Tag Archives: Athens metro

An underground resistance in Athens

metrostairsThe Athens metro is one of the cleanest, safest, cheapest, fastest and most punctual subway systems anywhere in the world. It is a precision timepiece in a country full of malfunctioning cuckoo clocks.

Used by about 650,000 passengers a day and accommodating more than 400 million rides a year, it is the 31st busiest metro system internationally and one of the few shining legacies of the 2004 Olympics. The ability of the Athens metro to operate so smoothly below ground when there is such inefficiency above ground should be a source of fascination.

Such philosophical musings have been set aside for the time being, though, as the metro has become the battleground between striking employees and a government intent on reducing their wages as it creates a single pay structure for public sector employees. Stuck in the middle of this dispute are thousands of commuters: people who have lost their jobs over the last few years as well as others with jobs but whose wages have been slashed.

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The secret of our success

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 As far as cringeworthy moments go, it was right up there: Prime Minister George Papandreou being given a standing ovation by his Cabinet last Friday, just a few hours after the eurozone agreed on a new support package for Greece. That’s not to say that Papandreou — or indeed Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos — doesn’t deserve some credit for the energy and purpose he brought to those marathon negotiations, but with everything still at stake and so many questions about the deal unanswered, a triumphant welcome for a conquering hero hardly seems appropriate.

To be fair, Papandreou tried to play down his moment of glory last Friday — and continued to do so over the ensuing days — by arguing that securing the second package, worth 159 billion euros, had been a “success that belongs to all Greeks.” Nevertheless, painting the deal as a success at a time when the effects of the debt crisis are being felt far and wide and when the worst is still to come seems not just premature but immature. Greece is still tiptoeing along the precipice — it’s no time to break out into song and dance.

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Bulldozers and barricades

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There was a banner hanging from a pedestrian bridge over the Athens-Thessaloniki national road until a few days ago that read: “Every neighborhood should be like Keratea.” Presumably, those who hung the sign (which bore the anarchist symbol) meant that every part of Athens should display the kind of resistance to authority that Keratea residents have become synonymous with over the last couple of months rather than that every neighborhood should become a dumping ground for the city’s rubbish, which is what has sparked the uprising on the outskirts of Athens.

For many Greeks, the ongoing conflict in this small corner of southeastern Attica encapsulates everything that is wrong with the country. On one side there are those who see the fervent, and sometimes violent, resistance of people in Keratea to the construction of a waste management center as being symptomatic of Greeks’ unruly nature: an irrational and immature reaction to the functioning of a democratic state that’s in the same vein as the refusal of many motorists to pay road tolls. On the other side are those – the anarchists who hung the banner included – that believe Keratea is a shining example of how an irresponsible and corrupt state should be resisted.

Both opinions are valid but neither is particularly correct. At its essence, the dispute in Keratea – where a section of the main highway leading to the port of Lavrio has been closed for several weeks and resembles 1980s Beirut, strewn with burned debris and overturned vehicles – is about trust, not about a phobia of abiding by laws or taking a principled stance against dirty deals between a shady state and dodgy contractors. The people of Keratea simply do not trust their government when it says it will build a modern and clean landfill that will not affect their way of life or the value of their properties.

Successive governments over the last two decades have failed to inspire any confidence in their handling of the waste management issue. It was decided in 1998 that Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, would be the sites for Attica’s new landfills. Yet it took several years, millions of euros in European Union fines and the threat of losing additional millions of EU funding for the new projects before the government got the wheels in motion. For decades, Athens has relied on just one landfill – in Ano Liosia – but it’s only now it has reached saturation point that any concerted effort is being made to create alternatives. Suddenly, and with no awareness of the irony, the government and sections of the media are slamming concerned Keratea residents for holding up the process, claiming that it is an absolutely vital project for Attica. It would be interesting to find out how many times a member of government, say a public works or environment minister, has visited Keratea since 1998 to speak to local people about the significance of the project and exactly what will be built on land that lies just a couple of kilometers from their community. I would hazard a guess that it’s none. Certainly there has been no effort by any government to make the project a more attractive proposition for locals by promising to hire people from the area or to counterbalance the fact that festering rubbish will be amassed next to their homes by pledging to improve local infrastructure.

If you want people’s trust, you have to explain to them why you make certain decisions, but successive governments have scorned the people of Keratea. It’s hardly a surprise that these people should now return this rejection by the dumpster load. Until a decade ago, Keratea was just one of the sleepy villages dotted around the Mesogeia area southeast of Athens. But the construction of Athens International Airport, the Attiki Odos (the highway linking Athens and the airport) and the metro have changed all that. In a short period of time, this area has seen furious construction activity, much of it illegal, and has essentially been transformed into a suburb of Athens. Given this climate, local people want reassurances about what else is going to be built in their backyard. The government, however, has been particularly guarded about exactly what kind of trash facility will operate in Keratea. Environmentalists expressed concerns last week that an incineration facility would be constructed there. The government remained tight-lipped, only fueling anger, concern and suspicion that the whole scheme will just be a big pay day for the contractor and will leave a permanent and ugly scar on Keratea’s landscape.

A similar breakdown in the transparent communication that should exist between a government and its people has prompted many motorists and residents of Attica, the Peloponnese and central Greece to take matters into their own hands over the increasing number of tollbooths and the rising cost of tolls on the national roads. The most notable moment of this campaign came on January 10 when soap opera actor-turned-Mayor of Stylida Apostolos Gletsos clambered onto a bulldozer and defiantly knocked down the roadside barriers at the Pelasgia tollbooth, allowing motorists to pass for free. His action was a protest against the government’s decision to increase toll charges to 2.60 euros and to remove special passes that allowed some 1,000 Stylida residents to pass the tollbooth for 50 cents. Locals argue that because there are no other roads they can use to go about their daily business, they are forced to pay tolls to use the national road. They point to EU legislation which states that when tollbooths are built, toll-free roads must also be made available to motorists.

Again, the issue is one of trust: The government has failed to live up to its obligations but expects Stylida residents to swallow toll rises without complaint. Trust has also been eroded due to a lack of clarity over the five contracts the previous government handed out to consortia to manage sections of the highway network. Campaigners claim that the successive toll charge rises over the last couple of years and the creation of more toll stations contravenes these agreements. The government, as ever, has remained tight-lipped, which has only stoked protests against the tolls. It’s significant that government sources have said that current talks with the consortia over renewing the expiring contracts are focusing on a reduction in toll charges by up to 25 percent. Gletsos, greeted by hundreds of supporters when he appeared in court for destroying the barriers, has already transformed himself from cringeworthy soap star to fearless road warrior but the slashing of toll charges would be a moral victory for the campaigners and a blow against those who argue that such shows of disobedience have no place in a civilized state.

However, knocking a few cents off the cost of tolls will do little to mend the broken bond of trust between the government and its voters. As long as those in power are dismissive of the people they govern and as long as they act without transparency, they will meet resistance. Sometimes frustration or bloody-mindedness means that this resistance can stray beyond the normally accepted boundaries. However, rather than suggesting that Greece is in a state of anarchy, as those who dangled the banner over the national road would like to believe, it’s a sign that we are living very much in a democracy, albeit one that malfunctions more often than it functions.

Nick Malkoutzis

When things fall apart

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Amid the upheaval unleashed by the near-collapse of the Greek economy and the austerity measures adopted by the government to halt the juggernaut of bankruptcy, it seemed an odd thing to notice as evidence of how the crisis was affecting daily life. But, somehow, the absence of the young woman who usually sat behind the ticket counter at the metro station seemed poignant. It was a reminder that there are faces to go with every cutback, tax increase and structural reform and how catastrophic policies and lousy leadership have led to the fabric of our society gradually unravelling.

It’s been a while since the ticket office was vacated – the woman who worked there was probably one of about 300 contract workers on the metro system who did not have their deals renewed in September due to public spending cuts. Since then, passengers have only been able to get tickets from one of the four machines in the station. It struck me as the first clear sign that even the things we have come to appreciate will not remain untouched. The Athens metro was one of the few public services Greece could be proud of but the absence of that face behind the glass felt like a portent that the crisis would soon get its bony fingers around the neck of this pristine network as well as so much else. 

There have been other telltale signs that the status quo is being buried beneath the ruins of the crumbling Greek economy: The growing number of people looking through dumpsters, the increasing frequency with which Gypsies drive through neighborhoods collecting scrap metal and how traffic jams are briefer, as Athenians think twice about using their cars because the cost of fuel has risen faster than Greece’s bond spread. As people pay more for their gas or basic goods, which have been hit by rises in value-added tax, so they spend less at shops – retail sales were down by almost 12 percent in August compared to last year. This has led to the crisis leaving the visible scar of empty stores in every neighborhood. 

With the closing down of shops and businesses come redundancies. The most recent figures put unemployment at 12.2 percent, or just over 613,000 people, up a staggering 35 percent since the same time last year. Like the woman from the metro, these are faces now out of the public eye. Instead they can be found in queues at dark unemployment offices or in front of the mesmerizing light of computer screens as they search for jobs. This is a crisis the impact of which can most accurately be measured by what is no longer happening rather than what is, by the people we don’t see rather than the ones we do.

At the metro station, soon after the woman in the ticket booth disappeared, one of the four machines stopped working. It has been sitting idle ever since, blinking an error message like Apollo 13 trying to contact a Houston control room that’s just not listening. A few weeks after the first ticket dispenser went into its death spiral, a second machine started rejecting banknotes. Metro staff taped a handwritten “Out of order” notice on it, advising commuters to use the other two machines. Presumably the engineers responsible for looking after these machines are no longer employed or are so few they can’t keep up. With the government looking to save 850 million euros a month from public enterprises next year, this is the new reality we have to get used to. But the lack of maintenance means that soon none of the machines will be working. It will be impossible to buy a ticket to travel, the system will disintegrate. What happens underground will be replicated above the surface. In the headlong rush to cut, scrimp and save without a thought for supporting or strengthening, things will fall apart.

That is the moment when the last chapter of this crisis will be written: When all the people who have been cheated, betrayed and mangled by the system step into the breach to reorder things. We are not there yet. For the moment, there is an eerie silence on the streets. After a flurry of public protests at the beginning of the year, the situation appears surprisingly calm – by Greek standards at least. To some extent this can be attributed to three bank employees being killed in May when a bank in central Athens was firebombed during a rally. But there is something more than that. There is a feeling of numbness that has seeped into Greece since the beginning of the year. The numbness that comes from realizing that events have caught you unprepared, the numbness of stepping into the unknown and the numbness of fearing for your future. Most of all, though, it is the numbness of seeing things around you being dismantled while you’re powerless to prevent it. This is what has stopped people from raging against feckless leaders, callous bosses and incompetent unionists. 

This silence, though, is deafening. It means that anger is building up. If you listen closely, you can hear the whisperings of a gathering storm. This isn’t something that’s happening in the streets or at the squares — it’s taking place in homes, where families are struggling to make ends meet and can no longer feed themselves on the broken promises of the past, it’s happening at cafes where friends meet while dreading they’ll hear more bad news rather than share in some good, and it’s happening in workplaces, where colleagues encounter empty desks rather than the people with whom they shared most of their daily lives.

As we prepare for a new year, when more sacrifices will be made – some fair, others particularly harsh – the clock will not just be ticking for the government, desperate to meet the targets it has been set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Time will also be counting down for the people who feel genuinely wronged by what is going on around them: those who are prepared to pay their share but are not prepared to pay for the failures of others. And, when the moment arrives, we will see again the faces of those who had disappeared and remember the pieces of our lives that were chipped away. Then, we will be spurred on to build things again, only this time fairer, stronger, better.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on December 3, 2010.

Train in vain

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a bookshop in my neighborhood that’s always a treat to visit, for in its basement exists a magical world of model trains. The owner has put out a large railway set where a network of tracks winds through an Alpine setting. You can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of it all: the shiny trains that dart about like wild salmon, the tracks that switch with metronomic precision, the dainty stations and the painted smiles on the plastic figures that wave as the carriages whiz by. It’s idyllic.

Above ground, you come crashing back to reality. These days, a ride on the ISAP electric railway that runs from Kifissia to Piraeus will confirm that your childhood dreams of speeding trains, spotless stations, clockwork punctuality and happy passengers were just that: dreams.

This week represented a new low in the long history of ISAP, as thousands of customers were shocked to discover there was no service between Neo Faliro and Tavros for the next three weeks. ISAP, which is used by some 580,000 passengers a day, had announced the closure but in the manner that embarrassed parents reveal their child has been left behind a year at school. So, few commuters knew they had to use a replacement bus service that added at least half an hour to their journey.

Predictably, chaos ensued. After swarming out of Tavros station like refugees fleeing a ransacked village, passengers squeezed onto a bus that smelled like it had been marinated in aviation fuel and which chugged its way through congested streets. Ironically, part of the reason the 110-million-euro upgrade of the ISAP track is taking place is to increase safety as well as reduce travelling time. But should the driver of one of these packed replacement buses have to slam on the breaks, then osteoporosis-ravaged grannies will snap like twigs and pot-bellied men will fly through the air like human cannonballs.

During the half-hour journey, not many people spoke but you could hear their thoughts. The overriding one was that public transport was not worth the hassle any more. Repeated attempts to convince more than four in 10 Athenians to use the public transport network were being undone by ISAP’s apathy. It’s a basic rule of public transport that commuters will put up with delays or deviations as long as they are kept adequately informed.

However, even the basics are beyond ISAP’s grasp at the moment. Air conditioning, for instance, has not been fitted in all the carriages – a project supposed to have been finished for the 2004 Olympics. So, in the summer they soak up the sun and passengers swelter like Steve McQueen confined to a tin hut as punishment in the “The Great Escape.”

This year, the line from Kifissia to Piraeus has been more of a construction site rather than a railway, as engineers undertake the interminable task of replacing the track. The railway began running in 1869, so the upgrade may well be a necessary project. But the way it’s being managed has completely disrupted a very simple, basic form of public transport that used to work pretty well, albeit with some issues such as cleanliness and security, which have never been adequately tackled. If planning and respect for the customer were a priority, this project would be carried out only at non-peak hours and with engineers working double-time.

Apparently, those at ISAP fail to realize that when people pay to use a service, you have to give them one that’s worth paying for. If they need any confirmation they are selling passengers short, they only have to consider that it costs exactly the same (1 euro) to travel on ISAP as it does to use the metro. Clearly, the two services do not compare and one wonders whether the way they are structured has anything to do with it. ISAP is a public company, an extension of the frappe-swilling, chain-smoking, civil service, whereas the metro is operated by AMEL, which is run as a private company – albeit under the auspices of the Transport Ministry, now part of the Infrastructure Ministry.

However, privatizing ISAP may not necessarily be the answer. There is a school of thought that public transport, the piston that drives the engine of the national economy by getting people to where they need to be every day, is too strategic a sector to end up in private hands. Germany, for instance, has been trying to part-privatize its state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn, the equivalent of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) in Greece, for several years but the scheme has foundered on political and union opposition. CEO Hartmut Mehdorn was forced to resign earlier this year after failing to get the project rolling.

The privatization of British Rail also serves as an example of the pitfalls of selling off the railways. The franchising in Britain, which began in 1994, led to higher prices, increased delays, reduced safety and more disgruntled customers – there are some 500,000 passenger complaints every year.

As unpalatable as these cases make rail privatization sound, Greece will not be able to ignore the idea because the European Parliament and Council have agreed that international passenger services will be liberalized as of January 1 next year. The European Commission has also committed to examining over the next two years whether domestic services should be liberalized as well.

Of course, this affects OSE, which has debts of some 8 billion euros, more immediately than the Kifissia-Piraeus railway. But given the economic necessity of reducing the public sector, the government cannot put off a decision about the future of ISAP for too long, especially when the quality of its service has become so poor.

Perhaps PASOK will look to the Athens metro model, where private sector rules apply to the line’s operations but the government can still exercise influence when it needs to. While politicians sort that one out, all passengers can do is dream of the model railway of their childhoods and cry out to the person in charge: Please sir, can you fix my train set?

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 27, 2009.