New rail line Tirana – Elbasan

A rail line across the mountains near Krrabë, would dramatically shorten the route between Tirana (Tiranë) and Elbasan, and extend the proposed high-speed rail line Tiranë – Shkodër. It would be part of a new high-speed route south-east to Athinai (Athens) and Thessaloniki, connecting to a new line from Elbasan -to Lake Ohrid.

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tirana-elbasan

Elbasan is inland from the coastal plains, where Albania’s population is concentrated, but the broad Shkumbin valley makes it relatively accessible. There is, however, no lowland route from Tirana. To reach Elbasan by train, you first travel in the opposite direction, north-west on the line to Durrës. From there, the rail line runs south along the coast, and finally eastwards along the Shkumbin. There is a direct road route over the mountains, about 50 km long, and a new road tunnel opened in 2013.

East of Elbasan, the Shkumbin valley is Albania’s main route inland, with the only inland railway. Although it was always planned to connect it eastwards, the line only got as far as Pogradec, on the shore of Lake Ohrid. The political and social instability of the last 20 years has delayed any extension (to Kicevo and/or Kastoria). The rail / road routes along the Shkumbin valley, are officially part of Pan-European Corridor VIII.

Click to enlarge: The broad valley of the Shkumbin near Elbasan, with part of the steelworks. Image by Albinfo under Creative Commons 2.5 licence.

Shkumbin valley

Population estimates for Tirana vary widely, but it probably has about 600 000 to 800 000 inhabitants. Elbasan lies 33 km to the south-east: it has about 125 000 inhabitants, with another 100 000 in the surrounding District (Rreth). The massive Communist-era steelworks was once the largest employer (and Albania’s largest polluter). Its collapse left all 12 000 workers unemployed, and deprived the city of its economic base.

Click to enlarge: Tirana looking south-east along the tectonic valley alignment, heights exaggerated: the red line is the main street of Elbasan, 33 km away.

tirana-elbview

Between the two cities are mountains, with a maximum elevation of 930 m. Tirana lies in a broad valley extending south-east. In this valley are lower foothills, which begin at the edge of the city centre. The Erzen river flows between these hills, passing south of Tirana. The main Elbasan road follows this river up the broad valley, for about 10 km. After the village of Ibë, the valley is narrower, and the slopes steeper: the road begins its climb to the ridge here. After the pass, the road follows the flank of the ridge, and then descends into the Shkumbin valley on a series of closely-spaced hairpin bends. This is impossible for a rail line, but there is a parallel valley (river Kusha), at right angles to the Shkumbin valley.

This (tectonic) corridor allows the construction of a direct rail link between the two cities. However, a tunnel of about 10 km is unavoidable, between the valley sections. The exact alignment of such a project can only be determined by geological studies. The line has four elements: an exit from Tirana, a line rising to the north portal, the tunnel, and a descent from the south portal.

Assuming a new central station in Tirana, as proposed for the HSL from Shkodër, the new line would begin in tunnel, in central Tirana. Depending on the orientation of the central station, the line would run south under the broad boulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit, or parallel to it. Behind the university building, at the end of this street, the ground rises. The new rail line would go under this hill (central Tirana is at 110 m elevation, the hill about 145 m). On the other side the line would run parallel to the higher ridge between Tirana and the river Erzen. To reach the river, the line must pass under part of this ridge, in another tunnel (red dotted line): it is then at about 150 m.

The line would then climb alongside the river Erzen for 7 km, possibly crossing it three times, to use level ground. It would follow a smaller tributary for a short distance, climbing to the tunnel portal at about 225 m. The level ground along the Erzen is intensively farmed, and some demolition will be inevitable.

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tirana-erzen

The approximate location of the tunnel portals is shown in red. This is a ‘best-case’ assumption, with a tunnel of about 9 km. Geological conditions could require a longer tunnel, and more difficult approach lines. The tunnel would pass just south of the village of Krrabë, which also gives its name to the pass between Tirana and Elbasan. The southern portal of the tunnel would be in the Kusha valley, again at about 225 m.

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tirelb-portals

From there, the line would run 8 km down the Kusha valley, and another 3 km into Elbasan station. For the first 5 km the valley floor is narrow: in places, the only level ground is the river bedding. Some short tunnels would be required to avoid curves: the line would drop about 100 m. Further down, the valley floor is broad enough ( (200-500 m). At the end of the valley, it suddenly opens up, and the rail line from Durrës is only 500 m further. The level ground here is at about 100 m elevation (heights are not exaggerated on this image).

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kusha-elbasan

The line would follow the existing straight alignment into Elbasan station, about 1 km from the city centre. The alignment is adequate for expansion, the station itself needs an upgrade.

The line would be 35-40 km long, station to station, depending on how favourable the geology is. The existing line from Durrës would be upgraded – from Durrës to the Shkumbin it is also the route to the south. The new Tirana – Elbasan line would carry passenger trains only. Even after the construction of new links to the east, most freight traffic through Elbasan will be to/from Durrës, not Tirana. (Alignments and services east of Elbasan are not considered further here). The new Tirana – Elbasan line will not allow very high speeds, because of the climb to the tunnel. A journey time of 20 minutes would be reasonable for the route: a journey time of 15 minutes would be very good.

New rail line Tirana – Elbasan

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