High-speed rail line Novi Sad – Belgrade

Reconstruction of the line is underway: see the update March 2020.

The city of Novi Sad has a strategic location: a north-south route from central Europe to the southern Balkans, crosses the Danube here. That makes the city a transport hub, but also a military target: the Danube bridges were bombed as recently as 1999, during the Kosovo War.

Bombed rail bridge: by Darko Dozet, CC3 licence

Жежељев_мост_свакодневно_су_погађале_ракете_типа_Томахавк

The rail route from Vienna and Budapest to Belgrade (Beograd) is now being upgraded, although very slowly. This post looks at the options for a high-speed rail line (HSL) on this corridor. It would extend the high-speed line Budapest – Szekszárd – Novi Sad, proposed here earlier.

Novi Sad is a logical place for Danube bridge, because it is at the northern tip of the Fruška Gora mountain range. The range runs east-west, it is about 80 km long, and the Danube flows east-west to avoid it. The range has a ‘promontory’ on the northern side, and the Danube also bends around this promontory. At its northern tip is the fortress of Petrovaradin, and on the opposite bank is the city of Novi Sad.

Although this is the most favourable site for a north-south bridge, the Fruška Gora is an obstacle. In 1883 a railway was built from Budapest, via Novi Sad, to Belgrade. (Except for Belgrade, the line was inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) The railway crossed the Danube at the Petrovaradin fortress — in fact it ran in tunnel underneath it. To avoid the highest part of the Fruška Gora range, the railway then turned south-east along the Danube.

NS-Beograd overview

15 km east of Novi Sad, the Fruška Gora ridge is lower, and the railway line could cross it. From Petrovaradin it first follows the curving edge of the flood plain, then climbs up the flank of the ridge, and then passes through a short tunnel at Čortanovci. With many curves, this section has a 70-km speed limit. On the southern side of the ridge, the terrain slopes downward toward Belgrade, and construction of the rest of the line was easy. The old main road has a similar route — first southeast from Petrovaradin, and then over the ridge. The E75 motorway avoids Novi Sad, and crosses the Danube further east, where it can cross the Fruška Gora without a tunnel. On the rail route, high speed is only possible with new alignments and longer tunnels: this post considers the options.

Video: the whole line in 30 minutes …

There is another temporary obstacle: the reconstruction of the bombed Žeželj bridge has been delayed. Restoration of this bridge (Žeželjev Most) is a precondition for any upgrading of the Budapest – Belgrade rail route, but it is not enough. A high-speed line would require additional tracks across the Danube. The simplest solution is an extra rail bridge, at the same site.

Restoration of the original route under the Petrovaradin fortress is pointless. The old tunnel is still visible, but the main station was relocated when the Žeželj bridge was opened in 1961, and all its approach tracks were built over. The city now plans a road bridge on the old bridge pillars, and a new road tunnel under the fortress. The infrastructure proposed here would create a four-track route between Novi Sad and Belgrade. That is not excessive, since this is one of two main rail routes from Central Europe to the Balkans (the other is along the Sava Valley). A high-speed line must be reserved for high-speed trains, and the existing line should be double-tracked because of its strategic function — that is planned anyway.

New alignment: Danube and Fruška Gora

With restoration of the Žeželj bridge, there is a reasonable exit route from the main station, across the Danube to Petrovaradin. After that, the low quality of the 1883 line is soon apparent: it is single-track as far as Indjija. There is a sharp curve north of Petrovaradin station, which would slow high-speed trains leaving the Žeželj bridge. New fast tracks can avoid this, however, if a second Žeželj bridge is offset from the existing bridge, at a slight angle. New tracks would then use an easier curve into Petrovaradin station, which is itself on a straight section. Demolition of a few houses would be necessary, allowing the existing curve to be improved as well.

Click to enlarge…

New Danube bridge

South of Petrovaradin, the existing line winds along the edge of the flood plain to Sremski Karlovci. The simple solution is to replace it by a single curve, partly cut into the edge of the higher ground. That is not compatible with the existing alignment, so a new four-track section would replace it. This new 4-km alignment would end near Sremski Karlovci station, on a straight section, about 12 km from Novi Sad.

Karlovci

South of Sremski Karlovci, there is a sharp bend, and then more curves, as the line again follows the edge of the higher ground. In places it is directly on the Danube bank. A new 1500 m alignment through the flood plain, possibly on viaduct, would avoid the sharp curve. Further on, the curves would be improved, again by shifting the line inland in places, cutting into the higher ground. The last curve to be improved in this way is at Karlovački vinogradi station, just before a small river port / oil terminal.

Click to enlarge…

Sremski Karlovci south

At the river port, the existing line starts to climb up the escarpment, toward the Čortanovci tunnel. This is the worst section of the line, and a new alignment would start at the port. There are three options here. The first is a 7-km tunnel to north of Beška, possibly with a new alignment around Beška itself. This would be a combination of a flank tunnel (parallel to the Danube) and a ridge tunnel to Beška. It would avoid Čortanovci, and if the existing line was also re-routed in this way, the village (population 2300) would lose its station.

The second option (shown in green) is a tunnel from the river port to the valley alongside Čortanovci station. It could be for fast trains only, but a tunnel with an easier gradient is better for freight trains. A four-track version is more logical, with a new station at Čortanovci. After the village there would be a second short tunnel, and a new 4-km alignment to Beška, with a new station there.

beska

The longest option is a 15-km line for high-speed trains only, from the river port to Indjija. A 6-km tunnel would climb about 80 m, to relatively flat terrain behind the ridge, creating an almost straight alignment from Sremski Karlovci to Indjija. The existing line would be upgraded for all other traffic, possible with a new tunnel up to Čortanovci station. This option would avoid not only Čortanovci, but also Beška (population 6000).

Indjija HSL

In all options, there would be only three or four stations between Novi Sad and Indjija: Petrovaradin, Sremski Karlovci, Beška, and possibly Čortanovci. The town of Indjija is about 35 km from Novi Sad on the existing line, and a suitable terminus for urban-regional trains. (The new alignments will not substantially shorten the route, about 1 km at most). Indjija is 42 km from Belgrade, and is also the planned terminus of the regional metro Beovoz.

Indjija to Zemun

If high speed trains pass through Beška, three curves on the line to Indjija must be upgraded. The proposed alignment direct from the Danube bank to Indjija would avoid this problem. In any case, high-speed trains would use the existing alignment through Indjija: there is enough space for four tracks, but perhaps in cutting for environmental reasons.

South of Indjija, the existing alignment to Zemun is suitable for high speeds. It can either be reconstructed as a four-track line, comparable to the German Ausbaustrecken, or a separate HSL could be built alongside it. Where it passes housing, in Batajnica and Zemun, the line could be lowered into cutting. At Zemun, the line drops 15 m from a plateau, to the Danube flood plain. The original surface alignment was replaced by a tunnel, and a new line through suburban Novi Beograd. A second tunnel is needed, possibly starting at Zemun station, and extra tracks through Novi Beograd.

After Novi Beograd station, the line splits, to cross the Sava river. There is a single-track bridge into the old Main Station (Glavna Stanica), and a double-track bridge to the new, incomplete, Beograd Centar station. The single-track bridge needs a replacement, preferably on a better alignment: the version shown is indicative.

Novi Beograd

A new line through Zemun and Novi Beograd was proposed here earlier. Its purpose is to allow a new central station, on the site of the existing Glavna Stanica. That is not a precondition for a high-speed line from Novi Sad, but the Belgrade approach lines must certainly be upgraded. The incomplete Beograd Centar station is designed for through services, but that is more appropriate for regional and inter-regional trains. High-speed services from Vienna and Budapest should preferably terminate in Belgrade. The rail lines southwards have limited capacity: there is no double-track railway to Greece, Bulgaria or Turkey, let alone high-speed lines. Even if they were built, Belgrade is still the logical interchange point. The old main station can be expanded as an interchange station, and it adjoins the historic city centre.

The high-speed route from Novi Sad to Belgrade would be 76 km long. The high-speed tracks themselves would have no intermediate station, but a fast inter-regional service might leave them, to stop at Indjija. Very high speeds would be possible only on the central part of the high-speed line, from Beška to Zemun. The approaches to Belgrade’s main station might be difficult to improve, but journey time should nevertheless be close to 30 minutes.

High-speed rail line Novi Sad – Belgrade

Rail structure in Moldova and Budjak

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

Carpathian_Mountains

 
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.

Existing lines

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.

HSL Kiev - Iași - Bucharest, route options south of Tecuci.

 
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.

moldova lines new

 
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.

Regional lines

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…

Moldova-North

 
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…

regional-Budjak

 
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…

Moldova_lines_administrativa

 
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.

Rail structure in Moldova and Budjak