Belgrade to Novi Sad on Soko express

Train travel used to be the stuff of nightmares in Serbia. While I was in highschool I remember packing up lots of food for a 90km train ride to Novi Sad, while any attempts to venture further – to Zagreb and Budapest (both about 400km away from Belgrade) – were day-long out trips in crappy trains that stopped in crappy stations. I

n a lot of ways, the sad state of Serbian rail was the most potent symbol of post-Yugoslav economic devastation. While both the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and SFRY invested in ambitious infrastructure projects – the crowning one being Belgrade-Bar railway (finished in 1976) – after 1990 there was no money not only to build anything new (Belgrade’s central “Prokop” station was started in 1977 and is still unfinished) but even the upkeep of existing infrastructure was impossible – even Tito’s glorious Blue train fell on hard times.

While there were many (pre-election) promises to return rail to former glory, for decades the situation only worsened – and still is dire. There are no more regular passanger trains to Zagreb and Ljubljana (there are some indications they may return in 2022) , nor to Thessaloniki, Sophia and Istanbul.

However, one glimmer of hope appeared on 19 March when Serbia’s first 200km/h train – Soko – strated operating on the newly opened Belgrade-Novi Sad railway, to much pre-election pomp. The project is supposed to be part of the China-financed attempt to re-link Budapest and Belgrade with fast rail, which is due to happen in 2025, after massive delays, due to geopolitical issues (the EU, is of course, not a fan).

The completion coincides with Novi Sad being a European Capital of Culture this year (with Kaunas in Lithuania) and I decided to use the promotional fares (300rsd/2.5 eur) to make a 36-minute trip to see what is on in Novi Sad.

Besides a few annoying thing (Belgrade Central station being mostly unfinished) the trip was lovely. The staff, nervous and obviously new as they faced lots of eager pensioners, were helpful and the fact that one can buy tickets on SrbijaVoz app made it a lot easier. The train, a Seiss Stadler, was clean and comfy and service was nice. Beers and sandwiches were good and reasonably priced, and most importantly the train departed and arrived on time.

Another nice fact about this project is that it also involed restoring the beautiful modernist Novi Sad rail station (built in 1962) which now has a great retro bar.

All in all it was a wonderful experience, and hopefully an augur of good days to come for Serbian railways.

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