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Saturday, July 17, 1999 Published at 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK

The Kosovo Express

The railway will play a critical role in the reconstruction of Kosovo

By Jonathan Marcus in Pristina

It may not be much to look at but this is the British Army's Kosovo Express.

The title Express may perhaps be an exaggeration - the two dark green shunting engines shipped out from Britain pull a pair of Yugoslav railway carriages at a sedate pace. Each of the grey and white coaches has a blue Nato symbol at one end with K-For's initials stencilled on each side.

Inside, the carriages are dank and musty, but for Captain Anna Stevens, still in her 20s, this train represents an ambition fulfilled. She is the troop commander of 79 Railway Squadron, the British Army's only operational railway unit.

Everyone, it seems, has a soft spot for trains. Senior officers, she confides, turn into small boys at the very sight of them.

The line stretches from the border with Macedonia where it eventually links up with the Greek railway network to just short of Serbia proper in the north.

There's a train every day, needed or not. Presence and visibility, after all, are two of the keynotes of peacekeeping.

A critical role

[ image: Trains were destroyed by Nato bombing]
Trains were destroyed by Nato bombing
But this is no general's train set, the railway is likely to play a critical role in the reconstruction of Kosovo.

So far, troop trains have been run to take soldiers on leave and large numbers of military vehicles have also been withdrawn by train.

It can take four to six hours for trucks to drive from Macedonia to Pristina. Captain Stevens, a true enthusiast, says that the train can do the journey more safely in an hour-and-a-half.

There are big plans. The army wants to lease hopper wagons from the Macedonian railways to bring in tons of stone and aggregates for building and road repairs.

A different role

It is appropriate that the railways should play this role in renewing normal life in Kosovo since it played such a significant part in the tragedy that befell the Kosovo Albanians.

Sergeant Gary Barker of 23 Pioneer Regiment, who is helping to restore Pristina railway station, tells of how his men found it. The platform and track are littered with children's clothing, soiled nappies and pieces of makeshift shelters.

The unit's Albanian interpreter, whose flat overlooks the station, tells of how thousands were herded onto trains here by Serbian special police and despatched towards the border.

But now the pale blue stucco station is reverting to the glory of an earlier age. The soldiers are repainting, stripping and varnishing the woodwork, eager to leave the station as a showpiece for the people of the town.

And for all visitors there is a small souvenir from the racks inside the booking hall - a ticket, return or single, from Pristina to Belgrade.

Back to work

[ image: Employees return to work on the railways and elsewhere]
Employees return to work on the railways and elsewhere
On the way into Pristina we pass through the modern station of Kosovo Polje.

Carriages are abandoned at each of its platforms, the station almost deserted. But not quite. The Yugoslav railway staff have come back to work, both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.

Railwaymen, says Captain Anna Stevens, tend to put railways first and politics second. Maybe a hundred have returned to work, a handful at each station on the line.

Amazingly they are still being paid by Belgrade, and a British Army train recently ran up to the de facto border with Serbia to collect their pay packets.

Security, of course, is the workers' major concern, and if a track gang needs to make repairs or signal work needs to be done a squad of soldiers is despatched with them to secure the area.

Long lines of freight wagons fill the sidings in Kosovo Polje although much of the rolling stock is damaged and of little use. A line of stubby Yugoslav railway shunters has been left on one track.

The hope is to cannibalise them for parts to try to get at least one engine running. Longer journeys are in the hands of ageing Yugoslav diesels, a design from the 1950's made by General Motors in America.

A resurgence

The Railway Squadron talks of repairing bomb damage and re-opening further lines to reach other parts of the province. Italian railway troops are already looking over the British operation to see what they might do here.

Railways and the military have a long and illustrious history. It was rail transport that moved the modern mass armies of the late 19th Century and helped feed the guns in two world conflicts.

But since then trains and soldiers have largely gone their separate ways.

Some two years ago the British Army's extensive railway operation in Germany was withdrawn; 79 Railway Squadron and a few reserve units being the heirs of a long tradition that first came to prominence in the Boer War.

It's only a small resurgence perhaps, but Kosovo has given Britain's military railwaymen, and of course women, a new lease of life.

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