Moldova Railway: Lost Opportunities and Continued Decay

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Christian RUSSU
Despite the European money and the multiplied demand for the country’s transit potential, the authorities were either unwilling or unable to pull the Moldova Railway out of the crisis
The Moldova Railway’s plans to terminate the passenger railway service with Romania due to the degradation of the rolling stock is a symbolic outcome of a decade-long policy of destroying the sector under the European integration slogans. Twelve years ago, the pro-European authorities spent 12 million euros to modernize five trains in Romania (using European loans), which began to run between Chisinau and Iasi. At the time, this event was presented almost as an important step in Moldova’s return to Europe. Painted on the outside, with first class cars, internet and air-conditioning, these trains looked good, but later they would constantly break down and burst into flames. Of course, there were accusations of corruption and kickbacks against the officials in charge of the deal. Now, a decade later, the project of “returning to Europe by train with the Moldovan flag” finally failed. Last attempts to revive the Iasi direction made at the request of Andrei Spinu were also rather symbolic. The whole drama of reality surfaced when passengers had learnt that now they can travel to Europe only in the Soviet-era second-class carriages. Oleg Tofilat’s efforts, who has been in charge of the national railway for the last two and a half years, can be assessed in different ways, his managerial qualities can be praised, his non-involvement in corruption schemes can be mentioned, but the result is the same – growing losses, months-long salary debts and complete uncertainty in the future. While there are few complaints about the performance of the railway management in passenger traffic (as this direction has always been subsidized), there were enough chances to achieve success in freight traffic amidst Ukraine’s tremendous attention to our railway infrastructure. By the way, the statistics of freight traffic by Ukrainian railways last year and in January 2024 shows positive momentum. So, what about us? It brings to mind how solemnly the authorities opened the renovated Basarabeasca-Berezino branch in the south, how they persuaded Ukrainian partners to join the project of restoring the railway corridor across the country from north to south (along the Valcinet-Ocnita-Balti-Ungheni-Chisinau-Cainari route). All these plans had one simple goal: to increase the length of railroads within the country to boost revenues from freight transit from Ukraine to Romania and back. At the same time, nobody wanted to think about increasing the capacity of our infrastructure by using the shortest and technically adapted sections, as that would automatically reduce transit revenues. In the dreams that officials and railway workers must have harbored, wagons with Ukrainian cargoes of grain, ore and fuel routinely cross the country’s territory along the longest corridors, bringing stable transit income. Perhaps, all of our foreign partners would even be satisfied with such a situation. We could accept arguments about the unsafe traffic through the left bank, the inexpediency of giving financial support to the separatist regime, and other geopolitical motives, but with one condition – if we strictly fulfil our obligations to move the required volumes of cargo within acceptable terms. Alas, we have almost always been negligent partners for Russia, Ukraine, and our colleagues on the other bank of the Prut in this respect. As an example, last year Kyiv failed to take advantage of the discounts on freight traffic promised by Moldova Railway. Moreover, everyone initially understood that the single-track gauge of the restored Basarabeasca-Berezino section or the Mohyliv-Podilskyi ferrying were “bottle necks” and would not be able to cope with the increased cargo traffic. The desire to burden Giurgiulesti to the maximum to the detriment of Ukrainian ports also backfired. That is why all the European-drafted projects aimed at renovating the regional railway infrastructure include primarily the shortest and technically prepared sections. Thus, the project for the construction of a new European gauge railway to Odesa, envisages the route, as recommended by European experts, through Ungheni and Bender, not Basarabeasca. Ukrainian partners also actively promoted options for utilizing optimal routes for the cargo movement through our country. The bridge crossing blown up in Cuciurgan was repaired and the border crossing itself was officially opened for traffic. A Ukrainian locomotive even travelled along the route to assess the technical condition of the tracks and infrastructure. The latter was presented in some media outlets as the beginning of transit through Transnistria, but in the end the route was not used. Moreover, Kyiv offered options for using the shortest routes, not only those passing through the Transnistrian region, but all of them got stuck in the offices of our officials, who were quietly rubbing their hands and relying on the assistance of Ukrainians and on European money to restore bypass routes and stable revenues. Ironically, even the active involvement of European and American partners was of no help. Reality proved predictable. Ukrainian wagons stood idle on Moldovan territory for weeks, our locomotives again broke down and burnt out, and tracks not designed for serious load malfunctioned. Moldovan railway workers shrugged their shoulders in front of their counterparties and looked for someone else to blame. The management of Moldova Railway, represented by Oleg Tofilat, also admitted the failure of plans to increase revenues from Ukrainian transit. The only thing the former manager did not mention is that the Ukrainians had decided to use bypass routes, but they will bypass the entire territory of our country. And this is the main reason why the situation in the railway industry continues to deteriorate, despite all the seemingly favorable opportunities that have emerged. The situation with rail exports of our grains is also deplorable. Reportedly, the volume of exports of five grain and oilseed types decreased by 42%, i.e. almost twice – from 641 thousand tons in 2021 to 374 thousand tons in January-November 2023. At the same time, railway companies increased tariffs by only 36% during this period, which seems quite moderate against a more than twofold increase in tariffs for maritime transportation. However, the latter proved to be the most competitive. In 2023, the increase in the number of grain and oilseeds delivered by sea transport almost doubled compared to 2021, which brought considerable revenues to operators. It’s safe to say that the main decision-makers in the ruling party knew where the railroad situation was heading under the leadership of a person from an NGO, but refused to lend a hand to the drowning man so that the failures in the industry could be blamed on him. Now another efficient manager will be appointed to run Moldova Railway, and he will certainly ensure the immediate interests of the authorities, while the national concerns, as usual, will wait.