hidden europe 39

The ghost of Beeching

by Nicky Gardner


Is cutting public transport links in rural areas and across its borders really the right way for Croatia to gear up to join the European Union this summer? We look at how the pieties of the market are playing havoc with rail services in the north Balkan region.

By the end of the nineteenth-century, it was railways more than anything else that held the Austro-Hungarian Empire together. The double-headed eagle was the icon of Habsburg dominion but, at an everyday level, state institutions like the railways and the postal service united the Habsburg territories. Steam trains brought together the ‘family of many nations’ — supporting the illusion that the mountain folk of western Austria really might have something in common with the herdsmen of Hungary’s eastern plains.

The empire disappeared after the First World War, but its railways survived. Across a great swathe of central Europe and the northern Balkans, magnificent train stations and accompanying railway infrastructure remind visitors today that this was once Habsburg territory. From Lviv (Ukraine) to Ljubljana (Slovenia), from Zakopane (Poland) to Zagreb (Croatia), you will find stations that still hint of Habsburg style.

But the erstwhile empire’s railways are being decimated. Croatia is gearing up to join the European Union (EU) this summer, and the country has been forced to capitulate to the pieties of the market.

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