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.

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