The extension of the broad-gauge track from Kosice in Slovakia, to the 420 km distant Austrian rail terminal in Vienna, was an important part of the One Road, One Belt project on its westernmost final section. However, that is now over and done with: the missing link will remain as it is since the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) has decided not to close the gap.
This puts an end to controversial plans that would have enabled state-owned Russian Railways direct access to central Europe without having to change the gauge in between. The Viennese “NO” is
also a slap in the face of China, which has been intensively promoting and politically marketing the One Road, One Belt project for many years. Beijing benefits immensely from cargo trains
running across the vast Eurasian land bridge of roughly 11,000 km, as seen by the central government’s and province’s financial support, also evidenced by the fast-growing number of train
Creating new dependencies
The so-called New Silk Road project, promoted for almost a decade by Beijing’s rulers, has meanwhile made some countries financially and politically dependent on China. This applies, to different extents, to Hungary, Pakistan, Serbia, or to a certain degree also to Greece, for instance. They and some others have accepted large loans granted by Chinese financial institutions to modernize their infrastructure. However, the money must be paid back cent by cent, with China dictating the conditions.
Originally, the Kosice-Vienna broad line was promoted as an enabler of trade and commerce, closing a gap in the trans-Eurasian railway network. It would speed up train runs since a gauge change in Kosice, Bratislava, or any other station east of the Austrian border, would no longer be necessary.
The plans have been on the table since 2008, and were initially supported almost euphorically by
Austrian politicians and the local industry. “The macroeconomic advantages are estimated at approximately 127,500 annual job equivalents, and an added value of approximately 16 billion euros
for Austria as a business location,” the Austrian railway company trumpeted. Infrastructural costs of realizing the broad-gauge project were expected to amount to 6.3 billion euros. Up to
3,500 new jobs were to be created, and transit times between the Far East and central Europe would be considerably shortened.
These were the original figures and expectations mentioned by the supporters of the intent. Meanwhile, however, the political wind has changed, not only in Vienna, but also in neighboring Slovakia. There, the project is now viewed very critically. A view that was clearly reinforced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This applies equally to Austria. The EU had already been rather skeptical since the beginning and did not see the measure as being in line with the Community's own rail policy, but rather as a divisive factor because a second track system of 1520 mm would be introduced; common in Russia and some of the CIS states, but challenging the EU-wide gauge standard of 1435 mm. “We do not need two parallel systems for a functioning rail transport; it torpedoes all rules for a single European rail transport market,” the Deputy Director-General of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport at Brussels, Maja Bakran Marcich, warned very early on, shortly after taking office in December 2016.
Next stop: garbage can
The Austrian Planning Company now has roughly 4 weeks to sell its 28% stake to its consortium partners. In addition to Russia, these are Ukraine, the Slovakian state railroad, and the Russian postal service. If this is impossible, which insiders expect as the outcome in view of Russia's war on Ukraine, Vienna’s project company will be dissolved, and the plans will end up being shelved.
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