It ranks as Europe’s newest national rail system, started after World War Two and only completed in the mid 1980s, it is the most isolated and run down, and it must surely be the cheapest. Superlatives abound when it comes to talking about Hekurudha Shqipetare, or HSH, the national railway of Albania (“the land of the eagles”), so what is it really like, this system of 356 route kilometres (since reduced through closure), that could be covered in its entirely for a total fare of less than €10.00?
Setting out with the aim of travelling the entire network in five days was like taking a step back in time and into some parallel universe. Life on HSH is run at a sedate pace, survival of the whole system seemingly hanging by a thread, and where un-broken and fully glazed windows in carriages are something to be dreamed of, in a country where throwing stones at passing trains seems to be something of a national pastime.
For all its current difficulties, the Albanian rail system has a remarkably short history. While there were some narrow gauge industrial lines in the 1920s, the present standard gauge system was almost entirely opened during the rule of Enver Hoxha, the dictatorial leader of post-war Albania, who famously turned his back on the Soviet Union in 1960 and turned instead to China for a different style of communist rule.
Hoxha came to power in 1946 following establishment of communist rule, and a year later, in November 1947, the first 43 km section of line from Durres south to a station called Pequin was opened. Trains reached the capital, Tirana, less than two years later, while the last section of today’s passenger rail network – from Fier to the resort town of Vlore – opened in October 1985, the year of Hoxha’s death.
One final section of line opened four years later, in 1989 – a branch from the town of Milot (on the northern route to Shkoder) to Rreshen – which was initially opened for freight traffic only, though saw a remarkably short-lived passenger service from January 1995 until November 1996, and was closed completely just a year later, after a working life of just eight years.
Today’s HSH network comprises a core route from the important ferry port of Durres to Tirana, a distance of just under 37 kms, with a northern branch leaving this route at Vore and going to the city of Shkoder and then onwards – for freight only – across the border with Montenegro at Hani I Hotit. Heading south from the Durres-Tirana line at Shkozet, site of the main HSH locomotive works and two kms east of Durres, is a 152 km line heading south then east to the towns of Elbasan and Pogradec [services on the scenic line to Pogradec have sadly been withdrawn since my 2011 trip].
Diverging from this southern route at Rrogozhine (34 kms from Durres) is a branch to the towns of Fier and Vlore. Another 24 km branch leading inland from Fier serves an oil refinery at Ballsh and also had a passenger service until the year 2000.
Services on HSH are not only slow, with a ruling speed limit on most of the system of 40 or 45 km/hr, but also pretty sparse. There a total of six trains each way between Durres and Tirana, but only one train each day reaches the three other extremities of the system at Shkoder, Vlore and Pogradec, with one additional service between Durres and Elbasan and one shuttle service between Rrogozhine and Fier.
Travelling on Albanian trains feels more like travelling on a preserved railway than on a strategic part of Europe’s railway infrastructure. But for anyone not in a hurry, who likes the thought of trundling through rural and sometimes highly scenic countryside at a sedate 40 km/h in life expired 1950s coaches, with a remarkably attentive at-seat catering service on some routes, it is not to be missed!
My five day HSH adventure, which cost a grand total of LEK 1270 (€9.00) in fares, began on Saturday, 28 May 2011, when I boarded the 11.45 from Tirana to Elbasan, comprising T669-1053 and two red and white coaches. After reversal at Durres we continued at 13.00 and on the hour long journey to the junction station at Rrogozhine I get my first chance to sample the on-train catering when a man with a large basket of goodies boards the train at Lekaj and sells me an ice cold can of beer for LEK 100 (€0.70)
Alighting at Rrogozhine, I board the daily shuttle service to Vlore, which is hauled by T669-1060 and comprises two pretty grim coaches, at the ends of which are cubicles which have holes in the floor where the toilets once were! There are welcome signs of industrial activity en route at Fier, where loco T669-1049 stands in the station and where the Ballsh branch looks to be still in use.
The schedules on both this line and the Pogradec route are very slack and we arrive in Vlore 16 minutes early at 17.34. Like the station building itself, the platform at Vlore station was obviously built in anticipation of major tourist traffic and could easily accommodate a 12-coach train on each of the two platform faces.
Travelling north again on Sunday morning, there is the only opportunity to see three Albanian trains at the same time, when we reach Rrogozhine at 08.20, shortly before arrival of T669-1053 on the Elbasan-Tirana service and T669-1057 on the daily Tirana-Pogradec train. I now join the Pogradec service for its five-hour and highly scenic journey east and then south alongside the shores of Lake Ohrid to the station at Pogradec. There were grand plans to extend this line across the border to Florina in Greece, but the line today doesn’t even quite make it to Pogradec, the station being 2kms short of the town itself.
Apart from the magnificent scenery of this line – which also passes over the highest bridge in Albania at 47m – there is an amusing stop at the wayside station of Xhyre, where everyone on the train, including the driver, piles off to fill up bottles from a spring water well on the station platform. Another lengthy stop is at Prenjas, allowing time to photograph some of the 20 or so dumped locomotives that stand in two lines alongside the station.
These are principally earlier examples of the Czech-built T669 Co-Co diesels, now the sole motive power on HSH, but also include a handful of some earlier Czech locomotives, the T435 Bo-Bo diesels, dating back to 1959-61 and long since withdrawn from service. There is also one of the five renowned German V200, V200-2003, acquired by HSH from Deutsche Bundesbahn (ex 221 125) in 1989.
After a 20 minute turn-around at Pogradec the train departs for Tirana at 13.50, passing T669-1053 at Elbasan, which has arrived earlier in the afternoon and will stable there overnight to form an early morning service to Tirana. After a couple more welcome beers from the ever attentive and unofficial on-board team, we arrive on time in Durres at 20.05 and finally get to Tirana, again on schedule, at 21.25.
No visit to the HSH system would be complete without a visit to Shkozet works, hub of the whole operation and the place where valiant efforts are made to keep the locomotive fleet operational. Although an unadvertised halt, it seems to do good business and most passing trains appear to stop there, including the 08.30 from Tirana on the day of my visit (30 May).
My initial attempts at photography were interrupted by a polite but firm security policeman, who marched me off to the railway offices and introduced me to Chief Rolling Stock Engineer, Gramos Gjikolli. He not only spoke extremely good English, but interrupted a meeting he was chairing with a dozen of his staff to give me official permission to photograph whatever I want to, provided I came to see him again after my tour of the extensive works site!
On the day of my visit, there were three groups of locomotives at the depot: on shed and in traffic were T669.1032/38/44/57/59/61; in a line of what looked like scrap or stored stock were T669.1011/12/19/26/37/45/52 while in the locomotive works were T669.1013/18/41/42/48. Interestingly the first couple of the locos in the works had previously been reported as being in the long term store at Prrenjas, so may have been in the process of being cannibalised for spares.
Steam last worked in Albania in 1991, but there are still two members of the class of six Polish Tkt48 2-8-2T locomotives present at Shkozet, three others having only recently been cut up. One unidentifiable member of the class remains in the roofless former steam shed, while Tk48.02, rumoured to be the subject of a future restoration project, stands separately and under heavy undergrowth. Besides these two, a German fireless 0-6-0T, No. 72, is also stored in scrap condition.
From Shkozet depot the easiest way back to the station at Durres, some 2 kms away, is to walk down the disused second line that parallels the “main line” and originally formed the branch to Durres port. As in so many countries, the railway is regarded as an unofficial footpath. On this walk, it is remarkable to note the high quality of the now disused track, which sits on concrete sleepers dating from only 1991.
Freight traffic was once a mainstay of the Albanian railway system, but is now very sparse, as evidenced by the hundreds of abandoned freight wagons littered around the system, notably in the huge dump of abandoned wagons at Narte, just north of Vlore. The only remaining freight traffic on the HSH system emanates from a steel works just west of Elbasan and from the oil refinery at Ballsh and heads north on the freight route north from Shkoder into Montenegro.
Gramos Gjikolli at Shkozet depot claims that there are three freight trains a day, although I saw no evidence of the oil traffic and the only freight I saw was a train of five covered wagons – presumably containing steel products from Elbasan – waiting to depart Vore for Hani I Hotit at around 09.00 on two separate occasions during my visit.
Completing my whistle-stop tour of HSH I travelled on took the 13.10 service from Tirana to Skhoder, a journey of three and a half hours, though in contrast to the routes south, the train was late in both directions. On the outward journey I spent an animated couple of hours talking to a large group of Catholics from Shkoder (a centre for Catholcsm in Albania), for whom 31 May was a significant day and who joined the train at a station called Lac, 50kms south of Shkoder having spent the day visiting a nearby church dedicated to St. Antonio.
Like all the other HSH services I travelled on, the Shkoder train comprises two passenger coaches, but it also includes an ancient Polish baggage car, which is well used on the early morning return journey to Tirana by people transporting bagfuls of fresh fruit and vegetables, and even live chickens, for sale at the large market alongside Tirana station.
The morning southbound service on 1 June was one of a number of trains I noted that was double headed – in this case by T669-1039/1051. The super-power of two locomotives did nothing to improve our poor punctuality (50 minute late arrival in Tirana) so seemed more to do with moving locos around the network.
Stations on HSH vary from the distinctly spartan, as at Tirana, to some substantial glass and concrete buildings at Vlore and Shkoder whose two-storey structures have more the feel of an airport terminal than of a railway station. The huge terminal at Vlore was locked up when the only train of the day arrived at 17.50, but is open and manned by two ticket ladies at 04.15 on Sunday morning before departure of the only train of the day at 05.00, and is then presumably locked up for the rest of the day!
The only architecturally interesting station on the whole HSH system is the imposing former station and railway offices at Durres Port. This is now sadly cut off from the rail system by a huge expansion of the ferry terminal and a new link road to it, which has swept away all trace of the once extensive rail complex serving the harbour area.
What is remarkable about HSH is how cheap it is to travel. The fare from Tirana to Durres is LEK 70 single (€0.50) and LEK 110 (€0.70) for a return, while for longer distances, Tirana to Vlore is LEK 250 (€1.80) and Tirana to Pogradec is LEK 295 (€2.10). On the longest day of my visit I left Vlore at 05.00 and, travelling to Pogradec then back to Tirana, reaching the capital over 16 hours later at 21.25 yet having only spent a total of LEK 615 (€4.40) in fares.
Getting to Albania is fairly straightforward, with BA flying five days a week from London Gatwick to Tirana. By land and sea, the obvious way to arrive is by ferry from Bari in Italy to Durres, where the port is a mere 300 metre walk to the railway station. It is also possible to travel by rail to the town of Podgorica in Montenegro and then take a taxi to the Albanian border at Hani I Hotit and another taxi onwards to Shkoder, as described in much more detail – along with other overland travel alternatives – at the very useful http://www.seat61.com website.
A must have item for any visit to the Albanian rail system is the Quail map of Albania (£1.20). It is somewhat dated, having been published in 1997, but is an invaluable guide to track layouts, distances etc. Check also http://www.angelfire.com/ak/hekurudha, which has detailed information (though not recently updated) on HSH rolling stock and an excellent narrative description of the entire rail network.
Albania has a lot more to offer the tourist than just its amazing railway. Tirana is a bustling capital designed by Italians in the 1930s. It has a marvellous museum detailing the country’s colourful history from pre-historic times until the Second World War – though somehow I couldn’t find a section devoted to the Hoxha era! In Durres there is a Roman amphitheatre in the town centre, there are many other historic sites at places such as Berat, while Vlora is the northern end of an 80km stretch of unspoilt beaches extending southwards as far as Saranda, close to the Greek border.
Albanian people seem to get something of a bad press in the international media, often being associated with organised crime and people trafficking, but that is far from the real story. The Albanian people encountered on my recent five-day visit were remarkably friendly, keen to find out why on earth and Englishman should be taking such an interest in their decrepit railway, and amazed that I should be travelling on it!
Travelling alone always raises questions about personal safety, but on my springtime visit encountered no problems whatsoever. Every train has at least one uniformed policeman on it, and most people seemed more interested in their mobile phones than they did in my SLR camera! The Albanians are nation of market traders – there are markets and street traders everywhere, from the centre of Tirana to another literally along the trackside at Elbasan, yet there is none of the hassling you would expect to find in places like Egypt, Turkey or India.
Organising a stay in Albania is easy. Having worked out my rail itinerary, I booked hotels in Tirana, Vlore and Shkoder via an efficient local web-site: http://www.albania-hotel.com, which issued pre-paid vouchers within moments of making my online payment, and proved very helpful in making a last minute change to my bookings.
In Tirana I found the perfectly acceptable Europa Hotel, which cost €35 a night for a single room. It is hard to find the first time, being in a maze of back alleys between two principal streets leading west from Skenderbeg Square, the Rruga Myslym Shyri and the Rruga Cameria. Once found, however, it is less than 5 minutes’ walk from the terminal stop of the Rinas Express airport bus (hourly on the hour, LEK 250 single) and just a 15 minute walk up the Bulevardi Zogu to the railway station.
Proximity to the railway stations was critical to my planning at both Vlore and Shkoder, since the sole daily trains from each place leave at 05.00 (ex-Vlore) and 05.40 (ex-Shkoder). In Vlore I found the Hotel Riviera (€30 a night) in the heart of the town centre, while at Shkoder it was the Kolping Hotel (€25) very close to the Cathedral, and again an easy 15 minute walk from the railway station.
One word of warning though is that many Albanian roads do not have names, and even those that do are not always marked. My attempts to find the Riviera Hotel in Vlore nearly came unstuck when I showed the street plan I had printed off Google to a group of men sitting outside a bar and asked them to confirm on it where I was. I had correctly guessed, but they did not have a clue, even though they were sitting in one of the town’s main thoroughfares!
So what does the future hold for HSH? On the face of it, things look pretty bleak and sitting in a train trundling along at 40kh/hr alongside a brand new dual carriageway makes one wonder how long the current hand-to-mouth existence can continue. But there has been talk that its eventual membership of the European Union might unlock funds to begin a desperately needed modernisation programme. The border rail crossing could surely be opened up for passenger use, so is it really too much to dream that we might one day see HSH properly connected to the European rail network, with a daily passenger service linking Tirana with Belgrade?