July 5, 1997 Vreme News Digest Agency No 300

Belgrade Metro

Lightly Made Promises

by Uros Komlenovic

The promises of the city fathers that the realization of the metro could begin next year are mere delusion. Zoran Djindjic and Spasoje Krunic should realize that the citizens of Belgrade, who elected them to the positions they now hold, do not expect them to be like their predecessors

Almost two decades have passed since Dusko Radovic exclaimed: "When will the Belgrade Metro happen? Many citizens of Belgrade are already in the trenches, and waiting". If the new city authorities are to be believed, the citizens of Belgrade will soon be witness to that wonder: in those first, sweet days of euphoria as the new mayor, with the quickened heart beat and expanding horizons, Zoran Djindjic was the first to say that construction of the metro could begin even next year; even though he does not agree in policy matters on many points with the mayor, the President of City Government, Spasoje Krunic, is fueling the fire set by Djindjic, and on his return from Moscow is saying that he spoke with Russian potentates regarding aid to this city in the building of its metro. Admittedly, there are no concrete agreements, but the time has come, as Mr. Krunic states in the daily press, for a reassessment of the project, and "its realization could begin in a year from now".

The story of the Belgrade metro is inseparable from the half-century saga of the development of the public transportation system in the capital — a sad story with an uncertain conclusion. Belgrade entered WWII with a system of tram lines considerably greater that the present one, all together amounting to 80 km. Even though buses existed, trams made up 85% of public transportation. 30 km of tram lines were destroyed in the war, and soon after liberation it was decided that destroyed tram lines will not be fixed, that the remaining ones will be discontinued in all future transit system restructurings, and that slowly all public transportation will be transferred to trolleys. One of the explanations was that trolleys are better suited to the steep streets of Belgrade. Thus a new era began.

And while the citizens of Belgrade were cramming into trolleys, first mention was made in the General Urban Development Plant (GUP) of 1950 — in the opinion of many, the only sensible plan in the entire history of GUP in Belgrade — of the metro. GUP left land for two lines of S-bahn, or the regional metro, a system of train tracks which would include existing train tracks, and which could be crudely named a combination of the metro and the train (a more precise description would take up too much space). One of the tracks would connect Ruma and Smederevo, while the other would connect Pancevo and Obrenovac. They would include existing train tracks and would descend underground in urban areas, crossing at the center of the city. At that time such a huge investment was out of the question, so the work on the project was postponed until better days. The corridor of the future metro was drawn into GUP, with the building of large buildings and infrastructures in those areas being prohibited so that future construction would not be disturbed.

This prohibition was not respected, like many other long term plans, because no one wanted to bother with visions of what might happen 20, 30 or 50 years from now. Mandates last for short periods of time, so that it is necessary to build something visible and monumental, something that can be constructed and inaugurated quickly, and can lead to a higher political position and a sweeter life. The picking apart of GUP thus began some time ago, forcing the famous architect and visionary Nikola Dobrovic to give up on his life’s dream even then. Later changes and additions made GUP unrecognizable, with no mention of the metro being made.

In the late 60's trolleybuses were discontinued, with one of the arguments cited being their unsuitability for the steep and narrow streets of Belgrade. The problem boiled down to the fact that maintenance of the trolleybus and tram systems required organization and work. Buses cause less grief — they can be filled with cheap gas and can go everywhere, an attitude that was in keeping with then (and now) city authorities. Only the tram lime 11, going from Kalemegdan to Krusevacka street, survived the new change of direction.

In the year 1970 the capable mayor of Belgrade, Branko Pesic, managed to coax an order from the Marshall himself that the Belgrade train station be relocated, and that construction be commenced on a new train network. It was believed that the network would be completed in ten years, but, as is well known, construction is still going on, and will not be completed soon because the site for the new train station is the worst possible location in the entire city — namely, Prokop. After the train network was completed, construction on the metro was supposed to have begun, causing in 1976 the writing of a Study by the Metro Sector of the Institution for City Planning of Belgrade, dealing with "fast public transportation in Belgrade".

The study foresaw everything: even a cursory glance at the plan with penciled in lines is enough to conclude that the whole city would be covered with branching networks of the municipal and regional metro, and many public transportation problems would be solved in that way for many years to come. The only problem was that construction would cost around 3 billion dollars. It is interesting that the study includes, among other things, a graph on the projected increase in the per capita GNP which, it was believed, would reach $4,300 for every individual by the year 2000.

In any case, the investment was huge, even for that time of loose credits and loans. Here it was calculated that Russians could get rid of their debt with Yugoslavia by building the Belgrade metro, but in fear of objections from Slovenia and Croatia it was all left as a project idea which continues to date. By 1981 the conceptual framework of the first stage of the two line metro was completed, with lines running from Kalemegdan to Autokomanda, and from Merkator to Vukov Spomenik. The overall length was estimated at 14 km, while the ball park figure was projected at 700 million dollars. This conceptual framework was the farthest point reached.

Some money was gathered, a new train bridge was built, and two huge machines were purchased — the so-called caterpillars which dug nearly all the tunnels for the Belgrade train network. 80% of the work was completed and then the money ran out; construction was stopped and the caterpillars were conserved.

After Tito’s death the economic crisis worsened, not leaving the city transit system in the capital behind, where Belgrade literally began to clog from all the traffic. What followed was a fierce political-professional conflict. The lobbyists for the metro claimed that it is the only solution to a city which is growing uncontrollably, saying that what is at stake is of priority to the state, and that "band-aids" would only postpone a problem that would return in a few years, and would only be larger, with solutions costing even more. Tramworkers lobbied for the return of their cheaper and unfairly ousted transportation vehicles, explaining that there is no money for the metro, that its construction would take too long, and that something needs to be done immediately because the situation has reached critical levels. Of course, the cheaper alternative won out: tram lines were built in General Zdanova Street, heading toward Banovo Brdo and New Belgrade.

This enterprise did not have to be so bad, had the new tram lines included broad tracks, and in general, had new technology used for some time abroad been applied. And instead of spending 10 to 15 percent of the projected figures, the miserly city fathers left the tram system in the same state we have know it since WWII. However, the tram network was far greater at that time, while the city itself was a lot smaller. Years passed, the construction of the train network in Belgrade was on hold, and the metro was only mentioned among citizens as a source of comedy, especially at the time of the coming apart of the country, the time of war, hyperinflation, and economic blockades. In the early 90's someone came up with the idea that the tunnels dug for the Belgrade train network could be used for something they were not intended for — for municipal and regional public transportation. Tracks were laid and an unreasonably luxurious metro station was built near Vukov Spomenik, costing 150 million dollars and serving to delude the people with Slobodan Milosevic’s ceremonial opening of it. In the summer of 1995 the train lines between Pancevo, Batajnica and Resnik were opened, but the Belgrade train network, which already cost two billion dollars (enough for the first stage of the metro, with remaining change of a whole billion), was still not completed; when it will be completed nobody knows. The effect of the city trains is weak, even though it must be said that those several thousand daily passengers (the capacity of the metro is 60 thousand passengers per hour) are saving November 29 Street from utter chaos, and easing up on the bus lines 16 and 23. Too little for too much.

In the meantime the so-called "premetro", or as it is called here, "light metro", appeared on the international scene. Simply put, it is a tram which descends underground at key junctures, acting as a metro. Brussels was the first to introduce "premetro" during the 70's, with this system experiencing a boom through the 80's to the present. Cities which did not have a metro are choosing this system, along with cities that already have a metro: the fourth line of the Berlin metro is effectively a "premetro". Even here the advantages of this system have been observed, as it is far less expensive than a metro and, beside the tunnel construction, uses existing facilities so that depots and command centers need not be built, nor do personnel need to be retrained. This idea was developed by many institutions here, including the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the University. Several studies were made, but that is as far as it went. According to a study made eight years ago by the company Beocvor, the digging of four tunnels has been projected beneath Terazije, Vracar and Senjak with a total length of 6 km. These tunnels would synchronize with the projected metro tunnels, and would ease the load off the city transit system until the money is gathered for the metro itself. The cost of construction is projected perhaps too low at 70 million dollars.

The metro lobbyists do not even wish to discuss such an alternative, claiming that "premetro" is only a good solution for cities that already have a good network of fast, modern trams which use standard tracks; that tunnel dimensions for the metro and the "premetro" are not the same; that the electrical system is different; and that existing studies are mere "hand drawings", and that "the light metro is just like an easy woman: it is too short, too expensive, and you only regret it afterwards".

The conclusion of these discussions is uncertain, but it is certain that beneath the Kalemegdan-Terazije hill tunnels will have to be drilled; that there is no money even for a cheap version of a "light metro"; that a metro is a substantial investment without any profit, but with considerable indirect benefits; and most importantly, that a stop must be put to the multi decade practice of changing at whim the basic transit system plans every decade (along with urban plans), where existing investments are thrown out the drain. City fathers should be aware of the fact that Russia does not owe Belgrade, but the State of Yugoslavia which is in the hands of their political adversaries who will certainly not hand over that money, if it ever shows up. Besides that, even in the best case scenario, the building of the metro could not begin before two years from now because a new plan must be drawn up, since the conceptual framework from 1981 must be corrected because corridors are obstructed by various crazy structures. Therefore, the promises of the city fathers that the realization of the metro could begin next year are mere delusion. Zoran Djindjic and Spasoje Krunic should realize that the citizens of Belgrade, who elected them to the positions they now hold, do not expect them to be like their predecessors.