignment around the inlet. A longer ridge tunnel could be built close to the existing one, and the curve at the head of the inlet widened. The total route length would remain at around 64 km.
After the Hotit arm, the new line across the plain to Shkodër is unproblematic. The area is almost flat, from 20m to 50m elevation. The HSL would run parallel to the existing line, although not exactly alongside it. Part of the old line was built alongside the main road, so all local traffic on side roads has to cross it. (At the time, Albania had almost no cars, and the line carried almost no trains anyway).
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There is a sharp curve 4 km north of Shkodër station, but apart from that, the alignment itself allows expansion and upgrading. Part of the line in Shkodër directly adjoins the Kir river: in some places there are houses between the line and the river, but it is not a major barrier, since most of the city lies west of the rail line. The station itself is about 1500m from the city centre.
The alignments via a base tunnel, or across the Hotit arm, should allow a Podgorica – Shkodër journey time of under 20 minutes. With an alignment around the inlet, it might be 25 minutes. Journey time Podgorica – Tiranë, with one stop in Shkodër, should be around one hour. That would be a dramatic improvement for inter-regional travel, but maximum impact of the HSL route Podgorica – Tiranë depends on further HSL connections, to the north and to the south-west.