ECONOMY

Bulgarian rail off track

SOFIA (AFP) – Bulgaria’s big businesses have complained that the country’s state-owned railways, plagued by a shortage of freight cars, were blocking trade and harming economic growth ahead of Bulgaria’s European Union accession next year. «At Europe’s door, Bulgaria’s rail transport poses serious obstacles to economic growth and needs immediate remedial action,» Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA) Chairman Bozhidar Danev said after talks between major companies, the railways and the Transport Ministry. «Our companies, including the country’s biggest chemical and metallurgy producers, cannot export their products – not for a lack of markets but for a lack of wagons.» Representatives of Bulgaria’s major industrial plants complained that their production growth plans were also threatened by the low operating capacity of the country’s ports, which they said hinders exports and the supply of raw materials. Aging infrastructure is another problem, with trains unable to travel at speeds faster than 100 kilometers per hour. In addition, there are about 660 sections on the railroad where trains are forced to slow down to 15-20 km/h. In 2007 more than 95 percent of all cargo moved in Bulgaria will be carried by the national railway company, according to recent estimates. Bulgarian Industrial Association estimates released this week showed that the largest 11 companies, relying on the railways, plan to increase the volume of transported goods next year by nearly 25 percent to 25 million tons. These are mainly metals, scrap, chemicals, cement, coal and timber that in effect can only be transported by rail. But the state-owned railway system said last week it had only 7,083 freight cars at its disposal, assessing its actual needs next year at 8,550 cars and an 15 additional engines. «The threat of not being able to move all this ever-increasing cargo for lack of freight cars and engines is imminent,» Oleg Petkov, director of Bulgaria’s railways, said. The railways cannot afford to buy more equipment or repair existing lines because the money they get from businesses is immediately poured into passenger operations. In past years, the unreformed state railways have suffered from a steady loss of passengers as slow speeds, old carriages and rising ticket prices steered travelers toward the more comfortable, flexible and relatively cheap transport offered by an expanding network of private bus companies. In 2005, some 4 million people from Bulgaria’s population of 7.6 million said they had already given up traveling by train, which was practically the only way to make long trips in Bulgaria under communism and for years after that. Transport Minister Petar Mutafchiev has stressed that restructuring the national railways to channel more money into the freight sector is under discussion and promised that the government would provide state guarantees for some 70 million leva (35.8 million euros) in loans to the railways.