The metro in Belgrade is almost a century old project that has resurfaced many times. Today, the Serbian capital is one of the last major cities in Europe that still does not have a subway. In 2008, this project was revived thanks to exchanges between the Belgrade City Council and the French companies Alstom, and Egis. In the context of strengthening bilateral relations in the early 2010s, France, first funded the first pre-feasibility study for the construction of the metro between 2012 and 2019.
The visit of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, in 2019, marked a strong, new step for the development of Franco-Serbian relations. The following year, France granted a second donation of 8.3 million euros to finance a feasibility study conducted by Egis (phase 1 of line 1). Then the French government made a financing proposal for the transport system part, with Alstom as the lead contractor, but with several companies involved in the construction. In November 2020, an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) was signed, providing for the mobilization of French Treasury loans and guaranteed credits for the metro project (this AIG also concerns a « smart-grid » project for the electricity distribution network).
More recently, at the beginning of February 2021, a ministerial delegation (Ministers of Finance and Transport), including the Vice-Mayor of Belgrade, visited France at the invitation of the companies Egis and Alstom. The delegation met with several French ministers as well as President Emmanuel Macron, who at the same time was hosting the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. During this official visit, Serbian politicians witnessed the diversity and quality of the French urban transportation system.
The French Embassy in Belgrade is following closely this flagship project, which has raised expectations among Serbian citizens. The construction of the metro also raises questions and is regularly contested in the Serbian media. The economic department of the French embassy has agreed meet us and answer our questions.
Interview with the Economic Service of the French Embassy in Belgrade
Guillaume Pichelin: The Belgrade metro is a very long-standing project. Since the first initiative was taken in 1923, Serbian policy makers have tried many times to complete this construction. Why should this time be the right time?
Economic Service: This time should be the « right time » for several reasons. The increasing pollution and traffic jams are prompting the public authorities to update this « long-standing project », which is now vital for the proper development of the rapidly expanding capital.
Today, there is a powerful political motivation in Serbia to build a metro system. The project is supported by President Vucic who flagged it as a priority, as well as the ex-mayor and current Minister of Finance, chairman of the Task Force for the construction of the metro, Siniša Mali.
The feasibility phase of the project (Phase 1 of Line 1) will be completed in early 2022 and the construction companies have already begun preparation. The Serbian government wants to begin working on the Makiš depot in the south of Belgrade (equipment storage, train maintenance) by the end of 2021. Goals have been set with concrete deadlines. The completion of line 1 is planned for 2028, while line 2 should be delivered in 2030. A third line is also envisaged, but without a precise date for the moment.
Guillaume Pichelin: In 2020, Transparency International ranked Serbia 94th, tied with Brazil, Suriname, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Peru and Kazakhstan. The Serbian government awarded the construction of the project to three companies, including two French ones: Egis, Alstom and Power China. How did the tender for the Belgrade metro go? How does France check that the money is properly spent in a country which is still far from European standards in the fight against corruption?
Economic Service: The intergovernmental agreement signed in November 2020, follows the Serbian procurement procedure with France, who submitted a list of selected, interested and qualified French suppliers to Serbia. Among these, the Serbian authorities have decided to trust Alstom.
All of the project’s stakeholders are now mobilized against corruption. France is a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions and French companies are extremely vigilant. A clause specifying the commitments of both parties in the fight against corruption has been included in the IGA.
As far as the Treasury loan is concerned, the payment of invoices is made by the bank Natixis, which acts on behalf of the French State. These transactions are confirmed to the supplier or service provider, after their verification by the Economic Service of the French Embassy.
Guillaume Pichelin: Originally the construction was supposed to start in 2016, then in 2020 and finally in 2021. The plans have changed several times and the cost of the project has increased each time. What exactly happened?
Economic Service: Indeed, the situation has changed significantly over the past ten years. Several technical specifications have changed, the routes of the lines have been modified, and the plans now include deeper stations in some places. As a result, all of these changes have led to a re-evaluation and increase of costs.
The metro project has become a popular topic in Serbian newspapers. The media does not always deliver concise information in regards to the construction of the metro, which has led to confusion. For example, sometimes they fail to mention if they were speaking about one, two, or three lines.
Today, the construction of the first two lines is estimated at about 4.4 billion euros, 2.3 billion of which is for line 1. For phase 1 of line 1 (16.6 km), the investment is estimated at about 500 million euros for the transport system (Alstom) and 1.3 billion euros for the civil engineering (Power China).
Guillaume Pichelin: How is the construction of the Metro organized? Is France building the metro on its own? Does it employ only French engineers or will Serbian or foreign companies also participate?
Economic Service: Egis is currently carrying out the feasibility study for phase 1 of line 1, which should be completed by early 2022. The construction of this phase will be shared between two companies: Alstom for the transport system and Power China for the civil engineering. The French companies are cooperating with local partners, including subcontractors, and will therefore employ mostly Serbian workers.
Guillaume Pichelin: There is already a « metro » in Belgrade, if you can call it that, since it is limited to the operation of a single line that runs from Vukov spomenik to Novi Beograd on the other side of the Sava. Will this line be integrated into the new network or will it remain independent? What will the future metro network look like?
Economic Service: This line is part of the BG VOZ network which is another long-term project. The objective is to create 4, intra-city lines and 3 lines that extend outside of Belgrade over several tens of kilometers.
This rail network will be integrated into the metropolitan network and there will be a profound restructuring of the capital’s transportation systems. Intermodality work will be necessary (bus, tramways, trolleybuses, metro, train) and the Belgrade City Council has already approached the French company RATP Dev to benefit from its expertise in this field.
Guillaume Pichelin: What are the issues involved in defining the neighborhoods that the metropolitan network should serve?
Economic Service: The French companies do not have control over the metro’s routes. They are here to provide their expertise, and it is the client, Beogradski Metro i Voz (BMV), who decides on the final route.
Guillaume Pichelin: How do you think the metro can really transform Belgrade? What will be the positive and negative impacts for the inhabitants?
Economic Service: The Belgrade metro will significantly reduce road traffic and pollution. It will also have an impact on the purchasing power of the population since it will be cheaper to use the metro system than to drive. At the same time, it is true that this type of project has an impact on real estate. It is highly likely that the housing value will increase in neighborhoods near the future metro lines and stations.
Guillaume Pichelin: How do you picture the future of Belgrade in the coming years?
Economic Service: French, European and international investors consider Belgrade and Serbia a good place to invest given its proximity to European capitals and the region (good airline connections). Belgrade is an attractive and rapidly developing city along with its quality infrastructure and dynamic workforce, which is expected to continue.
At the same time, Belgrade is facing environmental problems that cannot be ignored: poor waste management, water pollution and bad air quality. Aware of these challenges, the Serbian authorities and the city of Belgrade have initiated several infrastructure projects. These projects will bring the country into compliance with European environmental standards. To do this, they are relying in part on international expertise, including that of France, which has real know-how in this field.
Until recently the city was dumping its waste directly into the Danube. However, only a few kilometers from the city, Suez Environnement has begun building a new waste treatment center in Vinča. This place has been known to be one of the largest open-air landfills in Europe. The city also has ambitious projects for sanitation and wastewater treatment, on which French and European companies have positioned themselves.
Belgrade also suffers from air pollution. This is a multifactorial problem that is linked to wood burning, the presence of coal-fired power plants and road traffic. The Serbian authorities are aware of the challenge, but this requires substantial investments and upgrades that cannot be achieved overnight.
Based on these findings and the projects underway, it is undeniable that Belgrade will maintain its status as a regional capital, thanks to the future development of a good transportation network.
Once completed, the metro will be one of the most modern in the world and become a great showcase for the city. Furthermore, New Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, that the French company Vinci Airports is building, currently handles 6 million passengers. These additions being built, will increase the traffic up to 15 million passengers and give larger significance to Belgrade. All these infrastructure development projects will support and structure the city’s expansion.
Euro Créative warmly thanks the Economic Service of the French Embassy in Belgrade for the possibility of this interview.
This interview was conducted by Guillaume Pichelin.