Europe’s forgotten railway network

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NINE years ago this month (in May 2011) I paid a visit to Europe’s most isolated country, Albania, and spent the next five days travelling the whole of its decrepit railway network, before the most scenic section of route was suddenly closed a year later.

As desperately needed investment seems set to revive at least part of this remarkable and ramshackle system, this is an expanded and illustrated version of my original 2011 account, with an update at the end on developments since that visit.

It ranks as Europe’s newest national rail system, with construction only having started after World War Two and completed in the mid-1980s, but it is also the most isolated and run-down, and must surely be the cheapest to travel on.

Superlatives abound when it comes to talking about Hekurudhë ë Shqipërisë or HSH, the national railway of Albania (“the Land of the Eagles”), so what is it really like, this 356km (223 mile) network that in 2011 could be travelled for total fares of less than €10.00?

Setting out on 28 May 2011 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 windows in carriages are something to be dreamed of, in a country where throwing stones at passing trains seems to be a national pastime.

For all its 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.

IMG_2586The former home in Tiranë of Albania’s legendary post-war leader, Enver Hoxha

Hoxha came to power in 1946 following establishment of communist rule, and a year later, in November 1947, the first 43km section of line from Durrës south to a station called Pequin was opened. Trains reached the capital, Tiranë, less than two years later, while the last section of today’s passenger rail network – from Fier to the resort town of Vlorë – only opened in October 1985, the year of Hoxha’s death.

Albania_01One final section of line opened four years later, in 1989 – a branch from the town of Milot (on the northern route to Shkodër) 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 closed completely just a year later, after a working life of just eight years.

The 2011 HSH network comprised a core route from the important ferry port of Durrës to Tiranë, a distance of just under 37kms, with a northern branch leaving this route at Vorë and going to the city of Shkodër and then onwards – for freight only – across the border with Montenegro at Hani I Hotit.

Heading off the Durrës-Tiranë line at Shkozet, site of the main HSH locomotive works and 2kms east of Durrës, is a 152km line going south then east to the important town of Elbasan, and finally alongside Lake Ohrit to Pogradec.

IMG_2655Diverging from this southern route at Rrogozhine (34kms from Durrës) is a branch to the towns of Fier and Vlorë. Another 24km branch leading inland from Fier serves an oil refinery at Ballsh and also had a passenger service until 2001.

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 Durrës and Tiranë, but only one train each day reaches the three other extremities of the system at Shkodër, Vlorë and Pogradec, with one additional service between Durrës and Elbasan and one shuttle service between Rrogozhine and Fier.

IMG_2763Travelling 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 a motley collection of imported and life-expired coaches, with a remarkably attentive at-seat catering service on some routes, it is not to be missed!

One amusing sight at Durrës station was this publicity poster, featuring a very British-looking HST in BR Inter-City livery!

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 Tiranë to Elbasan, comprising T669-1053 and two red and white coaches.

IMG_2774  T669-1053 arrives Durrës on 30 May 2011 with its train formed of 2 ex-FS coaches

After reversal at Durrës 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 Vlorë, 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 toilets once stood! There are 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.

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The schedules on both this line and the Pogradec route are very slack and we arrive in Vlorë 16 minutes early, at 17.34.

Like the station building itself, the platform at Vlorë station was obviously built in anticipation of major tourist traffic and could easily accommodate a 12-coach train on each of its 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-Tiranë service and T669-1057 on the daily Tiranë-Pogradec train.

IMG_2654T669-1057 waits at Elbasan on 29 May 2011 with the daily service to Pogradec

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.

IMG_2719 Pogradec on 29 May 2011, where passengers board ahead of the daily 13.50 departure

Apart from the magnificent scenery of this line – which also passes over the highest bridge in Albania at 47m (photo below) – 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.IMG_2693 T669-1004 and some of the 20+ redundant Class T669 locos at Prrenjas on 29 May 2011

Another lengthy stop is at Prrenjas (below), allowing time to photograph some of the 20 or so dumped locomotives that stand in two lines alongside the station, as seen above. These are principally  Czech T669 Co-Co diesels, now the sole motive power on HSH, but also include a handful of some earlier Czech locos, the T435 Bo-Bo diesels (1959-61).

IMG_2689There is also one survivor of the five renowned German V200 class locos (V200-2003), which were acquired by HSH from Deutsche Bundesbahn (ex 221 125) in 1989.

IMG_2721After a 20 minute turn-around at Pogradec (photo above) the train departs for Tiranë 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 Tiranë.  Following a couple more welcome beers from the ever-attentive and unofficial on-board team, we arrive on time in Durrës at 20.05 and finally get to Tiranë on schedule at 21.25.

IMG_2737No 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 Tiranë on the day of my visit (30 May).

IMG_2754My 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 wanted to, provided I came to see him again after my tour of the extensive works site!

IMG_2748On 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 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.

IMG_2733Steam 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 (pictured above). A German fireless 0-6-0T, No. 72, is also stored in scrap condition.

IMG_2626T669-1047 awaits departure from Durrës on 30 May 2011 with a service for Tiranë

From Shkozet depot the easiest way back to the station at Durrës (photo above), some 2 kms away, is to walk down the disused second line that parallels the “main line” and originally formed the branch to Durrës port. As in so many countries, the railway is regarded as an unofficial footpath, and it is remarkable to note the high quality of the now disused track, which sits on concrete sleepers dating from only 1991.

IMG_2864Note the horse and cart on the left as T669-1046 backs onto wagons near Vorë

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 a huge dump at Narte, just north of Vlorë.

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  from Shkodër 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 Vorë for Hani I Hotit at around 09.00 on two separate occasions during my visit.

IMG_2827A war memorial alongside the railway line from Vorë to Skhodër

Completing my whistle-stop tour of HSH I travelled on took the 13.10 service from Tiranë to Skhodër, a journey of three and a half hours, though in contrast to the routes south, the train was late in both directions.

IMG_2823The north Albanian town of Milot, as seen from my Shkodër-bound train on 31 May 2011

On the outward journey I spent an animated couple of hours talking to a large group of Catholics from Shkodër (birth-place of Mother Theresa’s parents and a centre of Catholicism in Albania), for whom 31 May was a significant day and who joined the train at a station called Lac, 50kms south of Shkodër having spent the day visiting a nearby church dedicated to St. Antonio.

IMG_2717A view across Lake Ohrid, with the Macedonian coastline visible on the far side of the lake

Like all the other HSH services I travelled on, the Shkodër 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 Tiranë by people transporting bagfuls of fresh fruit, vegetables and even live chickens, for sale at the large market alongside Tiranë station.

IMG_2853The 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 (pictured here). The super-power of two locomotives did nothing to improve our poor punctuality (50 minute late arrival in Tiranë) so seemed more to do with moving locos around the network.

Stations on HSH vary from the distinctly spartan, as at Tiranë, to some substantial glass and concrete buildings at Vlorë and Shkodër, whose two-storey structures have more the feel of an airport terminal than of a railway station.

The huge terminal at Vlorë was locked up when the only train of the day arrived at 17.34, but is open and manned by two ticket ladies at 04.15 on Sunday morning before departure of the only train at 05.00, and is then presumably locked up again!

IMG_2760The only architecturally interesting building on the whole HSH system is the imposing former station and offices at Durrës Port (above). 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 Tiranë to Durrës is LEK 70 single (€0.50) and LEK 110 (€0.70) for a return, while for longer distances, Tiranë to Vlorë is LEK 250 (€1.80) and Tiranë to Pogradec is LEK 295 (€2.10).IMG_4690Pictured above are all the tickets I bought during my five day Albanian adventure

On the longest day of my visit I left Vlorë at 05.00 and, travelling to Pogradec then back to Tiranë, reaching the capital over 16 hours later at 21.25 yet having only spent a total of LEK 615 (€4.40) in fares.

IMG_2671A viaduct on the line to Pogradec, once described as one of Europe’s most scenic rail routes

Getting to Albania is fairly straightforward, with BA flying several days a week from London Gatwick to Tiranë. By land and sea, the obvious way to arrive is by ferry from Bari in Italy to Durrës, where the port is a mere 300 metre walk to the railway station.

IMG_2779One of the aged Italian coaches, still bearing an FS logo, that found a new home on the HSH 

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 Shkodër, 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 updated for a number of years) 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. Tiranë is an attractive and 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 I couldn’t find the section devoted to Enver Hoxha!

IMG_2761In Durrës there is an impressive Roman amphitheatre in the town centre (pictured above), there are many other historic sites at places such as Berat, while Vlorë is the northern end of an 80km stretch of unspoilt beaches extending southwards as far as Saranda, close to the Greek border.

IMG_2768Super power with T669-1047/61 for the 13.00 Durrës-Tiranë service on 30 May 2011

Albanian people 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 whole story. The Albanian people I encountered on my five-day visit were remarkably friendly, keen to find out why on earth an Englishman should be taking such an interest in their decrepit railway, and totally amazed that I should be travelling on it!

Travelling alone always raises questions about personal safety, but on my springtime visit I 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!

IMG_2611T669-1051 waits at Tiranë on 31 May 2011 with the daily 13.10 departure for Shkodër

The Albanians are nation of market traders – there are markets and street traders everywhere, from the centre of Tiranë to another along the track 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 Tiranë, Vlorë and Shkodër 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.

IMG_2590In Tiranë (pictured above) 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.

IMG_2640T669-1060 at Vlorë on 28 May 2011 with the following day’s 05.00 service to Rrogozhine

Proximity to the railway stations was critical to my planning at both Vlorë and Shkodër, since the sole daily trains from each place leave at 05.00 (ex-Vlorë) and 05.40 (ex-Shkodër). In Vlorë I found the Hotel Riviera (€30 a night) in the heart of the town centre, while at Shkodër 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 Vlorë 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!

IMG_2833Two shades of green at Shkodër on 31 May 2011 where T669-1051/1039 wait to depart

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 40kmph 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 Tiranë with Belgrade?IMG_2675Albania is littered with concrete bunkers like this, and smaller ones like the one seen on the shore of Lake Ohrid. An estimated 800,000 were built during the Enver Hoxha era between 1950 and 1985 to protect the country’s citizens in the event of an invasion!

2020 Update: there has been a significant amount of change on Albania’s rail network since my 2011 tour, with three significant closures, but more recent signs that things may be about to improve.

The country’s most scenic route from Librazhd (near Elbasan) to Pogradec was closed a year after my visit (in summer 2012), due to the deteriorating state of its infrastructure. Since 2016, services from Durrës have only run as far as Elbasan.

A year after the Pogradec closure (in September 2013) the capital city lost its station to road improvements, with services reinstated in 2015 as far as Kashar, 7kms west of Tiranë, from where passengers must complete their journeys by local bus.

Another major section of route to have lost its passenger service has been the one south of Fier to the delightful seaside resort town of Vlorë. Along with this the Fier-Ballsh freight line has closed, so ending oil traffic from the refinery at Ballsh.

Train services were recently halted completely, when HSH ran out of fuel, but reportedly resumed in February 2020. The most recent timetable shows three return Durrës-Kashar services daily, two from Durrës to Shkodër and two from Durrës to Elbasan.

On a more positive note, HSH has secured a €36.9m loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD), along with a similar amount in EC grants, to restore the Durrës-Tiranë route, build a branch-line to serve Tiranë Airport, and a new station west of Tiranë, to be known as the Tiranë Public Transport Terminal (PTT).

For updates on the railways of Albania, I can highly recommend the website of the Enthusiast’s Guide to Travelling the Railways of Europe: www.egtre.info/wiki/Albani

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