This is an updated version of a post first published in 2009, proposing a new rail line between Tiranë (Tirana) and Shkodër. The Albanian economy has grown since then, and new road infrastructure has been added. Tirana has also grown, although not as much as some thought it would. The central plain with the three cities of Tiranë, Durrës and Shkodër, has a population of about 1.3 million, enough to justify new rail lines. The flat plain favours a high-speed line: the version proposed here is for 200 km/h or more. It would be technically a high-speed line, even if it carried mixed traffic.
A high-speed line (HSL) between Tiranë and Shkodër could be extended north to Podgorica, and extended south-east toward Elbasan and Lake Ohrid. Further extensions would be much more difficult to build: from Podgorica toward Belgrade, parallel to the Lim valley line and south-east to Athina (Athens) and Thessaloniki. They would integrate an Albanian plain HSL with a European HSL network. All proposals here ignore current borders, and are made from a European perspective.
Albania had a modest railway network, built entirely during the communist period. There was no direct line from Tiranë to Shkodër. The first line, from the port of Durrës to Tiranë, opened in 1949. It was later extended slowly northwards, starting from Vorë, which is about halfway between Durrës and Tiranë. The network was built to minimal standards: Albania was probably the poorest country in Europe. After the collapse of the communist regime, the network was almost entirely abandoned. In the last 15 years, the road network has been substantially upgraded, with new main roads between Tiranë and Shkodër.
Apart from the new roads, urban sprawl is the most visible sign of Albania’s transformation. Tiranë had 420 000 inhabitants at the 2011 census, and the agglomeration may now have twice that. The city has been expanding north-west into the plain, which complicates construction of new infrastructure. In fact, the northward expansion of Tirana might soon require the relocation of the international airport at Rinas (Mother Theresa Airport). The image shows the central plain, with exaggerated vertical axis (elevation)…
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Tiranë and Shkodër are about 85 km apart. Even at this scale, the sprawl around Tiranë, and ribbon development along main roads, are clearly visible. Much of the ribbon development is illegal: private developers simply cut their own access onto new highways, to build restaurants, petrol stations and shops.
Old and new alignment
The communist-era railway first runs north from Vorë, crosses the plain to Mamurras, and then runs at the foot of the mountains, as far as Lezhe. It follows the old main road through the villages, which avoided the marshy plain. The alignment is reasonable for a local line, with stations roughly 10 apart. North of Lezhe, the line does cross the plain, in straight sections joined by curves. The marshy coastal plain is now entirely reclaimed for agriculture, and the new main roads cross it in straight lines.
The line between plain and mountains, elevation exaggerated …
The first phase of any new line must be a new central station in Tiranë, with a new exit line. The dilapidated old station, north of the city centre, has already been demolished, The approach tracks were also removed, so there is currently no railway line into Tirana. Without a new central station, the line to Durrës can never be viable, even if it is modernised. The obvious location is the huge central Skënderbej square, and that would require a 5-km tunnel under the main Durrës road. Most of this street is very broad, allowing construction of a 4-track tunnel, with separate tracks for a regional metro service. The section nearest the square is narrower, and would require a bored tunnel – or an alternative alignment and station site. The exact location of the central station it is not considered further here, but it should allow for a south-eastern line toward Elbasan.
On the outskirts of the city, the new exit line would join the existing line toward Durrës. Near Bërxull, a new alignment would turn north-northeast toward the airport. This would avoid the worst of the sprawl, but some demolition is inevitable. At the airport, the line could run on viaduct along the access road, with a station directly connected to the terminal. The station would be 15 km from central Tiranë.
Line out to Tiranë, with curve from Durrës…
The junction at Bërxull should also allow trains from Durrës to access the airport creating an interchange with fast trains to/from Durrës. That route could be further improved by a cut-off line south of Vorë, but that requires at least 5 km of tunnel, and is not considered further here. Either way, the existing line north of Vorë could be retained for freight services.
From the airport, the second section of new line would cross the plain, to join the main highway, SH1, at Fushë-Krujë. There would be a station here, serving the town itself (18 000 inhabitants), and also the north end of the Tiranë agglomeration. (Fushë-Krujë means ‘Lower Krujë’, the historical town of Krujë is in the foothills to the east).
North of Fushë-Krujë, the third section of new line would run north to Lezhë, at first alongside the SH1 highway. At Thumane, the new line would have a connection to the old line, for regional trains to Mamurras and Laç. Obviously that requires the electrification and modernisation of the old line, as far as Lezhe. The new line would turn away from the SH1 at Thumane, and run west of the built-up area, rejoining the motorway A1 about 6 km further north.
From there, it would follow the A1 for about 13 km, and then diverge onto an alignment through the fields, to the Drin River bridge at Lezhe. About 700 m before the bridge, the new line would join the existing alignment into Lezhe station, which would then be 57 km from central Tiranë.
At least one additional track is needed through Lezhe station, because this section would be shared with freight trains, and with regional services from Mamurras and Laç. Lezhë town has a population of 16 000, the municipality 65 000. The station site is very close to the centre, and has enough space for complete reconstruction, which would certainly be necessary.
Immediately north of the station a new tunnel would be needed, under a small ridge. The line would then cross the Drin again, and continue through the plains to Shkodër, the fourth section of the new line. One option is to follow the existing alignment, which is mainly straight and level. The new line might also follow the new main road, SH1.
However a better alignment is possible, straight through the plain, avoiding the small hills and ridges. It would parallel the SH1 for only 3 km, near Gocaj. It would pass west of Blinisht, east of Dajç, and then cross the Drin at Stajkë, to join the existing alignment about 7 km from Shkodër. The existing line crosses the Drin on a secondary dam at Mjedë, but the new line would have its own bridge, about 1200 m downstream from the dam.
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Shkodër is the only city between Tiranë and Podgorica, with a population of 136 000. Using the existing alignment, the new line would cross the river Kir into the station, which is just north of the river, and east of the centre.
The Lezhe – Shkodër section would be 34 km long, giving a total length for the new line of 91-92 km. Until there are connecting high-speed lines, for instance to Podgorica, a fast inter-regional service is sufficient. With three intermediate stations, on a completely new line, a Tiranë – Shkodër journey time of 45 minutes is feasible.