Moldova is poor, and has a low-quality rail network, with few external links. The historical explanation is simple: peripheral location within larger states. In the 19th century, it was part of the Russian Governorate of Bessarabia, at the edge of the Russian Empire. The northern end bordered on the periphery of Austrian Galicia. In the 20th century the region was briefly part of a greater Romania, but it was peripheral there too. Now Moldova is on the wrong side of the European Union external border.
There are geographical explanations too. The Russian Governorate of Bessarabia was a clear geographical unit, with river boundaries – Prut and Danube on the west, Dniester on the east. However, the rivers are also barriers to east-west transport, with few bridges. The rivers follow the curve of the Carpathian range, which is also an obstacle. The route to western Europe is therefore an arc, north from the Black Sea, and turning 90 degrees to the west.
Carpathian arc, Public domain…
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union regained control of the former Governorate of Bessarabia. The southern Budjak region became part of Ukraine, mainly on ethnic grounds. The northern strip between the two rivers was also split on ethnic lines. The new Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic included a strip east of the Dniester, but that was not historically part of Bessarabia. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Moldavian SSR became the independent Moldova, and the strip east of the Dniester soon seceded as Transnistria.
Moldova has a population of 3,5 million, with about one-third concentrated around the capital Chișinău. Transnistria has about 500 000 inhabitants. The Budjak, which is not an administrative entity, has about 600 000 inhabitants. It is a steppe zone, and thinly populated by European standards.
The only ‘main’ rail route through Moldova is the east-west Iași – Chișinău – Odessa route: the Moldovan section is single-track. There is no complete north-south line inside Moldova. There is a route south from Chișinău, to Bender and Galați. After Transnistria seceded, a cut-off line south of Chișinău was reopened, bypassing Bender and shortening the route. There are single-track rail lines across the Prut river at Cantemir and Ungheni, and across the Dniester at Rîbniţa.
In the north, Russian rail lines were built around 1895 east from Chernivtsi, which was then in Austrian Galicia. They ran to Bălţi and Mohyliw-Podilskyj (Moghilǎu) via Ocniţa. From Mohyliw-Podilskyj, the line continues north to Zhmerynka, on the main Odessa line. Because this region was split along ethnic lines, the line into Ocniţa now crosses the Moldova- Ukraine border six times, and it has been neglected.
None of these lines were of good quality, and the terrain is unsuitable for railway construction. Moldova consists mainly of alternating ridges and valleys, and the lines climb up and down the valley flanks, to cross the ridges. The only flat terrain is the valley floor of the Prut, but there is no complete rail line along the river.
Framework of high-speed lines
This proposed network of high-speed lines (HSL), would allow restructuring of the railways between the Prut, the Danube and the Dniester. The ‘national network’ function would however disappear: borders are ignored here. First, a Wallachian Plain high-speed rail corridor would link Bucharest to Iași and Galați.
The Bucharest – Iași HSL would be extended to Kiev via Vinnytsia. Another high-speed line would link Chernivtsi to Iași, Chișinău, and Odessa, duplicating the existing main line through Moldova. At Iași, these two lines would cross. That means that Iași, rather than Chișinău, would be the main HSL junction for Moldova.
The Wallachian Plain high-speed line could be extended from Galați to Odessa, via Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. This line would run through the Budjak, with stations at both ends of the region. On this long section, an intermediate station at Tatarbunary might be possible, although it would serve a thinly populated region.
A Constanța – Odessa high-speed line would cross the Danube delta between Tulcea and Izmail, and join the Galați – Odessa line north of Izmail. The station at Izmail would also serve part of the Budjak, although perhaps not in the direction of Galați.
Entirely east of Moldova, a Kiev – Vinnytsia – Odessa HSL would parallel the existing main line. Some trains might stop at an intermediate HSL station at Kotovsk.
The proposed Kiev – Chernivtsi – Budapest HSL would diverge from the Kiev – Iași – Bucharest HSL at Mohyliw-Podilskyj (Moghilǎu), on the present Moldova – Ukraine border. It would turn east after crossing the river Dniester, and run through northern Moldova, passing Briceni, but without stations.
The proposed Prut valley rail line from Iași to Galați is not a high-speed rail line, but would be built to high standards. It can therefore complement the HSL lines, and provide a fast service from Iași to Galați.
Entrance points to the high-speed network
The population of Moldova and the Budjak could access a European HSL network at several stations.
In the north of Moldova, only the Ocniţa rayon would be served by the HSL station at Mohyliw-Podilskyj, just across the border. Depending on the alignment toward Kiev, there might be a HSL station at Zhmerynka, partly duplicating the function of the existing rail junction there. Otherwise, HSL passengers from Mohyliw-Podilskyj could transfer at Vinnytsia, for trains to L’viv or Odessa.
The HSL station at Chernivtsi would serve Briceni rayon, at the north-western tip of Moldova. Passengers would use a regional service from Lipcani to Chernivtsi. Similarly, some passengers might use the existing Bălţi – Rîbnița – Slobidka line, to access a HSL station at Kotovsk, for travel to Odessa. Otherwise, a HSL station at Bălţi would be more convenient.
Inside Moldova there would be only two HSL stations, at Bălţi, and Chișinău. There would be another two in Transnistria, at Bender and Tiraspol. High-speed travel, between Bălţi and the other three cities, would require transfer at Iași. From a Moldovan national perspective, a line between the capital and Bălţi might be desirable – but not in a wider regional framework. These four cities are in central Moldova and southern Transnistria, where the population is concentrated.
Parts of Fălești, Ungheni, and Nisporeni rayons would be served by the HSL station at Iași. The Prut valley line would have stations at the rayon capitals in Leova, Cantemir, and Cahul, with trains to HSL stations at both Iași and Galați. From Cantemir, a regional line would also link to a HSL station at Birlad.
The Galați HSL station would serve the southern rayons of Moldova, and the western tip of the Budjak. The eastern Budjak would be served by the station at Bilhorod (and possibly Tatarbunary). The region along the Danube delta, the southern edge of the Budjak, would be served by the HSL station at Izmail.
With these stations as European-level network access points, the system of regional rail lines can be re-structured to feed them. That function would also determine the most logical improvements to existing lines and the location of new lines.
To start with, the existing main line Iași – Ungheni – Chișinău – Bender – Tiraspol would become a regional line parallel to a high-speed line. Similarly, the Ungheni – Bălţi line would carry a regional service starting in Iași, parallel to a HSL Iași – Bălţi. The Bălți – Rîbnița – Slobidka line would be upgraded, and passenger services extended to Kotovsk for better connections.
Regional lines in northern Moldova, new sections in red…
The line north from Bălți to Ocniţa would be upgraded as a regional line, serving three rayon capitals. The remaining section from Ocniţa to Mohyliw-Podilskyj is so indirect, that it is probably only suitable for freight. Similarly, the Chernivtsi – Lipcani line would be upgraded for regional services, but restoration of the remaining Lipcani – Ocniţa section has little value for passengers.
South of the main axis Iași – Chișinău – Tiraspol, the proposed Prut valley line would also carry a regional service Iași – Cantemir – Galați. The existing line Birlad – Cantemir – Basarabeasca would be upgraded, with two new tunnels inside Romania, to create an east-west regional line across southern Moldova to the Budjak.
Regional lines in southern Moldova / Budjak, new sections in red…
At Basarabeasca, the Birlad line would cross the existing Chișinău – Bolhrad – Galați line – the nearest thing to a north-south route in present-day Moldova. This line needs three new tunnels: one to avoid the long detour through Cainari, one through the ridge south of Basarabeasca station, and one through the ridge west of Bolhrad. That would significantly shorten the route.
From Basarabeasca, the disused line to Artsyz would be re-opened, and the whole line to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi upgraded as a regional line. This is a longer route and population density is low – about 20 or 30 per km2.
Artsyz is also the junction for the line to Izmail. The proposed HSL would carry all traffic between Izmail, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi and Odessa, and the population of the Budjak is concentrated around these cities. The regional service Izmail – Artsyz – Bilhorod would be residual.
To complement the HSL Izmail – Bilhorod – Odessa, a new link Galați – Izmail is needed. The HSL Galați – Odessa would pass north of Izmail, but a triangular junction would allow a Galați – Izmail – Tulcea service. In that case a third track for freight is sufficient. If the HSL ran further north (across the lakes), then a separate regional line Galați – Izmail would be logical. It would require about 50 km of new track east of Reni.
The diagram below shows how the regional lines would serve over half the rayon capitals in Moldova. This is essentially the existing network, plus the Prut valley line, and with two lines extended into Galați.
Base map Moldova administrative, by Andrein, CC4 and CC3 licence…
Although not every rayon would have a rail connection, this is a reasonable level of infrastructure, given the population density. Upgrading of the existing lines for European-standard regional services, is more important than construction of new low-quality lines, to serve the remaining rayons.