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Isolated in the very center of Europe: ways to overcome the infrastructural underdevelopment in Transcarpathia

By turning a weakness into an advantage

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The situation that the westernmost region of Ukraine has found itself, in respect with its intercommunication with the rest of the world, looks absolutely unnatural and illogical.

And to such an extent that it provokes depressing thoughts and speculations on the edge of conspiracy plots.

Think for yourselves: a region bordering with 4 countries of EU and NATO at once and being a geographical center of Europe, at the same time has no regular flights and railway communication of the intercity type, except for a very formal one to Budapest and Kosice. At least for the last decade, new checkpoints in Transcarpathia have not been not launched and border crossing points not refurbished, despite receiving EU grants for that, implementing visa-free travel (by the way the celebration on the occasion took place in this very region, at the Ukraine and Slovak border) and a continually increasing passenger and cargo traffic.

Although all of the listed above is not a definitive issue list, yet neither of those is something that can’t be solved. Even though the experience in the last years is evidence to the contrary, as, for instance, the continuous but unfortunately failed attempts to restore flight connection with Transcarpathia.

The wings of Transcarpathia

Certainly not a top priority for today, neither the greatest region’s issue. But at the same time, lack of air travel is the main symbol of the “underdevelopment” and “isolation” of Transcarpathia.

Despite the fact that the airport in Uzhhorod is in action and has the international category, it serves for only charter and not regular flights.

Even though last year, from June to September the Motor Sich company provided for direct regulat flights between Kyiv and Uzhhorod, and even thrice a week. The company was to obtain reimbursement from the Transcarpathian regional council, at the amount of 9 million UAH but currently the transaction is blocked by the Anti-Monopoly Committee.

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The international airport of Uzhhorod, photo by K. Smutko

There is a cliché that it is unprofitability of the flight direction is one of the reasons why planes are currently not flying towards Transcarpathia and why all the previous efforts to establish a regular air traffic failed.

And then again, the same company of Motor Sich had been doing regulat flights betweem Kyiv and Transcarpathia and in 2013 even launched a flight from Uzhhorod to Prague, not living up at that time, though.

But except for risks with profitability, other drivers and aspects should be considered.

Firstly, using the midair of Slovakia every time during the take-off and landing of a plane, since the airport of Uzhhorod is located actually at the border between the two countries.

There is quite a number of misunderstandings about the reason, say, due to the expiry date of the international treaty in summer 2016, Ukrainian planes cannot use the Slovakia’s midair and do their take-off and landing in Uzhhorod. It is not quite correct.

The point is that whether our planes are supported throughout Slovakia’s midair during their take-off or landing with special devices by the company “Aerorukh”, i.e. with equipment or the pilots shoulder it themselves and they land or lift their aircrafts off the ground guided by visual indications.

So, beginning from summer 2016, as soon as the 10-year-long agreement between Ukraine and Slovakia had expired, the planes could take off and land in Uzhhorod but do it only visually, with no equipment support by the “UkrAeroRukh”, and that was only possible at daylight and weather permitting and with a prior request to the Slovakian side.

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The international airport of Uzhhorod, photo by K. Smutko

In December 2019, “UkrAeroRukh” got certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and before that experts from this European institution had done an audit of the Uzhhorod airport. All these procedures being completed, there was no obstacle for signing a new international Treaty between Ukraine and Slovakia. In June this year, the treaty was approved by the Ukrainian government. Now it is Slovakia’s turn.

According to the information at the disposal of our media, the signing of the new t reaty is planned for September this year. There is a good chance that it will take in Uzhhorod, which is logical, and witnessed by the Presidents of both countries.

This new treaty will give the airport of Uzhhorod the ability to perform flights not only at daylight and in sunny weather but almost any time. And that is going to be a great breakthrough and a signal for airlines.

Secondly, the infrastructure of the airport itself. By latest estimation, to make the Uzhhorod airport comfortable and attractive for airlines, some 350 million UAH are required. This amount was made public to our media both in the airport administration and in the Department of infrastructure of the Regional State Administration.

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Aircraft model Yak-40, that made flights by the route Kyiv-Uzhhorod up until recently. Photo by: K.Smutko.

The ability of the airport to accept any other planes except the old models An-24 and Yak-40 that have been flying here until now is also doubtful. Firstly, at least the Embrauer, Boeing 737 and AIrbus models have to be accomodated. In particular, in September 2016, a Boeing 737-300 successfully landed and took off in Uzhhorod, even though this model is now hardly used by anybody. But here the issue of the takeoff runway arises, namely its length, currently being 2038 meters long. The problem of its completion at least to 2500 and better yet 3000 meters is highly charged and has been risen not once, when the local authorities made efforts to involve new airlines.

Moreover, an option of developing the Uzhhorod airport suitable for exiting immediately to the Slovak side. Such ideas were mentioned as working yet in 2017 by Maksym Sokoliuk, the Head of the State Migration Service, in his interview to European Truth.

Declarations were made at various levels, on the readiness to transfer the airport into rent to the Hungarian low cost Wizz Air, involve the companies like Turkish airlines and International Ukraine Airlines.

According to Oleksiy Petrov, the Head of Transcarpathian Regional State Administration, the most realistic way for today is to involve airlines for restoring a regular airline communication and let them use a modern air cargo terminal. Hence, in case a company is not able to make profit in passenger flights, then cargo operations will be a specific reimbursement and motivation for them.

Thirdly, a capacity to provide high-quality air transportation by a comfortable schedule and a reasonable price. For example, after restoring the regular communication by the route Kyiv-Uzhhorod in March 2019, during a 2 months’ period passengers took flights only once a week, on Fridays. And the flight lasted for 3 hours, of which an hour and a half used to be spent in Lviv. That is, it was a  transfer flight. Moreover, the cost of a ticket for such a flight in a 40-year-old AN-24 plane was announced in the range from 699 to 3.5K UAH, totally about 2K UAH.

Under such conditions, it was naïve to expect for a seating rate in a flight and respectively its cost-effectiveness, even in the long run. Hence it had no sense to subsidize such flights.

In case a regular air communication is built based on a realistic business model, then the starting subsidies from the government or at the cost of the regional budget will be a way that many countries have gone, with an example of Hungary, as they were supporting their Wizz Air.

By the way, it was this Hungarian airline that in the last decade have developed two hubs of their own, within the range of 150 km from Transcarpathia, in the Hungarian city of Debretzen and the Slovakian city of Kosice. It fell on the period when Transcarpathian people kept on flying, and not only to Kyiv. However, not via Lviv or Uzhhorod but exactly via Kosice and Debrecen.

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A charter flight from Israel arriving in Uzhhorod airport in July 2000. Photo by Vitaliy Glagola.

Another evidence of underestimating the market of air transportation from Transcarpathia, including European directions, is the rapid development in the sphere of private bus trips to Prague, Budapest, Vienna,  Bratislava and other European capitals. Needless to say that these trips are made for migrant workers. They are the earnest of success of international flights from Tanscarpathia.

At the background of the necessity to restore regular air flights from the Uzhhorod airport, a much more ambitious project has been discussed at the regional level in the last few years. It is the construction of a new civil airport in the location of the former military one in Mukachevo. This intention was declared in 2018 and confirmed with a governmental decision. A preliminary cost of the new airport amounted 2-3 billion UAH. The state budget for 2020 even included funds for the purpose and started designing the construction project for the new airport. Though it is hard to say whether the airport will be raised before 2023, as it is planned…

The idea is to make the Mukachevo airport a part of a logistic hub including an updated railway station. However, now even such a simple thing as a public toilet is missing in the building of the railways station, say nothing of putting into order the square by the station.

A breakthrough in railway transportation

With respect to its geographical position, Mukachevo is a historically important traffic center in Transcarpathia. And it is at this place that new railway routes are based on recently, including those for EU, due to the preserved standard Stephenson gauge of 1435 mm wide.

Thus, in December 2018, after a few years of planning, the intercity on the route Mukachevo-Budapest was launched, and, in June 2019 – a similar train to the second biggest city of Slovakia, Kosice. Yet in February 2018, the Slovakian side declared that they have nothing against launching a train by the route Uzhhorod-Kosice, but at the moment it is a project only.

Unfortunately, an intercity train from Transcarpathia in another direction, to Kyiv, also remains a project only.

Yet in August, 2018, in 3 months after launching the new Beskid tunnel over the Carpathians, a high-speed train named the Tarpan was tested on the route from Lviv to Uzhhorod via Mukachevo. It seemed that it was supposed to be the last step before an official startup of an intercity train from Kyiv to Uzhhorod.

The key dilemma in the project is the complexity of the route through a mountainous area and whether the time in transit could be decreased, since there is quite a long section where the intercity train will not be able to develop a high speed.

By the preliminary estimation made by the railway engineers based on the test results, it takes the Tarpan train 3 hours from Lviv to Mukachevo, an hour more to Uzhhorod. It takes for the intercity about 5 hours from Kyiv to Lviv. As a result, we have a total journey time of 9-10 hours, which is less that the current timing with the fastest night train by the route Kyiv-Uzhhorod, No 29/30, going 12 hours in the trip.

With any luck to speed up the intercity from Kyiv to Uzhhorod, it will be just great, if no, the decision may be viewed in different options: both as a comfortable communication between Transcarpathia and Lviv region, and in the context of continuing the route of the Budapest-Mukachevo or Kosice-Mukachevo trains to Lviv.

At least during the peak touristic season in summer and in winter those trips could become very popular. The same logics was made public in his interview to Varosh by the Head of the Transcarpathia regional State Administration, Oleksiy Petrov.

Under the present-day conditions, before the lockdown, Transcarpathia had to struggle not for new trains but for returning the old ones into operation, like the N099/100 by the route Uzhhorod-Kyiv, having a comfortable schedule for business trips and running not so long ago. The same goes for the schedule of the actual trains and appointing new stations in the most popular touristic locations of Transcarpathia.

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Photo: an abandoned border checkpoint at Teresva-Kimpulung la Tisa

A much more ambitious goal is the one to restore the regular railway communication between Transcarpathia and Romania. It could be a real “Transcarpathian Express” servicing Uzhhorod-Szyget-Rakhiv – Ivano-Frankivsk to Chernivtsi, that would connect by railway not only the corner points of Transcarpathia. It would also unite the region with the centers of 2 other western regions and the center of the Maramures area in Romania, the city of Szyget, where a large Ukrainian community lives. Popular mountain resorts are also on the route, on both sides of the Ukrainian Carpathians.

Suburban trains by the routes of Teresva (in Tiachiv area, Transcarpathia) to Szyget (Maramures area in Romania) and from Rakhiv to Szyget used to run regularly up to 2007, and over the wider gauge (1520 mm) on both sides of the border.

At the moment it looks as if in order to relaunch the route, a political will and some 200 million UAH are needed to bring into order the deserted section of the railway.

Highways and checkpoints

These 2 components in the Transcarpathian infrastructure are probably the most painful and important today, even despite the coronavirus crisis.

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The H09 highway Mukachevo – Rogatyn after the rehabbing, in 2020. Photo by: Yu. Rezviy

As for highways, Ukraine’s westernmost region has become to get out from the slums, and in 2020 has all chances to be come a year of a breakthrough. As Oleksiy Petrov marked in his interview to Varosh, the state category roads have got an unprecedented amount from the state budget – over 4 billion UAH.

Hence, in a short time, apart from the international highway Kyiv-Chop, Transcarpathia is going to have 3 wonderful transport corridors leading to the Carpathians. These are the H09 Mukachevo to Rohatyn, H13 Uzhhorod to Sambir and the P21 Dolyna to Khust. As for the first route, the rehubbing within the territory of Transcarpathia has been in progress for two years already, and as for the other two routes, the capital repair has recently started.

Roz Route Horizontal

Unfortunately, there is still remaining an outstanding issue of the belt route around Berehovo and the reconstruction of the section between Mukachevo to Berehovo. Completing these two would give an opportunity to do a high-quality update for the highway service within the 5th pan-European transport corridor passing through Budapest, Liubliany and Triest that are connected with the M3 highway. This arterial has been completed actually under the Ukrainian border by the route via the checkpoint Luzhanka – Beregsurany.

However, to make a high-quality connection throughout the route, a decision was made to build up a new checkpoint Déda – Beregdaróc. That will allow for a better integration of the Hungarian part of the autobahn with the highway Kyiv – Chop.

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The H09 highway Mukachevo – Rogatyn after the rehabbing, in 2020. Photo by: Yu. Rezviy

Budapest is ready and willing to grant a credit of 50 million euros for the present infrastructural project, so important not only for Transcarpathia but for the whole Ukraine. It was announced yet in 2016. During one of the last meetings between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries, a consensus was reached, concerning the prolongation of the credit.

Apart from the above-mentioned checkpoint in the vicinity of the village of Déda, 17 more checkpoints are being planned, worthy launching at the borders with the neighboring countries before 2022, which is virtually the same number of the existing ones over the region.

Actually, the most realistic goal is to open 3-5 ones from the list. They are the following:

– The above mentioned checkpoint of Déda – Beregdaróc at the Ukrainian and Hungarian border, being planned as a common one at the Hungarian side;

– the checkpoint “Bila Tserkva – Sighetu Marmației” at the Romanian border, by building a bridge of reinforced concrete over the Tysa River. The Romanians are ready to built the bridge to the Ukrainian side at the EU cost, and the only thing is that the project has to be started by the end of the year. Otherwise the funds may be lost, as it has happened more than once. That is why such Ukrainian checkpoints as Luzhanka or Uzhhorod into long-delayed construction sites due to corruption. The latest news about the checkpoint “Bila Tserkva – Sighetu Marmației”: practically no bureaucratic obstacles are present for opening the checkpoint, as envisaged by the interstate treaty yet in 2006; instead, there is a great eagerness to carry out the project;

This is just a pre-design visualization of what the new checkpoint might look like at the Romanian border.

– the checkpoint “Velyka Palady – Nagygodos” at the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. It seems that everything has been ready for launching it, for the last few years. A common border and customs control may become the peculiarity of this checkpoint. According to the primary declaration on intentions, the checkpoint was supposed to start working by the end of 2014. A brand-new road was completed from the Ukrainian side in 2017, leading up to the checkpoint and planned to be opened. Which has not happened yet, ungortunately;

– the checkpoint Solomonovo – Chierna at the Ukrainian – Slovakian border, also next to the Hungarian border at the same time. There is an intergovernmental agreement on opening of the vehicular checkpoint, as of 2008. Today this project is in a priority list in the Transcarpathian Regional State Administration;

– the checkpoint Lubnia – Volosate, working from time to time at the Ukraine-Poland border as a bicycle and pedestrian checkpoint and has a great touristic potential for operating not only at the bottom of good neighborliness but at any time. This is going to be the first checkpoint at the Polish border within Transcarpathia, which would be really cool!

Roz Kpp Vertical

In case the electronic ticket system could be launched for the key checkpoints in Transcarpathia, then one can really speak of a true breakthrough in the development of the near-border infrastructure. Today there is an intention to launch a pilot project for the system at the cargo terminal of the Tysa checkpoint. And, in case it pays for itself, then it can be spread over other checkpoints, as well as their passenger terminals.

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Even such a brief review of the infrastructural prospects in Transcarpathia may give a kind of comprehension of the fact that not only problems have been adding up but solutions are being gradually taking shape.

Besides a clear concept has appeared for the fact that development of high-quality transport communication with Ukraine’s westernmost region has a deeper sense today than logistics only.

Hence, the issue needs a different approach, and, the main thing, it also needs resources that currently are not available, as we must admit, not only at the regional level but with private investors as well.

So Kyiv has to have its say on it, for the region is doomed without significant state investments into the infrastructure of Transcarpathia. And over the last years it’s only glaringly obvious.

On the other hand, state investments into the infrastructure of Ukraine’s westernmost region can rapidly produce an effect, not only a logistical or economic one but even do a relaunch of Transcarpathia as a region and introduce Ukraine for the Central and Eastern Europe.

The topic of infrastructure is going to be one of the key subjects at the forum devoted to the development of Transcarpathia, «Re:Open Zakarpattia», due to take place on November 7-8.

Більше деталей про форум дізнавайтесь за контактами та на офіційних сторінках проєкту:

Сайт форуму «Re:Open Zakarpattia»

E-mail reopen.zakarpattia@gmail.com

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Дмитро Тужанський, спеціально для Varosh

 

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