Time and again, I’m amazed at the lack of train use in the Balkans. For some reason, everyone is really in to the buses and I don’t know why. Sure, there’s the fact that buses go places where trains don’t (such as from Split to Dubrovnik) but there are many reasons not to take the bus and take the train such as:
– Comfort. I can get up, walk around, go to the dining car, and use the tragic, albeit thankfully there, restroom.
– Cost. Trains are almost always cheaper than buses.
– Speed. Trains are quite often faster or at least the same speed as the bus.
Given these reasons, you can understand why anyone in Western Europe would take a train and people do take them in places like France, Britain, Germany, and Spain with great abandon. I think that most people in the US would much rather take Amtrak than Greyhound. It is true that the trains do not usually have air conditioning, which is a big problem in the summer for about two or three months. But the AC in buses can be pretty shoddy at times or not even there.
I have a perfect example from our stay in Serbia to illustrate my point. We went to Novi Sad from Belgrade twice. The first time we took the bus. It cost us $30 round trip and took a tad bit more than two hours each way. The second time we took the train which cost us $10 round trip. It was suppose to be a one hour and 15 minutes trip, but was delayed a half hour each time. Even with the delay, it was still 15 minutes faster than the bus! Take that delay out of the equation and it’s even faster, plus the train and bus stations are right next to each other in both Serbia and Novi Sad, so there is no advantage of one over the other.
So, why would someone pay more to go slower? I have thought about this a great deal on a great many long, crappy bus trips. I don’t really have any concrete answer, but I have a theory that can be summed up in one word: Communism. In Communist times, both the bus and train lines were state owned. It has seemed to me that one of the main images associated with the progress aspect of Communism was the train (Tito and Mao Zedong both had their personal trains) and thusly I think that to some extent, people still associate the train with a Communist past that they are happy to leave behind. You see, while the trains are still nationalized or part of a privatized monopoly which is pretty much the same thing, the buses are all privately run and there are multiple buses covering the same routes for pretty much the same price. This gives the illusion of choice and people like that. With the train, you’ve got one option, the train and you’re stuck with its schedule.
So, I think this is what it all really comes down to and in some ways, it’s a shame as trains are lovely transport systems and once electrified, quite eco-friendly. Maybe with time this will change. In Slovenia (which doesn’t actually consider itself part of the Balkans) they already use trains a great deal, so I am hoping there is hope for the rest of former Yugoslavia.