New line Tirana – Elbasan

This is an update of an earlier proposal (2009), for a new rail line south-east from Tirana (Tiranë). The line would extend the proposed Shkodër – Tirana line, and could ultimately form part of a high-speed route toward Lake Ohrid and Thessaloníki. Even without further extension, however, proximity and combined population justify a new line Tirana – Elbasan. Since the first proposal in 2009, a motorway between the two cities has been largely completed. The new line would closely follow this A3 motorway.

Although Albania’s rail system has been de facto abandoned, there was a rail connection between Tirana and Elbasan. It was very indirect, because a tunnel under a mountain range was beyond Albania’s limited resources. Tirana is not on the coast, but it is on the edge of the central plain, where Albania’s population is concentrated. Elbasan is further inland, but located in the broad Shkumbin valley. The journey from Tirana to Elbasan started in the opposite direction, to the port city of Durrës. From there, the rail line runs south along the coast, and finally eastwards along the Shkumbin valley.

Click to enlarge: old route to Elbasan, new line in blue…

krrabe-route

The communist-era railway was extended to the shore of Lake Ohrid, but never even reached its planed terminus, Pogradec, let alone Macedonia or Greece.

Tirana had 420 000 inhabitants at the 2011 census, although the agglomeration is now substantially larger. The Elbasan municipality had 142 000 inhabitants. The cities are separated by a mountains, with a maximum elevation of 930 m. The new motorway climbs to a relatively short tunnel, but a railway cannot climb steeply: it must enter tunnel at a lower elevation, and the tunnel will therefore be longer, about 10 km.

Alignment

The proposed new line from Shkodër would end at a new underground terminal station in central Tirana, which is at about 110 m elevation. The design should allow for a south-eastern extension, also in tunnel, parallel to the boulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit. It would pass under the university zone and park, which are on higher ground at about 150 m elevation. The line would emerge alongside the motorway on relatively level terrain, at the edge of the built-up area.

The line would then enter tunnel again, under a ridge, emerging at the village of Mullet. It is now in the valley of the Erzen River. The main valley southeast of Tirana is a tectonic feature, and quite broad, but the valley floor of the Erzen itself is narrow. It is intensively farmed, and some demolition is inevitable. The new railway would run alongside the A3, which itself parallels the old main road.

Central Tirana, behind it the motorway climbing up the Erzen valley…

erzen-valley

At the village of Ibë, the motorway leaves the Erzen, and follows a tributary valley toward the main Krrabë ridge. The motorway crosses this ridge in tunnel, into the Shkumbin valley. The tunnel portal is at about 500 m elevation, but the rail tunnel would start at about 225 m, and that means it would start closer to Ibë. The southern portal of the tunnel would also be at about 225 m, in the valley of the Kusha, a tributary of the Shkumbin. These constraints mean that the rail tunnel will probably pass under the motorway tunnel, but that is not a problem in itself.

krrabe-ridge-tunnel

If geological conditions are unfavourable, a longer tunnel might be needed, with more difficult approach lines. In the most favourable case, the tunnel would be 9 km long.

The southern portal would be near the Mamël-Dopaj exit on the motorway. The line can run very close to the motorway, but not directly alongside it because of the curves. Possibly several short flank tunnels would be needed here. About 3 km further on, the Kusha valley is wide enough for a straight motorway alignment, and if the gradient allows, the railway can exactly follow it.

The motorway descending toward Elbasan…

kusha-valley

At Shijon, the line would turn away from the motorway, turning about 80 degrees to join the existing alignment. From there, it is only 3 km in a straight line to Elbasan station, which is itself about 1 km from the city centre.

Function in the network

The new line would be about 35 km long, station to station. It would carry passenger trains only, which allows for steeper gradients. Even in that case, the line will not allow very high speeds, and a journey time of 20 minutes would be reasonable.

The existing indirect route via Durrës would be upgraded. The route to Durrës would be improved in combination with the proposed new exit line, toward the airport and Shkodër. The line from Durrës to the Shkumbin is also the route to southern Albania, so there is no reason to abandon it. The section along the Shkumbin valley, from Rrogozhinë to Elbasan, would be retained for freight – most traffic will be to Durrës, not Tirana. This section might also carry a Durrës – Elbasan regional service.

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New line Tirana – Elbasan

New rail line Shkodër – Podgorica

This is an updated proposal, first published in 2009, for a new rail line between Podgorica in Montenegro, and Shkodër in Albania. It would connect with the proposed new line Tiranë – Shkodër. Both would be built for high speeds, creating a fast route from Tiranë to Podgorica. There it would join the existing Belgrade – Bar line, which links the Danube basin to the Adriatic. As with all other posts here, the borders are ignored.

titograd-bar-skadar

Podgorica and Shkodër are both located on the plains around Lake Skadar (Lake Scutari, Lake Shkodër, Lake Shkodra). Between the two cities is the Hotit arm of the lake (Humsko Blato, Hotski Zaliv). It is aligned to the north-east, with two parallel ridges alongside it. The existing rail line runs around this inlet, the proposed new line would cross it. The original version suggested a long bridge approached in tunnel, but that is unnecessary. The new line can simply cross the shallow inlet on viaduct, it is only a few metres deep. That alignment would be further south, and in fact is is the shortest between the two cities.

The region in 1904: Austro-Hungarian map from ELTE

lake-scutari-1904

Click to enlarge: lake panorama by Toma Koma under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

lake_skadar_shkoder_albania_2016

The existing Podgorica – Shkodër railway, 64 km long, opened in 1986, as a freight link to the Yugoslav rail network. It was out of service for years due to war, sabotage, and disorder, and is only partially restored.

Podgorica had a population of 204,877 at the 2011 census. Most of the city was built after the Second World War. The municipality contains 10% of Montenegro’s territory, but 30% of its population. The main line through the city is the 476-km Belgrade – Bar railway, Serbia’s access to the sea. Podgorica station is about 1500 m from the central square: it is relatively large, with room for expansion.

The Shkodër line originally ran straight from Podgorica station towards Tuzi, but the junction was relocated further south. After Tuzi, the line climbs up the side of a ridge, and through a short tunnel, to run along the shore of the inlet. At the head of the inlet, the line makes a U-turn, and runs south through the plain. Approaching Koplik, it turns again, and runs parallel to the lake shore, into Shkodër. The station is on the east side of the city, close to the river Kir. Shkodër has a population of 136 000. The station is disused, awaiting restoration of the line from Durrës and Tirana.

New line

The new line does not need to cross the ridge near Tuzi, so it can diverge from the Bar line further south. It would simply cross the plain, running south of Tuzi. There would be no stations: the existing line would be electrified, for freight and limited local services. (There are only two settlements large enough to justify a station: Tuzi and Koplik.) The new line could take the most direct route towards Koplik, with a long viaduct across the marshes and lake. Depending on the geology, it might be better to locate the crossing at the tip of the ridges. In that case, the alignment would be closer to the existing line.

tuzi-plain

About 3-5 km north of Koplik, the new line would join the existing line, and approximately follow it across the plain for about 23 km into Shkodër. Approximately, because urban sprawl has obstructed the alignment. The line near Koplik was built alongside the main road, when Albania had almost no cars, and the line carried almost no trains anyway. Now it crosses numerous access roads for new houses. If there is no better alignment, a viaduct is the obvious solution. In Shkodër itself, there is barely enough space left for a single track: the alignment must be cleared by demolition.

Spot the railway: on the outskirts of Shkodër…

shkoder-outskirts

There is a sharp curve 4 km north of Shkodër station, which must be replaced by a new alignment. Apart from that, clearing the alignment will create sufficient space for upgrading. The railway is very close to the Kir river, and there is only a single line of houses on the eastern side. The station itself is well located, about 1500m from the city centre.

The new line would be 50 km long, in the shortest variant. Longer alignments would be up to 55 km long. With an entirely new line, that should allow a Podgorica – Shkodër journey time of 20 minutes. Journey time Podgorica – Tiranë, with one stop in Shkodër, should be around 65 minutes. 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.

The Belgrade – Bar line was a major project of the former Yugoslavia, 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.

South of Tiranë, the a new rail line across the mountains near Krrabë, would dramatically shorten the route to Elbasan. That could form the start of a new high-speed line east to Thessaloniki, and possibly south-east to Athens. As with the Podgorica – Belgrade line, this crosses the main mountain axis of the Balkans, and it would be a very difficult project.

New rail line Shkodër – Podgorica

New rail line Tiranë – Shkodër

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.

Current situation

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)…

Click to enlarge…

coastal-plain

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 …

mountain-foot

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…

durazzo-tirana

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.

fk-lezhe

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.

Click to enlarge…

lezhe-shkoder

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.

New rail line Tiranë – Shkodër