New skills for new rails
Rail was Albania’s main mode of transport for most of the 20th century. It was an affordable, reliable and accessible option for passengers, and was a cost-effective way of transporting freight. Packed trains wound their way from the country to the city and from pristine coastal towns to charming mountain villages. Unfortunately, the railways started seeing a decline in the 1980s, as limited and frequently disrupted services prompted a switch to the roads.
The Albanian government’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy has made the shift back from road to rail a national priority. The Albanian railway company HSH (Hekurudha Shqiptare) has been asked to help turn things around by promoting an ambitious programme to rebuild and modernise the railways. The plan would make transport in Albania greener, more competitive and more sustainable, and improve connections with neighbouring countries and the trans-European railway network.
The plan focuses on rebuilding and modernising the railway sections between Durrës and Tirana (including a new link to Tirana’s airport), Vorë and Han i Hotit (close to the border with Montenegro), Durrës and Rrogozhinë, and Rrogozhinë and Pogradec, and will also see a new cross-border link with North Macedonia.
The HSH is determined to meet the challenge, but decades of not carrying out this kind of project mean it has limited experience and staff to do so.
This bottleneck has been recognised by key stakeholders. As a result, national institutions, including HSH and the government, came to an agreement with the European Commission, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on the need for an action plan to upskill the teams involved in rebuilding the railways.
The ministry and HSH approached the Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions (JASPERS) to draw up the action plan. This will equip it with the necessary skills to implement such an ambitious investment programme. The action plan will focus on helping HSH employees to develop the right skills for rail projects so that the company can go ahead with these investments.
The first priority under the action plan was to upgrade the skills and expertise of HSH employees, including the project management and implementation unit. JASPERS experts devised a comprehensive, people-centred, tailor-made training programme based on the various pillars of expertise and on the needs of HSH’s workforce. The programme covers public procurement, implementation tasks and operational aspects, and also includes ad hoc and comprehensive training courses and workshops, as required.
The second issue to be addressed was employee working conditions. These will be improved by providing additional workspaces and upgrading IT equipment, as well as offering better employment contracts. The action plan also proposes a set of measures to enhance employee cooperation across HSH departments and with external stakeholders.
The last point of the action plan recommends preparing a practical manual of relevant procedures as a reference for staff. The manual should include best international practices for project implementation and ensure that knowledge is not lost when employees leave. The first draft will be based on similar experiences JASPERS had in other countries but will be tailored to the needs of HSH and its project management and implementation unit. In future, the manual will need to be updated based on employees’ own experiences and lessons learnt.
Abiding by the concept of besa (meaning "to keep the promise" and "word of honour" in Albanian culture), all stakeholders cooperated efficiently to develop the action plan. This was also helped by excellent cooperation between JASPERS and the various EIB departments, the national authorities, the EBRD and the European Commission.
The national authorities have now committed to seeing through the plan. Its adoption by the European Commission also unblocked a €138 million investment grant from the Western Balkans Investment Framework for the railway section between Vorë and Hani i Hotit. Loans from the EIB and the EBRD were also secured to modernise that same section.
If all goes according to plan, HSH will rebuild and modernise more than 75% of its 425 km of railways in the next decade. This will have a tremendous impact on the nation. It will bring the Albanian railways more in line with EU standards and bring the country one step closer to EU integration.
Beyond that, current and future HSH employees will benefit from enhanced skills, enabling the company to develop, operate and maintain a modern rail system for future generations.
Tirana - Durres railway (c) EU Delegation Albania
Gentian Liko, HSH Administrator: “JASPERS helped us to compile the Action Plan, which was a gateway condition to secure EU and IFI funding for major railway rehabilitation projects in Albania. These are key elements of our country’s sustainable mobility system currently under development.”
Piers Vickers, Principal Technical Advisor in the EIB’s Projects Directorate: “Without JASPERS’ catalytic role to identify the key critical capacity bottlenecks and appropriate measures to redress these, the risks for a successful project implementation would have been significant. We all now need to keep the momentum to put the Action Plan into practice.”
Denis Jakubik, Senior Transport Engineer and JASPERS Task Manager for the Action Plan: “Working on this assignment brought me high levels of professional satisfaction, given the excellent cooperation between all stakeholders and the alignment of interests in view of revitalising the railways and their role in the transport system of Albania and beyond.”
The Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions (JASPERS) advises on strategies, programmes and projects for investments supported by European Grant Funds, with the aim of promoting growth and paving the way to a smarter, greener and more connected Europe. They can provide advisory support in project preparation, capacity-building support on project planning, climate proofing and compliance with EU legislation, and independent quality reviews of projects. JASPERS is a partnership between the European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) and its assistance is free of charge for local authorities and promoters. Since 2016, JASPERS support covers all Western Balkans countries, as well as Türkiye.