Belgrade as a European rail junction

Belgrade (Beograd) is almost inevitably a railway junction, due to its strategic location. It is at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, between the plains and the first foothills of the Balkans. For historical reasons too, the railways south of Belgrade are different — single-track lines along mountain valleys, carrying long-distance traffic through relatively thinly populated regions. Nevertheless, these are routes of European significance, to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. With the opening of the Bosphorus tunnel in Istanbul, Belgrade is on the only southern route from Europe to Asia (the others pass through Russia).

Road and rail bridges across the Sava into Belgrade: image by Wizardist. CC 3.0 licence…

Belgrade_from_LH1407

Upgrading of the lines through Belgrade has been planned since the Yugoslav period. The current Belgrade Junction Project consists mainly of a ring freight line, plus a new central station Beograd Centar, at Prokop, south of the city centre.

The location and function of the new station were criticised here earlier, with an alternative proposal to convert the present main station into a through station, by building a new tunnel and Danube bridge to the north. However, a central station is only part of the problem. This post look at options for the Belgrade junction as a whole, including passenger lines bypassing Belgrade entirely.

The historical railways from the north and north-west enter Belgrade through Zemun, and across the Sava. These lines were built inside Austro-Hungary: Zemun was a frontier town. The only line from the north-east crosses the Pančevo Bridge over the Danube, built in 1935 during the prewar Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Again the lines on the opposite bank were originally Hungarian: Pančevo was also a frontier town. On the map below, only the territory south of the main rivers is Serbian.

Click to enlarge: Belgrade in 1897, from an Austro-Hungarian military map…

1897 Belgrad

The lines to the south-east share a single exit line from the old main Station (Glavna Stanica), past the hill at Dedinje. The postwar Yugoslav project, the Belgrade – Bar railway, also diverges from this line, just outside Belgrade. The railways to the south-east originally went toward Ottoman Turkey, which controlled part of the Balkans until the First World War.

Serbia around 1880: map by Pakko, CC 3.0 licence…
1050px-Principality_of_Serbia_in_1878_EN

The Belgrade Junction Project connected these three groups of lines, to the new ‘central’ station at Prokop. There is a new bridge across the Sava from Zemun, a new tunnel from the Pančevo Danube Bridge, and a new tunnel under the hill at Dedinje. A triangular junction just east of the Prokop station links these three. However, the ‘central station’ is not very central, so it needs a metro connection to the city centre. That has not yet been built. Neither has the station itself: it has been a construction site for almost 40 years, and only a few of the planned 10 platforms track are in use.

Beograd Centar station at Prokop, mid-2014: image by Jan Pešula, public domain CC1 licence…

Beograd_centar_Prokop_overview_2014

Even when completed, there will be capacity problems. The double-track link from Zemun is insufficient, and the three stations on the Pančevo Bridge line restrict capacity for through trains. Rail transport has a low priority in Serbia, and not simply because of the failing economy — there is enough money for new roads. The European Union also encourages a shift to road transport. The inadequate rail infrastructure in Belgrade reflects these priorities.

Belgrade could be an important junction, in a European network of high-speed lines (HSL). However, that would not include ‘New Orient Express’ trains from Paris to Ankara, and certainly not to Iraq, Iran, or India. Journeys of 1200 km are probably the limit for high-speed rail travel. Vienna to Istanbul is about 1600 km, Vienna – Athens about 1800 km, and Paris to Istanbul is 2800 km.

The pattern of services foreseen here, is that long-distance high-speed services begin and end in Belgrade. Some inter-regional services would pass through Belgrade. They would be roughly comparable to present Serbian internal InterCity services, for instance for journeys from Novi Sad to Niš. These services would use high-speed lines, but not necessarily over the entire route. The rest of this post looks at the possible improvements, to facilitate this service pattern around Belgrade.

Segregating the Prokop lines

The new Prokop station can be utilised more effectively by limiting its functions, segregating services, and upgrading the approaches. With three closely spaced stations (Karađorđev Park, Vukov Spomenik, Pančevački most), the line northwards is appropriate for an urban-regional metro. That corresponds to current use by the BG-Voz, the only high-frequency urban rail service in Serbia. It runs at 15-minute intervals from Batajnica, but that is the only line, and even that stops before the Pančevo Bridge, which is single-track.

Single track, basic station, at the Pančevo Bridge: image by Jan Pešula, public domain CC1 licence…

Pancevacki_most_Danube_platform

The line south from Prokop has no intermediate stations, and is suitable for inter-regional services from west to south, and perhaps one regional service. Present regional services around Belgrade, the Beovoz network, include only one line through the central tunnels, from Pančevo. The other lines from the north are not electrified, and diesel trains cannot run in long tunnels — they would asphyxiate the passengers. The Pančevo service runs north-south, so it does not serve Beograd Centar (Prokop), and frequency is very low anyway.

With improvement of the Pančevo line, it is more logical to extend the intensive BG-Voz service to Pančevo, and discontinue north-south services. The north-south line (Pančevo Bridge to Rakovica) is not really suitable for through service: passenger interchange is also better if all trains pass through Beograd Centar. (In a later stage the north-south route could be improved, by extra tracks parallel to the Dedinje tunnel.)

Click to enlarge…

Prokop triangle

Beograd Centar needs extra approach tracks on the west. In fact, the western line into Belgrade needs four tracks, from Zemun at least, but only the section from Novi Beograd is considered here. A third Sava rail bridge is needed, possibly two new single-track bridges. The short tunnel at the western side of Beograd Centar is the main problem, due to restricted space and buildings on either side. With four tracks from Novi Beograd, trains through Prokop could be sorted by destination and type. An urban-regional metro would run north to Pančevo, inter-regional and regional trains south to Rakovica.

New line through Glavna Stanica

With many other services rerouted through Prokop, the old main station can be rebuilt as a terminal for long-distance services, including high-speed rail. The station was built for lines from the north-west (Zemun) and south, and it needs a new exit line to the north and north-east, for fast trains. The version proposed here earlier was a new tunnel in a straight line, under the historic city centre, to a new Danube bridge. However, the tunnel could also curve east and then north, to a new bridge alongside the existing Pančevo bridges. It would start from new underground platforms at Glavna Stanica. Obviously, that implies a total reconstruction of the old main station. (The city apparently wants the station closed and redeveloped, when construction at Prokop is finished.)

Danube curve tunnel

The rebuilt station would be served by trains from several high-speed lines (HSL), proposed here earlier:

The old Main Station: image by Jan Pešula, public domain CC1 licence…

Beograd_train_station

The northern exit tunnel would connect to the proposed fast inter-regional line Beograd – Vršac – Timişoara. With new sections and upgrading, a fast line is also possible from Belgrade to Zrenjanin, Kikinda and Szeged, and from there to Budapest. The exit tunnel to Pančevo could also carry trains to the east, to Smederevo, via a new bypass line (see below).

The southern approach to Glavna Stanica must also be improved, with a new tunnel under the hill at Topčider, as proposed here earlier. It would be about 2200 m long, with no intermediate stations.

Restructuring services to the south

The quality of the lines south of Belgrade is very poor, given their strategic importance. All trains southwards Belgrade pass through Rakovica station, at the edge of the built-up area. At its north end there are only two tracks: they carry all passenger services between central Europe and southern Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. (Fortunately there is a separate freight line around western Belgrade.)

All lines lead to Rakovica: green indicates alternative routes through Romania…

Rakovica lines

Beyond Rakovica, the line splits into three single-track, mixed-traffic, main lines. Two rejoin at Velika Plana, and split again at Lapovo. Rationalisation of services is a precondition, for the long process of upgrading these lines.

To start with, passenger services on the Belgrade – Bar railway should be segregated from the others, and should terminate at Glavna Stanica. The 476 km line to Bar is Serbia’s freight route to the sea: it is a single-track line across the main Balkan ranges, and vulnerable to landslides. Delays are inevitable, even if the line was properly maintained.

On all three lines to the south, through all-station trains should be abandoned. Regional trains from Belgrade should serve approximately the area north and west of the Morava River. Although frequencies are absurdly low, the Beovoz routes have the right idea: trains terminate at Valjevo, Mladenovac, and Požarevac, about 60 to 90 km from Belgrade. An additional regional service might terminate at Kragujevac, but that would be far enough.

On the Bar line, there would be only Beovoz trains and express trains: separate regional services would run south from Valjevo. On the main line to Niš – Smederevo, there could be a separate regional service Niš – Smederevo, with no regional trains from Belgrade south of Lapovo. On the Zaječar line, there would be Beovoz trains to Požarevac, and a separate regional service from there to Zaječar. The only remaining ‘branch line’, to Kruševac, would have no through trains. These are not the only options, of course, but such rationalisation allows maximisation of capacity on single-track lines.

The junctions at Rakovica also need priority improvement. There should be four tracks through the station, and grade-separated junctions where the three lines diverge. (Even if two single tracks combine into a double track, trains can still obstruct each other.) When these new junctions are ready, it makes sense to start doubling the single-track lines, a long-term project. (In a later stage, a separate line from Mladenovac to Kragujevac would be logical, although it requires a long tunnel.)

Improve transverse lines

The rail network around Belgrade consists mainly of radial lines. Better transverse routes would minimise unnecessary journeys, in and out of the city. They also minimise the vulnerability of single transfer stations— the planned status of Beograd Centar.

A new transverse route would be created north of Belgrade by the proposed HSL Vinkovci – Novi Sad and its extensions, the new Novi Sad – Zrenjanin line, and the high-speed inter-regional line Zrenjanin – Timişoara.

north tranverse

To the south, the existing line Užice – Kraljevo – Kruševac – Stalać can be converted into a through route to Niš, by constructing a southern bypass of Stalać station. Construction of a new line from Sarajevo to Užice, on the approximate alignment of the former narrow-gauge line, would create a significant east-west inter-regional line. An additional transverse route is possible with about 30 km of new line into Čačak from the north-east, creating an Užice – Čačak – Kragujevac regional route.

south tranverse

The planned Loznica – Valjevo line would allow some freight to/from Bar to avoid the Belgrade junction, but is not very useful for passenger traffic.

New northern bypass of Belgrade

A completely new northern bypass can create new routes, avoiding Belgrade itself. It would be about 65 km long from Batajnica via Pančevo to Smederevo, with a link toward Kovin. The line into Smederevo from the south would also need upgrading, so about 70-75 km of new line would be required.

Click to enlarge…

Beograd north bypass

The bypass would diverge from the Novi Sad line at Batajnica, cut through low-grade commercial development, and cross the Danube. It would run well north of Borča and Ovča, partly along a new bypass road, and join the existing alignment about 2-5 km west of Pančevo. The section through Pančevo would need four tracks. East of the station, a new exit line would be needed, but from there the line can run through open farmland, toward the Danube opposite Smederevo.

A new Danube bridge at Smederevo was proposed here earlier, with a regional line to Pančevo, via Kovin and Bavanište, in effect re-opening an old rail line. The northern bypass from Batajnica would cross to Smederevo at the same location, but with a more direct high-speed route from Pančevo. On the other side, new and upgraded tracks through Smederevo would connect to the existing main line, at the Mala Krsna junction station (lines to Niš and Zaječar).

The northern bypass would allow Pančevo to duplicate the interchange function of Belgrade, for all the lines on the diagram below.

Diagram Pancevo transfer

New eastern bypass

An eastern bypass is also possible via the new Smederevo rail bridge. It would be very similar to the earlier proposal for a Vršac – Kovin – Smederevo line, but with the emphasis on long-distance trains from Arad and Timişoara, southwards toward Niš. In this case Smederevo would be the new interchange station, replacing Belgrade. The original proposal included a line across the Deliblatska_Peščara inland sand dunes, but the line could avoid them by running north to Alibunar. Either way, it would join the upgraded Belgrade – Timişoara route.

Click to enlarge…

Smederevo eastern bypass

A short western bypass is also possible: in fact, there is already a west-to-south curve, from the Old Sava Rail Bridge. An additional rail bridge, parallel to the new Ada road bridge, would increase capacity. Trains would run from Novi Beograd station to Topčider station, avoiding both the old and the new main stations. That bypass is only logical and necessary, if services become much more frequent.

The northern and eastern by-pass lines would significantly increase capacity through the Belgrade region, much more than Beograd Centar station and its approach tunnels. The network would also be less dependent on any single station. However, most of the proposals here only make sense with massive upgrading of the lines to the south. There is no easy solution to that issue: the terrain is difficult, and better lines will require many new tunnels. In fact, a new line toward Niš might not even leave Belgrade on the southern side: it might run to Smederevo, using an eastern exit tunnel, and crossing the Danube twice. From Smederevo it could then follow the broad Morava Valley to Mala Krsna and Velika Plana, in effect by-passing all the existing southern exits from Belgrade.

Belgrade as a European rail junction

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