Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railway: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

I selected my accommodation in Bar based on only one thing, its proximity to the train station. The apartment was within a one-minute walk of the station entrance. The proprietress informed me during check-in that I had plenty of time to purchase my ticket for the Bar to Belgrade journey the next day since this was the off season. I nodded in understanding, finished our conversation quickly and proceeded to immediately walk to the station. Bar’s railway station was an elongated, two story functionalist structure that could have been found almost anywhere and used for anything. The style was architecturally anonymous. It just so happened that this structure was the point of departure/terminus for one of the world’s great railway journeys.

Climatic Conditions - Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Climatic Conditions – Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Lending an air of exoticism was a circular island in front of the station with two squat palm trees. I was suddenly reminded of the palms that framed Split’s station further up the coast in Croatia. The palms were likely a nod to the coastal climate, but they endeared me to these otherwise forgettable ex-Yugoslav stations. Another exotic twist was the station name in both Latin and Cyrillic characters posted above the entrance. I stepped inside wondering what I would find. The answer was a place that looked more like a driver’s license examiner’s office than an end of the line for Montenegrin Railways. A beefy woman behind a glass window said something to me in Serbo-Croatian, which I assumed was, “Can I help you?” I handed her a paper with tomorrow’s date and Belgrade written on it. She proceeded to begin creating a ticket for me.

When I asked for a seat reservation on the left side of the train, she stated in broken English, “left, right I don’t know which on the train”. Her voice was a combination of indifference and annoyance. She had that good old Communist era customer service ethic which refuses to die in state run railway stations. The lady handed me the ticket after I paid a grand total of 24 Euros for what amounted to a Montenegrin version of the great train robbery for tourists. I now had my long-awaited ticket for the next day’s journey. At 9:10 a.m. the train would depart for Belgrade.

Barring the Way - Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Barring the Way – Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Rolling Stock – From The Mountains To The Sea
The Belgrade to Bar railway has possessed the imagination of railway enthusiasts ever since it was completed in 1976. To bring the idea to fruition took a quarter of a century. A great deal of blood, sweat and toil were expended in constructing what turned out to be a magnificent feat of engineering. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this was one of the greatest achievements in the history of Yugoslavia. The terrain it crossed, especially through Montenegro, was formidable in the extreme. While the distance to be covered was daunting. By the time of its completion, the railway threaded its way through 455 kilometers (296 miles) of canyons, alpine terrain, mountain passes, farm fields, villages and cities. On one end was Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. On the other was Bar, a jumping off point for the sublime seafront along the country’s Adriatic coast.

To construct the Belgrade to Bar railway, it only took the most expensive public works project in the history of Yugoslavia. It is not hard to understand why? To make the route viable, 254 tunnels and 435 bridges were built through some of the most rugged terrain a railway line has ever crossed. It is little wonder that the railway was built in sections, starting out with easier terrain in Serbia and getting progressively more difficult as construction proceeded. And difficult was the operative word when it came to the railway’s construction. Beginning in Bar, just a few meters above sea level, the route slowly climbs up to 1,032 meters. Along the way it crosses three different mountain ranges. Even though the route winds it way through mountain valleys, the gradient reaches up to 25% in places. Though the railway length is much shorter through Montenegro (175 kilometers) versus Serbia (301 kilometers) it is also where the most difficult construction work took place. Specifically, along the karst terrain in the Moraca River canyon.

Waiting on a Train - Tracks at Bar Railway Station

Waiting on a Train – Tracks at Bar Railway Station

An Ironic Achievement – A Communist Era Vanity Project
I was looking forward to seeing the Montenegrin portion of the route more than any other. Since it was winter, there would be a lack of daylight during the final third of the journey for me. By starting in Bar, I would see the most impressive sections before sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement. After purchasing my ticket, I went out to see the lines of track and platforms adjacent to the station. For a major railway terminus, the Bar station was eerily quiet. I knew Montenegro’s railways network was quite small when compared to other European countries. I had noticed a poster in the station listing all the different routes and their timetables. It was the shortest list I had seen in any country. Nonetheless, what Montenegro lacked in rolling stock, it more than made up for with the attention bestowed upon its stretch of the Bar to Belgrade railway. It was the lucky recipient of a communist era vanity project. No private enterprise would have undertaken such a financial albatross, only a totalitarian state with the ability to harness massive resources could make this work. The little country of Montenegro would certainly not have attempted such an infrastructure project.

The railway line was also an ironic achievement. These days not many kind words are spoken about Yugoslavia. The violent breakup of that ill-fated polity in the 1990’s led to the loss of thousands of lives, millions of refugees and the splintering of Yugoslavia into seven different nations. In retrospect, it looks like an ill-conceived idea bound to fail. That is just what happened without Josip Tito to keep everyone in line. Many people living in its successor states, such as Montenegro, are uneasy with the idea of Yugoslavia. That does not mean everything the country did was bad, but its violent dissolution casts a shadow over some of its more notable achievements. From everything I read the Belgrade to Bar Railway was one of Yugoslavia’s greatest triumphs. Just how great, was something I planned to find out on my journey.

Click here for: Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)