KYIV – Victor Dovhan’s challenge is to translate Ukraine’s European choice into steel and asphalt.
Along Ukraine’s western border with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, a series of new cross border trains are surmounting a century-old hurdle: the meeting of the continent’s two different rail sizes – narrow gauge European in the west and wide gauge Russian in the east.
“I like the railroad station model in Brest – one door for Warsaw, one door for Kyiv,” Dovhan, deputy minister of infrastructure with responsibility for European integration, said, referring to Belarus’ border city with Poland.
European gauge tracks are being extended east as far as station passenger platforms of Ukraine’s main border cities.
New trains cross borders without stopping. Passports are checked on board, a process facilitated by the June 11 adoption of visa-free EU travel for Ukrainians.
On June 12, a fast train started on the 90 km, one hour run between Khelm, Ukraine and Chop, Poland. Due to this train’s popularity, it’s route will be expanded 160 km further east on Aug. 24, adding three cities, including Rivne.
Also on Aug. 24, Independence Day, a second daily Kyiv-Lviv-Przemysl, Poland train is to start service. A first cross-border started last December and has run with average occupancies of 90 percent. The second train will travel a new route, drawing passengers from cities in central and western Ukraine, stopping at Vinnitsa, Khmelnytsky and Ternopil.
To Slovakia, a fast train is planned from Uzhhorod, capital of Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region, to Košice, a 100 km, 90-minute route. Košice has Slovakia’s second largest airport with scheduled and charter flights operated by 10 airlines. Uzhgorod is a 4-hour drive from Lviv’s airport.
To Hungary, Dovhan hopes to start this fall a 5-hour train from Mukachevo, Zakarpattia’s second largest city, to Budapest. To do this, Ukraine needs to build a final, 500 meter stretch of European gauge track into Mukachevo’s passenger station and to electrify about seven kilometers of track in the Chop-Záhony cross-border zone.
“Five million euros can put Hungarian Railways into Mukachevo,” Dovhan said, referring to a city that was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of World War 1.
To Romania, often seen as Ukraine’s forgotten western neighbor, road building and repair is to be completed by the end of this year on 200 km of the highway from Odesa to Reni, Ukraine’s Danube River port. For Odesa, Ukraine’s largest region, Reni provides road access to Romania. On leaving Reni, the highway passes through a one kilometer section of Moldova’s southern tip, and then enters Romania.
“This road is very important: it links the 11 districts of the region with Odesa, it connects the Western border with Ukraine,” Maxim Stepanov, chairman of Odesa Regions’s administration told Z-News Link website last month. “The drive from Reni to Odesa will not take six hours, as it was last year, but will be much less, as in a normal European country.”
Ukraine’s biggest highway integration project with Europe is ambitious.
The Gdansk-Odesa, or GO highway, is to link the Baltic and Black Seas with a European-standard highway.
Poland’s half is already EU standard.
For Ukraine’s half, Kyiv needs $2 billion to expand existing highways that now run in a northwest to southeast arc – from Krakovets, on the Polish border, to Lviv to Vinnytsia to Uman to Odesa. This route runs almost 900 km and generally takes 12 hours – or 75 km/hour.
At present, Ukraine is conducting a pre-feasability study with EU technical support.
“The budget includes the first 800 million hryvnia ($31 million) for implementation of this project,” Prime Minister Volodymyr Grosyman wrote last month on his Facebook page. “Therefore, the implementation of this ambitious project has already begun!”
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