The socialist federation of Yugoslavia was once crisscrossed by over six thousand miles of rail. Trains conveyed freight from Kosovan mines to Serbian factories and brought youths from all six constituent republics to the Croatian coast for summer camps. In an era when the prized Yugoslav passport granted unparalleled access to both West and East, you could step on a train in Belgrade and wake up in neighboring Austria, Hungary, or even Istanbul, via one iteration of the Orient Express.
But following Yugoslavia’s violent breakup into a patchwork of ethnically stratified states, the rail network is a shadow of its former self. War, NATO bombing, privatization, neglect, theft, the imposition of borders drawn up in Western conference rooms, and the exploitative entry of foreign capital all played their part in the network’s ongoing degradation. Its decline encapsulates the fate of the western Balkans in the postsocialist era.
Today, only a single passenger line ever leaves Serbian territory — the storied, dilapidated line from Belgrade to Bar on the Montenegrin coast. This major feat of Yugoslav engineering took nearly a quarter century to complete, crossing some of Europe’s most beautiful mountains via over sixty miles of tunnels and over four hundred bridges, including what was once the world’s highest railway bridge. Rolling slowly through the pine-covered summits, greeted at mountain stopovers by stationmasters with peaked caps and whistles, the railway was an achievement of massive scale. In this rugged terrain, it’s easy to imagine the harsh conditions which led to the death of over a hundred people during the line’s construction — a stark reminder that Yugoslavia’s model of socialism often failed to ensure workers adequate protection.
Officially opened by President Josip Broz Tito in 1976, the line was the pride of Yugoslavia. Tito himself traveled to Montenegro on the famous “Blue Train,” which he rode throughout the Balkan peninsula, promoting his vision of a decentralized federation of socialist republics not aligned to either Washington or Moscow. Some of the other tracks he traveled were laid by volunteer youth brigades from across Yugoslavia — a quarter of whose members were women — alongside fifty-six internationalist brigades that flocked to the country in the years following its victory over Nazi fascism to help it get on its feet.
Tito’s federal project managed, for the most part, to hold ethnic tensions at bay. A devolved political model was meant to promote fraternal coexistence rather than ethnic chauvinism and prevent any one region from achieving ascendancy. But following its leader’s death in 1980 and the subsequent collapse of Soviet-style state socialism elsewhere in central-eastern Europe, the embers of interethnic tensions were fanned into a maelstrom by both local political strongmen and foreign powers. West and East both sought influence and a piece of the pie in the strategic, soon-to-be-divided region. Tellingly, the Blue Train’s last official journey on state business was to convey Serbian president Slobodan Milošević to the site of a historic battle between Serbs and Ottomans in Kosovo, where he gave an inflammatory speech widely seen as heralding the onset of war between Serb and Albanian nationalists. Ethnic cleansing and partition soon followed.
Traveling to Bar is now an international journey, crossing from Serbia into Bosnia and Herzegovina, back into Serbia, and again into Montenegro. Travelers on the night train are twice woken by monosyllabic border guards demanding to see documents, while police search the train with dogs, on the hunt for refugees en route to Western Europe. Moreover, the line has deteriorated so much that the journey now takes four hours longer in 2023 than it did in 1976, even before frequent hours-long delays. In 2006, the train derailed in a canyon, killing forty-seven people and injuring two hundred, while despite modernization efforts this year have also seen multiple accidents including a fatal collision with a sixty-one-year-old female motorist. The venerable rolling stock acquired from France and Germany is graffiti-covered without and charming but shabby within. Until recently, locomotives from Tito’s Blue Train were still pressed into service on the line, and now gather dust outside Belgrade Central Station, awaiting conversion to museum pieces.
The same is true throughout Serbia. Average passenger train speed throughout the country is reportedly around thirty miles an hour — or only slightly faster than it was in 1884, when the first track was laid between Belgrade and the southern city of Niš. Multiple factors have contributed to this continued degradation. During the 1990s local forces attacked and tore up railway tracks throughout the western Balkans, while NATO damaged four hundred miles of rail infrastructure and killed ten civilians on a passenger train during its 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. Looting, neglect, and privatization followed, with dire consequences for safety standards. Last December, fifty-one people were poisoned when a train carrying ammonia derailed. The looting of overhead cables caused delays on reconstruction of the Belgrade–Bar line, and a train in northern Serbia derailed after bolts were looted from the rails.
The condition of some lines has improved somewhat in recent years, thanks largely to foreign investment from Russia, China, and the European Union (EU), as these powers continue to seek a strategic foothold in the region. Most notably, a new high-speed line has been established between Belgrade and the country’s second city, Novi Sad, based on Russian and Chinese credit. The line is part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative to boost its access to global markets by strengthening rail, road, and maritime trade routes through 150 countries, while placing many of these weaker states in China’s debt. Serbia must pay billions of euros to Beijing in the coming years to service loans taken from Chinese banks to pay Chinese companies to build its infrastructure.
This year, Belgrade also announced a package of €1.6 billion in loans from the European Investment Bank and the Bank for Reconstruction and Development, along with the country’s largest-ever EU grant of €600 million to modernize the line to Niš; meanwhile, Russian loans underwrite the refurbishment of the Belgrade–Bar line, alongside other similar projects. The Balkans are a strategic battleground for all these powers, with autocratic president Aleksandar Vučić under increasing pressure from both Brussels and Moscow to abandon his policy of brinkmanship and pick a side in the confrontation between East and West. As major delays, errors, and squandered loans intended for the Belgrade–Budapest line suggest, these flagship projects are beholden to macropolitical and economic interests that have little to do with ordinary people’s lives. (The new high-speed trains to Novi Sad are sleek, clean, and can reach 125 miles an hour. Though popular with many locals, they were forced to curb their speed after being frequently pelted with stones.)
Nowhere are the dubious benefits of foreign investment in infrastructure more evident than in Belgrade itself. The capital’s beautiful Austro-Hungarian-era central station was closed in 2018 to free up space for the controversial Belgrade Waterfront development. Now, those wishing to board the train to Bar or one of Serbia’s other cities must make an inconvenient journey half an hour outside the city center. Rainwater drips from the roof of the ugly, half-finished station building, which remains isolated from the city, lacking basic facilities and public transport connections. En route to Bar, my bus to the station stops halfway there, meaning I have to dash across lanes of traffic for twenty minutes to make the departure. This new station in the Prokop district is officially called “Belgrade Center,” but given its distance from downtown Belgrade, no local dignifies it with the term.
Half a Metropolis
Belgrade’s own public transport is also in poor condition. The Serbian capital is Europe’s largest city without a rapid transit system, relying on an aging fleet of buses and trolleybuses. No-shows and long queues are common, pushing irate commuters back into private cars, in turn causing more traffic. (The city has been mockingly referred to as “half a metropolis” due to its lack of a metro, punning on the Serbian word “pola,” meaning “half.”) Plans for a metro system have repeatedly foundered for a century due to mismanagement and lack of funds, and the capital is only finally getting a metro by way of the Belgrade Waterfront. But just like the new rail station, this €4.6 billion metro project is widely seen as intended to facilitate the Waterfront development and line the pockets of the government-linked elite.
“We’re half a century behind the rest of Europe, but this is not a good solution,” says Zoran Bukvic, transport coordinator for Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own, an environmental campaign group which has recently entered both Belgrade city assembly and the national legislature. He explains that a long-term plan intended to serve key residential, service, and commercial areas was scrapped, with the new metro terminus planned directly below the Waterfront. “The location was set at Belgrade Waterfront in order to increase the value of the land, making this part of the city more attractive for construction and development.” This has also dramatically increased the cost of the metro project, since tunnels must now be sunk deep under the Sava River, Bukvic adds.
The Waterfront development, awarded to an Abu Dhabi–based investment firm, will grant that developer a 68 percent share in the project, with opposition politicians saying Serbian taxpayers will nonetheless have to underwrite much of the costs. The development, partially taking place on land which used to belong to the Serbian rail company, has been dogged by workers’ deaths, forcible evictions, summary demolitions, and accusations of corruption and lack of transparency (there was no competition for the tender, and other contracts have been kept in the dark).
As an alternative to the new metro, intended to line the pockets of foreign businessmen and their local cronies, Bukvic proposes a light underground transit system connecting sites of genuine public need and freeing up space on the streets for more public transport and bicycle lanes. As it is, he warns, Serbians will continue turning to private car ownership in increasing numbers, bucking European trends as old diesel cars arrive from the West. But so long as the petrodollars continue to flow, there is little chance of such a policy being adopted. The rerouted metro line is described by critics as going from “nowhere to nowhere.” For the time being, hopes for a revitalized train network and public transport system must suffer the same fate.