Inside Santa Apolónia, Lisbon’s main railway station — under the steel and smoked glass roof where the air is heavy with the scent of the Atlantic and the River Tagus — there are only two platforms: one for the suburbs and the other the fast train to Bilbao. This was supposed to be the point of departure for the “Corridor 5” Lisbon-Kiev route, intended to link Europe’s Atlantic coast to the Russian steppe. The fifth pillar of a sumptuous European rail network project launched in the mid-1990s, the fate of the corridor is now a mystery.

On 21 March, the Portuguese government announced that it was shelving all of its high-speed rail projects. At the same time, there has been no news of work in progress in Ukraine. The dream of a Europe united by a network of railway infrastructure is still there, but in the form of a discontinuous web of sections and junctions, spread across the continent, which is now called ”Ten-T”. As for Corridor 5, it has re-emerged in a scaled down version which has been rebaptised the Mediterranean Corridor.

Minimum investment

Time to leave Santa Apolonia for Algeciras. On the coast opposite Morocco, the city which is just a stone’s throw from Gibraltar, is now the European Commission’s chosen starting point for the Mediterranean Corridor.

Don Carlos Fenoy, chairman of the local chamber of commerce and one of the most ardent advocates of the project and its utility, is quick to dispel any illusions about the purpose of the corridor: “High-speed freight? You must be mad! The energy consumption and the wear on wagons at speeds of more than 80 kph would result in exponential cost increases”.

Elsewhere in Spain, the government is slashing infrastructure investment, which this year will be worth 5.4 billion euros less than in 2001. However, in spite of the budget cuts, the high speed passenger route between Algeciras and Bobadilla (where it will link to a connection to Madrid) will be completed, using a surprising construction technique.

“It’s simple: to obtain the necessary gauge for high speed trains, we add a third rail between the two others of the existing line. The slow trains will run on the Iberian gauge, while the high speed trains will run on the international gauge”, explains Rafael Flores, the manager of the Ronda rail junction. In this way, the route can be developed without concrete and without colossal investment costs.

We get on in Córdoba, and the 400 km between there and Madrid flies by in a flash (not so the ticket price — €68.90 in second class). Then we head north through Barcelona, across the French border to Perpignan, traveling along the Étang de Thau to Montpellier and Lyon.

Shortly before Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, at the entrance to the Bourgneuf-la-Rochette intermodal terminal, located at one end of the AFA road-rail service which links to the freight station in Orbassano, Italy, there are a few tanker trucks waiting to be loaded onto trains. Four of them every day, which is not very many, cross the Alps in this way. As it stands, the service is dependent on state funding — approximately 900 euros for each truck transported — for its continued survival.

But if the AFA traffic is routed through the Fréjus tunnel, what is the point of the Lyon-Turin super-tunnel? Michel Chaumatte, AFA’s director explains: “By reducing the gradient, we can cut haulage costs”. This is the case, but only at lower speeds. Chaumatte continues: “High-speed is an advantage, although it is one that mainly concerns passenger traffic.”

But given the decline in the number of passengers, you would be forgiven for thinking that the French and Italian rail operators ought be scrapping the link. The financial calculations are there to dispel any further doubt: the cost of works to improve the Ten-T network will be approximately 500 billion euros, of which 31.7 billion will be provided by the Commission. The remainder will be the responsibility of individual countries.

No link between Italy and Slovenia

We continue our journey in the slow, cramped and dirty trains of the local network, traveling over the hills and the plain of Turin, until we encounter a major obstacle in the valley, at the point where the Lyon-Turin link, “will never be completed”.

The work cannot go ahead because, as an engineer from the regional committee to assess the environmental impact of the project explains, at this point “the line is supposed to be 40 metres underground, that is to say, right on the level of the aquifer which provides Turin with drinking water. It is unthinkable and illegal”.

On we go. Soon we are racing at more than 300 kph towards Milan. Strangely enough, high-speed capability has been slow in coming to the section between Brescia and Padua, which poses the least geological difficulty. In contrast, a 28-km segment between Padua and Mestre, has been ready since 2008.

But before we have time to take advantage of our momentum, we are once again bogged down between Venice and Trieste. Here the local mayors are up in arms over the impending environmental disaster, while the city of Trieste has quite simply refused to bury the line.

We leave Trieste and take a coach to the port of Koper (Slovenia), and then on to the freight marshalling yard in Divaca, which no railway will ever link to Italy. The last train for Ljubljana left in December 2011, amid a welter of petty squabbles and tit-for-tat disputes between Rome and Ljubljana.

Today many people believe that in terms of profitability an East-West axis has less to offer than a Baltic-Adriatic rail corridor, which would link the Mediterranean to the powerful economies of Northern and Central Europe.

The European project does not include any connection to the ports in Friuli, or the regions of Venice or Ravenna. When a Slovenian request for a branch line to link Koper was rejected following pressure from the Italian government, Ljubljana decided to take revenge by ensuring that Trieste would have no link to markets in the East.

Charms of the Orient

Having left the Slovenian capital, we make a stopover in Maribor before plunging into a landscape of Hungarian hills. In this part of the world, the official focus is on roads: ”Railways are not our priority”, announces a spokesman for the Ministry of Transport. “The European Union funding will be spent on motorways.” At the same time, the first order of business is the development of links with the North, and in particular with Austria via Györ.

At last we reach Lviv, the former Leopolis with its imperial splendour and intriguing history as a nest of spies and the Yiddish capital. The city is less than 600 km from Kiev, but it will take us 15 hours to get there. We take third-class tickets for the night train, which has unpartitioned sleeper wagons heated by wood stoves where the bunks are stacked three-high.

A wagon master wearing a peaked cap offers us tea. The night train is a bazaar, where passengers can eat, chat and do business. Finally, we wake up in Kiev. The station decor is a mix of modern and imperial Russian. Thirty-storey tower blocks loom on the horizon, but even they cannot detract from the charm of the colourfully obsolescent diesel engines that still chug their way on routes with names that are the stuff of dreams: Chisinau-Saint Petersburg, Odessa-Novgorod, Volgograd-Gdańsk. We look on contentedly. Our mission has been accomplished.