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Dnevnik: Why (pan-European) Corridor 8 Has Not Connected The Balkans For Three Decades

Dnevnik: Why (pan-European) Corridor 8 has not connected the Balkans for three decades

Source: Port of Burgas
Sofia, Bulgaria (PortSEurope) February 14, 2022 – A key priority for Bulgaria is the construction of the missing stretches of Corridor 8 (one of the 10 pan-European corridors defined by the European Union in 2014) and the completion of the railway connection between Skopje and Sofia, Bulgaria’s former Foreign Minister Solomon Passy said in the distant 2003 – according to an article in Bulgarian news
portal Dnevnik. Corridor 8 has always been a priority but never completed. Now, two of the three participating Balkan countries – Bulgaria and North Macedonia – have been trying to show that something has changed. Corridor 8 is the only transport corridor connecting the Balkans’ west and east coasts. The idea is to connect the ports of Durres (Dures) in Albania and Burgas (Bourgas) and Varna in Bulgaria via Tirana, Skopje and Sofia (the capitals of Albania, North Macedonia and Bulgaria respectively). The railway line is for cargo that would come from the Italian ports of Bari, Brindisi and Otranto, and from Poti and Batumi in Georgia. Roads would shorten the 930 km trip from the Black to the Adriatic Sea from 12-13 hours to nine. The shortest route for Chinese cargo to Europe, passes through Corridor 8. Its construction will increase several-fold the flow of east-west cargo and countries on the way to China – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are also interested. Part of this infrastructure already exists. In Bulgaria, the corridor will connect with the existing Trakia highway and Hemus highway that is still under construction, but there is no suitable road from Struma highway to North Macedonian border. The problem is the road from Sofia to Northern Macedonia – at the Gueshevo border checkpoint through Kyustendil and Dupnitsa. The Rila expressway (the connection between Trakia, Hemus and Struma) should be connected to it. The railway route needs work not only on the North Macedonian side of the border: connections like the one between Radomir in Bulgaria and the Macedonian border, in a difficult mountain section with a number of tunnels (longest will be 15 km) and protected areas, will take time. The plan for a common border tunnel between the two countries is also part of the railway project. Northern Macedonia has most of the unfinished work. Transport Minister Blagoj Bocvarski announced road sections that are being worked on or where work should be started. From the Albanian border, via Struga and Lake Ohrid, the route should pass through sections such as Kafasan-Struga-Trebenishte and Tetovo-Gostivar-Bukoychani. The railway network was declared a “special focus” last year, with €200 million ($226 million) planned for the first two lots in the first half of the year. Funds are also being sought for the extremely complex sections in the third lot, between Kriva Palanka and Deve Bair (at the border with Bulgaria; Gueshevo on the other side) – €400 million, according to the minister, with 50 bridges and 24 tunnels. The work on the route to Kriva Palanka to Deve Bair should start in spring 2023. At the same time, Bochvarski announced that 90 million euros have been earmarked for the Kumanovo-Deve Bair expressway. The railway line from Kichevo to Albania is currently only a project. In Albania, the corridor connects port of Durres, Tirana and Elbasan, from where it continues to the border with North Macedonia. “The main blame here lies with Bulgaria, which is the only country on the corridor – a member of both NATO and the EU. It had to prioritize it, to establish it as a topic of bilateral and tripartite relations with North Macedonia and Albania, to prepare the projects, to bring them to Brussels and find funding. This hasn’t been done,” Vladimir Vladimirov, from the Bulgarian-Macedonian Business Club said. Corridor VIII After years of neglect and inactivity, the transport ministers of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania – Hristo Alexiev, Belinda Baluku and Blagoy Bochvarski – signed in October 2021 a Memorandum of Cooperation on Sustainable Infrastructure along the European Corridor VIII (Corridor 8) – the least developed segment of the pan-European integrated transport network. It is only a very small step in a project for a multi‐modal transport system along the East‐West axis comprising sea and river ports, roads and railways, airports and multi‐modal ports. It will include some 1,270 km of railways and 960 km of roads. The main alignment of Corridor VIII runs from the southern Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi, with a ferry crossing the Adriatic Sea to the Albanian ports of Durres and Vlora. It then passes through the capital cities of Albania (Tirana), North Macedonia (Skopje), Bulgaria (Sofia), via Bulgaria’s second largest town of Plovdiv, to the Bulgarian Black Sea ports of Burgas and Varna. Corridor VIII connects the Italian Adriatic Transport Corridor, the Adriatic branch of Motorway of the Sea and the Mediterranean Transport Area to the Black Sea Pan‐European Transport Areas. Delays & Cooperation The long delay in the opening of Corridor VIII has hampered a direct and convenient connection between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea at the expense of north-south trade routes through Greece and Serbia. North Macedonia has acknowledged that the relationship with Serbia has been given much more importance over the years, but there has been also criticism about the Bulgaria’s lack of action for years on the advancement of the corridor. The timing of the memorandum is important considering efforts in the background to resolve the political disputes between Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia. The blockade imposed by Sofia on Skopje’s start of negotiations for joining the EU has also shed light on a lack of co-operation in a number of key sectors, from the economy and transport to culture. “We will consider it a joint project together with the entire infrastructure – port, rail and road, terminal, which over time will operate with uniform parameters and provide very good transport connectivity, efficient transport service and connectivity between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, and all cities and economic regions along the corridor,” Bulgaria’s Alexiev was quoted as saying. He claimed that Bulgaria is starting construction of the missing railway connections along the corridor. The tender for the section Pernik-Radomir was launched in November 2021, and the tender for the connection Radomir-Gueshevo will be announced by end-2022. These projects are also set as priorities in the new EU operational program “Transport Connectivity”. The main task for Bulgaria on Corridor VIII is the connection Sofia-Pernik-Radomir-Gueshevo and the tunnel on the border between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. For North Macedonia, the focus will be on building and completing connections to the borders with Bulgaria and Albania. According to Bochvarski, the investment planned by Northern Macedonia only for the railway infrastructure along the corridor is over €1 billion. He expects that construction of the first two lots of the railway connection with Bulgaria will start in 2022 and will require investments of €200 million. The third lot, from Kriva Palanka to the border with Bulgaria, will most probably be realised together with the Bulgarian side. For Albania, the most important element of Corridor VIII is the renovation of the Tirana-Durres railway line and new railway connections to Mother Teresa International Airport and the border with Northern Macedonia. The main cities on Corridor VIII are: Bari/Brindisi-Otranto – Durres/Vlora-Tirana-Elbasan-Cafasan-Struga-Kichevo-Gostivar-Tetovo-Skopje-Kumanovo-Kriva Palanka-Sofia-Plovdiv-Burgas/Varna. The corridor is intermodal and includes ports, roads, railways, airports, combined and intermodal transport infrastructures – ancillary facilities needed to manage traffic on the route. The direction of the corridor guarantees its interaction with three other pan-European transport corridors. In Bulgaria it intersects or connects directly with the routes of corridors 4, 9 and 10. The total length of the Pan-European Transport Corridor VIII is between 1220 and 1350 km, depending on the specific features of its road and rail routes. 631 km of roads pass through Bulgaria, and the built railway part is 747 km. About 52% of the road infrastructure and over 55% of the railway infrastructure of the corridor are on Bulgarian territory. They are built and operational. The only undeveloped Bulgarian section of the corridor is the railway line from Gueshevo station to the Bulgarian-North Macedonian border, with a length of about 2.5 km, for which negotiations have been underway for almost 20 years. The reconstruction works in Bulgaria for the key railway element of corridor VIII that started in 2007 has achieved until today only symbolic progress. Less than 20 km of railway in this corridor was rehabilitated in the past seven years. It will most probably not be finished until 2027, despite securing finance and the fact that 2021 was declared by the European Commission (EC) as “the year of rail transport”. The railway line in Albania is not even designed yet. The route from Sofia to the border with North Macedonia is also progressing slowly and painfully. There have been disputes with local citizens, technical mistakes and mismanagement in Bulgaria – a country plagued by corruption and inefficiency. The 72 km railway from the city of Radomir to the border with North Macedonia will be the real challenge. It passes through a mountainous area with protected zones. The construction of 13 tunnels is planned, the longest of which is 15 km (the longest operating railway tunnel in Bulgaria today is 5.8 km). The cost for these 72 km is estimated at BGN 900 million (€460 million). But it is not clear when the construction of this section will begin. On the North Macedonia’s site, a public tender for the selection of contractors for the 34 km section between Belyakovtse and Kriva Palanka is to be launched. Its cost estimate is €145 million and includes the construction of 50 bridges and 24 tunnels. The most expensive and difficult is the last shortest 24 km section from Kriva Palanka to the Bulgarian border with 100 small bridges and 40 small tunnels. The expectations of the local experts are that the ports on the Adriatic and Black Seas will not be connected with a modern railway line along Corridor VIII for at least 30 more years. Bulgaria is estimated to be losing some €500 million of business a year due to the absence of these connections. Copyright (C) PortSEurope. All Rights Reserved. 2021.

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