The 2013 timetable is out, and we’ve had two serious changes, or rather deletions, to the schedules which have caused a considerable amount of consternation from Der Führer. The more serious of the two has been the loss of overnight services from Milan and Zurich to Barcelona, which I will cover in a subsequent post. The other problem, which we were at least bracing ourselves for, is in the Balkans.

The 451 service direct from Belgrade to Sarajevo has, as a result of the Croatian Railways policy of abandoning international rail services, been cancelled.  Croatia is unique in having a border with Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia, and has more Adriatic coastline than  the rest of the Balkans combined. It’s also due to become a full member of the EU the week before we start our journey next year.  I don’t know how much the process of  joining the EU is forcing Croatia to slash over half of it’s international rail services, but it’s a sorry state of affairs and one which will cause extreme difficulties across the region and  especially for Bosnia. All of Bosnia’s railways have to travel over the Croat border to get out of the country. There are now no trains running up the Bosna valley into the country, and the services from Budapest and Belgrade have been chopped. It’s hardly the kind of action that is likely to improve relations and foster peace between these once brotherly members of the former Yugoslavia.

The Belgrade-Sarajevo train was a dusty old two carriage affair, used by locals travelling only sections of it, and the occasional tourist. It took longer, and for anyone buying a single ticket cost more, than catching a bus. The road journey  between the Serbian and Bosnian capitals sounds tedious in the extreme, so I have been left with the problem of trying to do as much of the route by train while sticking to the schedule. My cunning plan is to catch the train to Podgorica (one of only a handful of capitals we couldn’t manage to squeeze into 2 weeks) and jump ship at Uzice, or possibly Branesci a little further along.  The scheduled bus service from there to Sarajevo left hours beforehand, so if you take this route you’ll need to get private transport. With our group that’s quite feasible, and a bus will be waiting for us.

Sargan steam1But there is a spin off from losing this direct train, in the form of a world class mountain narrow gauge slap bang along the route from Uzice to Sarajevo. Indeed it used to go all the way between the two.  Sounding more like a crummy science fiction series, the Šargan 8 is actually a hidden railway gem in a region currently more concerned with closing down services than renovating steam hauled mountain narrow gauge railways. The line was closed in 1974, and in the 80s a reservoir was built in it’s path near Uzice, so it’s unlikely to ever again run all the way from Belgrade to Sarajevo as it once did. But in the 1990s the most famous section of the line, between  Šargan Vitasi and Mokra Gora was restored. Below is a map of the original line from Uzice, which continued all the way to Sarajevo. See the wiggly bit, that’s the section we will be doing. The grey line from Vitasi all the way to Visegrad has been restored, though there aren’t any regular scheduled services on the western end beyond Mokra Gora, which actually crosses the Serb-Bosnian border at Vardiste. We’d have to hire our own train for that, which would be overkill (and cost about £100 each) but I haven’t given up hope of doing that bit too.

  Map courtesy of Milan Suvajac

This railway, with it’s small fleet of steam engines,  is just so cool I don’t really quite believe it. A return from Mokra Gora to Vitasi and back is under £5. Even just doing it in one direction for that price is still excellent value. There’s 22 tunnels on this stretch, and on the descent to Mokra Gora it drops 300m while covering a distance of just 3km as the crow flies. We should be able to catch the 14:25 service back down the hill, round all that scribbly looking part of the map, and then at least get the bus to pick us up at Mokra Gora and take us onto Sarajevo, arriving just an hour or so later than we would have done on the 451.

There’s plenty more information about this and lots of other Yugoslavian narrow gauge, and lots of great photos on Dave Sallery’s excellent website here, main page here