I visited Kosovo in 2017 and of course a train journey was a must…….
When Pristina was just a moderate city in Yugoslavia it was an outpost on a vast rail network with Belgrade at its hub and major transit points in Zagreb, Skopje, Sarajevo, Ljubljana, Podgorica, Nis & Ploče.
Pristina itself saw trains running to Skopje, Belgrade (via Mitrovica) and throughout Kosovo. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the horrendous conflict and Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2006, Trainkos was born to run the network in the fledgling nation.
With Serbia not recognising independence and dominating Kosovo’s borders, Trainkos did not have many international crossings to manage, save for a line to Skopje in the Former Yugoslav Republic of North Macedonia.
There was however a domestic network to run, as shown in the graphic below.
Sadly, economics have dictated that only the route to the Macedonian border remains. Train infrastructure maintenance does not come cheap and buses are faster and therefore more popular.
Transport money was justifiably ploughed into the building of the hugely impressive Albania-Kosovo Highway, cutting journey times from Tirana to Pristina from nine hours of helter skelter & hold ups to four and a half hours of smooth flow between the forests & mountains, instead of up and around them.
With Kosovo being 90% populated by ethnic Albanians, this route was always going to be a priority.
This has left two trains a day running in Kosovo (and even fewer in Albania as it happens) – the 07.10 departure to Hani I Elizit and the return, which pleasingly arrived back in Pristina at 19.10, exactly twelve hours after it had left.
We rocked up at Pristina Station the day before our intended journey to find a deserted place with very little sign of life not just at that moment but at any time in the recent past. I was in fact bruised & muddy having slipped down a bank whilst taking a short-cut!
We feared the worst, the last bastion of rail in the country had also bitten the dust? No bathroom to tend my wounds and remove the muddy grit from my bleeding wrist either!
Happily not. The station manager/guard/signalman/cleaner appeared to explain the situation.
The train would run on time next day having spent the night docked in situ. Tickets could be purchased on board costing €2.50 to Hani where we would change trains to take us to Skopje at a further cost of €1.50. We would most likely have a diesel locomotive.
He gladly let me use his personal bathroom and even gave me some wet wipes to assist in the cleanup process. This also gave me the chance to take a quick shot of his well-used desk, guard’s cap and paddle!
We were left to wonder how he occupied his day in the twelve hour gap between trains and figured that practicing his pretty decent English with two inquisitive Brits must have been quite a highlight in what we perceived to be the monotony of his day.
We were back next day at 06.40, just in time to see our loco decoupled from the single passenger carriage and accompanying goods wagon, so it could chug up the track to a run round loop, back past the carriages and finally around another loop so that it could be rejoined to the train at the other end from whence it had started.
Right on time, our friend the station manager donned his red peaked cap, blew his whistle and waved his flag and we were off on our 70km journey.
We should arrive at the border at around 9 and were due to be in Skopje before 10.
The carriage interior was pleasingly scruffy, the toilet facilities refreshingly unusable!
We stopped at several stations en route, each manned by a red cap with two exciting duties to be performed each day ranging from 10 to 12 hours apart. The likes of Fushlot, Bablak and Stagove came and went as we trundled along purposefully at around 50kmh.
We shared most of the journey with what appeared to be Trainkos retirees. Many wore the uniform of old and they greeted one another like long lost friends.
Their conversation was animated with much laughter, shoulder squeezing and back slapping. They were clearly reminiscing about the good times, maybe times of Yugoslavia under Tito when everything appeared to be stable.
Undoubtedly these aged men in their late sixties at least, would have some sadder tales to tell of conflict, deprivation and fear, but today was not a day for recollection of such, this was happy time recall only.
Each of their lined faces carried a broad smile, a joy to watch for us relative youngsters. The sense of belonging and comradeship is always a great comfort to help in keeping you battling on in times of adversity, convincing yourself that the good times will return…..
Back to our progress, we arrived at the small border station right on time but the waiting connecting train did not appear to be present. We asked the guard, “is problem, buss”, came his most unwelcome reply. He pointed up the hill, so after taking a few pictures of our train in its new surroundings this is where me marched.
There was no sign of any bus and nobody seemed to know if, when and where one would appear. There were however plenty of private cars doubling up as taxis. For €15 one would take us the 20km to Skopje. We chose a battered Mercedes and within a minute we were at the border post and arrived in Skopje before ten, choosing to be dropped at the train station so we could buy our tickets for that nights’ overnight adventure to Belgrade.
You can read more about our visit to Kosovo and the other Balkan countries in my book ‘ Travelling By Train Across The Balkans’, available now from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.