Danube 2: White Elephant or Great White Hope?

The impressive new Danube 2 bridge between Bulgaria and Romania has the unfortunate whiff of White Elephant.

Is its opening next month really an appropriate way to mark Europe Day?

Transfagarasan - built by dictator Ceausescu in the 1970s. Photo looking north towards Sibiu from just below Lake Balea, altitude xxxxft. Running parallel X miles west is Transalpina, another spectacular road, built by the German Army in the 1940s. © Horia Varlan

Transfagarasan – built by dictator Ceausescu in the 1970s. Photo looking north towards Sibiu from just below Lake Balea, altitude 6,700ft. © Horia Varlan

Romania has the best roads in the world says Jeremy Clarkson. But in terms of modern motorway connections, Romania lags far behind even its eastern European Union neighbours.

This is partly because the super high Carpathian mountains turn an almost perfect 90° through the centre of the country making road building complex and expensive. And it is partly because of post-Communist bureaucracy, corruption and – being kind to both sides – little experience in dealing with rapacious western corporations.

By 2020 though, fingers crossed, a respectable core motorway network should be in place, including at least one cross country link between Hungary and the Black Sea via Bucharest.

The planned Romanian main road network, now out of date though it does show pretty much the core main roads. For clarity, the green routes are single lane European routes. Craiova is at bottom left. Danube 2 is south west on E79. Click to enlarge.

The planned Romanian main road network, now out of date since the govt recently announced a new fast road Pitesti-Craiova. For clarity, the green routes are single lane European routes. Craiova is at bottom left. Danube 2 is south west to the border on E79. Click to enlarge.

Even when Romania’s road network is complete there are no fast roads even planned within 50 miles of the new Danube 2 bridge at Calafat (amazingly only the second fixed on Romania and Bulgaria’s 280 mile river border). It’s only that close because last month the Romanian government announced a tender to design, build and operate a 75 mile express or motorway between Pitesti and Craiova in the south west.

There is no dual carriageway on the Bulgarian side either, for the 125 miles south to Sofia or the 36 miles west to the Serb border, and no plans to build any since the Baltic-Aegean road Via Carpathia went down in a European Parliament vote last year. In the medium term, the nearest twin-laner is 85 miles west at Paracin in Serbia where drivers can finally join route 1 to Belgrade.

Theoretically, Danube 2 has another string to its bow. Between its four elegant cable-stayed pylons, alongside the four lane roadway, runs a rail track. It’s a vital link in Priority Project 22 (PP22) the prospective 2,000 mile rail route between Greece and Germany via Sofia, Budapest and Vienna.

Unfortunately PP22 is mired in hopeless inter-institutional torpidity. Since being added to the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in 2007 – for eight years previously it was pan-European Corridor IV – PP22 has hardly advanced at all in the south east, apart from Greece.

Being as Romania already has the fourth largest rail network in Europe its understandable priority is road building while, because of the difficult terrain, the costs are astronomical. Just the section between Danube 2 and Sofia will cost €3 billion.

The 2011 (Gilles Savary) and 2012 annual progress reports on P22 make depressing but compelling reading, and easy too since they are almost word for word identical.

pp_22 small

Danube 2 does complete the Bulgaria-Romania cross border rail link but, says the 2011 report, ‘We note however that the poor condition of the railway lines, both to the north and south of the bridge, means that full use cannot be made of this infrastructure, which for the next ten years at least will be used principally for road transport.’ (To be fair this was watered down in the 2012 report to, ‘There is a great risk that the bridge will essentially be a road bridge’.)

The 50 miles from the bridge to Craiova takes four hours by train currently, on a single track line. The 2012 report concludes, ‘The bridge between Vidin and Calafat alone will not bring about a major immediate improvement in international north-south rail freight traffic.’

The bigger challenge to PP22 though is the Hellas Express, the historic rail route from Athens to western Europe via Skopje, Belgrade, Zagreb, Salzberg and Munich. Very popular on the early Interrail circuit (we rode it in 1987) Hellas was suspended in 1991 during the Yugoslav Wars and has not resumed since. However, with Croatia joining the EU in July, Serbia in detailed discussions about joining and (the FYR) Macedonia certain to join eventually, Hellas is not going away, not least because it’s 200 miles shorter to Budapest.

In a section titled ‘Western Balkans route not to be overlooked’ the report stops a fraction short of recommending P22 be dropped and Hellas taken up: ‘Although it is not our intention here to call into question the inclusion of the Thessaloniki-Arad route… in the medium term it may become necessary to tailor priorities in line with what is feasible, both for the EU, the main provider of funding, and the Member Sates concerned.’

Despite all this, PP22 managed to hang on during the recent EU budget negotiations while there were big cuts elsewhere in the transport budget.

The mile long Danube 2 bridge will be opened on 9 May 2013 (Europe Day) by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. First discussed in the 1960s, first works started in 2002, the bridge is only the second fixed link across Romania and Bulgaria’s 280 mile Danube border.

The mile long Danube 2 bridge will be opened on 9 May 2013 (Europe Day) by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. First discussed in the 1960s, first works started in 2002, the bridge is only the second fixed link across Romania and Bulgaria’s 280 mile Danube border.

It will surely not be with uncomplicated joy that Jose Manuel Barroso steps forward to cut the ribbon on 9 May (not least because the Romanian and Bulgarian authorities are still arguing about how to divvy up the toll revenue).

He can at least be assured that Danube 2 will not go completely unused. According to Deutsche Welle ‘there is bumper to bumper traffic here on Wednesdays and Thursdays’.

Danube 2 is an important symbol of progress between the two countries. It’s crazy there’s only one bridge in 280 miles. But even if it does stimulate trade in the area – and tourism – with poor connections both sides it’s likely to become a victim of its own success very quickly.

As we see it there are two options. One would be to upgrade the 150 mile road from Craiova to Paracin. Immediately, Belgrade (and Zagreb, Salzburg, Munich) would be directly linked to Bucharest and the Black Sea at Constanta. It’s likely to be the quickest solution even though it is complicated by going through Serb territory.

The long term solution, and a boost to PP22’s prospects, would be to revive Via Carpathia (click for the whole story). They follow the same route until Arad in north west Romania. The costs would be ameliorated between the two while the prospect of good jobs and opportunities – and the vote of confidence in the region – would act as a brake on the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians apparently planning to emigrate west next year.

Surely the Commission has something up its sleeve to make better sense of what could be a valuable piece of infrastructure? If Mr Barroso doesn’t being anything new to the party he’d better hope the locals haven’t decided to mark Europe Day by renaming Danube 2 in his honour.

On 29 April it was announced that the opening of the Danube 2 bridge would be delayed until 15 June.

3 thoughts on “Danube 2: White Elephant or Great White Hope?

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