Tag Archives: OSE

Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 2010.

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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.

Out of the darkness

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a short audio clip played almost on a daily basis on Skai radio’s political satire program, Ellinofrenia. It’s of Prime Minister George Papandreou saying: “Viva Chile, viva Grecia.” Presumably, it was recorded when Papandreou, then head of the opposition, visited Vina del Mar in Chile last March for a meeting of Socialist leaders. The clip is played randomly during the irreverent show. Its effect is to make Papandreou seem a dreamy globetrotter with an appetite to pursue international contacts rather than solve Greece’s problems. But since the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine last week, those four words have taken on a new life and their abstractness has been replaced by an urgent relevance.

Watching Luis Urzua, the last miner to be winched to safety, sing the Chilean anthem as he stood next to President Sebastian Pinera and the team of rescuers in the early hours of Thursday morning, the parallels between Chile and Greece seemed as crisp and clear as the night air in the Atacama Desert. The Chilean anthem has a line, which seems prescient in the case of the miners who spent 70 days in an underground shelter fearing for their lives: “Either the tomb will be of the free / Or the refuge against oppression.” In this respect, it is very similar to Greece’s national anthem, Dionysios Solomos’s “Hymn to Liberty,” which is also dedicated to the ideal of freedom and contains the lines: “From the graves of our slain / Shall thy valor prevail.”

Freedom is such a highly valued concept in Greece and Chile because they wear the scars of oppression — from outside forces but also from within: Both countries have experienced damaging military dictatorships in their recent histories. But even in 2010, there are still struggles for freedom in Chile and Greece. In the Latin American country, despite the economic prosperity and political stability it has enjoyed over the past two decades, some of its people still feel the tug of history’s shackles. Despite the fact that Chile produces more than a quarter of the world’s copper and that prices for the metal are at a two-year high, bringing the country almost 4 billion euros a month in export revenues, some miners are still not truly free from the exploitation of firms taking deadly risks for profits.

In Greece, freedom has been compromised in different ways. As a result of its irresponsibility in the past, Greece’s economic sovereignty is largely in the hands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund rather than the country’s elected government. While the foreign overseers plot a course for economic recovery, Greece is trying to free itself of the stale ideologies, practices and hangups of the past that held it captive.

It’s in this effort to save itself that the rescue of the Chilean miners provides Greece with food for thought. Speaking of the mesmerizing effort to pull the miners to safety, Chilean writer Isabel Allende said it had been an “odyssey of solidarity,” just as Prime Minister George Papandreou had said Greece was embarking on a “new odyssey” when he announced in April that Athens was turning to its eurozone partners and the IMF for financial assistance. Solidarity, however, has been in short supply in Greece, as opposition parties, unions and even aloof members of government continue to play the same tired roles to which the Greek people have become accustomed over the last three decade. Even at this most crucial hour, there is only the flimsiest of consensus on the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. For instance, the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, have been able to agree on few strands of economic policy, such as the opening of closed professions and the overhaul of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), which is losing 1 billion euros a year. It is hardly as if they have become brothers in arms.

One of the greatest lessons of the San Jose rescue is that when suspicion and anger — as the miners were justified in feeling after being sent into a patently unsafe mine — and scepticism and doubt — as Chile’s government and the rescuers would have felt in launching a seemingly futile rescue mission — are set aside, wonderful things can happen. “It is proof that when men unite in favor of life, when they offer their knowledge and effort to the service of life, life responds with more life,” wrote Chilean novelist Hernan Rivera Letelier in Spanish daily El Pais. But for life, or at least a life worth living, to have a chance of existing, people have to put their faith in each other. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said shift foreman Urzua in his first post-rescue interview.

In Greece, the truth is a rare commodity at the moment. From deficit figures that keep changing to the cagey talk of ministers and the unfeasible promises of opposition politicians, nobody speaks honestly. The failure of our democracy was evident last week right in front of its greatest symbol, the Acropolis. Culture Ministry contract workers protested the non-renewal of their contracts in the hope that this government, like others before it, would cave in and ignore the law limiting such agreements to two years. The government, on the other hand, dodged a face-to-face meeting with the protesters because it had not paid some of them for 20 months.

The rescue is also evidence that for society to function, all its agents need to work together. State mining company, Codelco, led the effort to save the 33 miners, who had been working for a private firm, but it relied on help from other countries and private-sector funding. It was on the basis of this sound structure that the emotional support network for the miners, made up of families, friends, doctors and psychologists was built. “What we have recovered here… is our self-confidence as a nation, and sense of community, of Roman ‘communitas,’ of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbors, our friends, our most efficient [political] representatives,” explained Chilean writer Jaime Collyer. In Greece, the individualism that came with the economic prosperity of recent decades stands as one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Those who for so many years have evaded tax, landed themselves comfortable public sector jobs, enjoyed the privileges of closed professions, lived off state subsidies or simply disregarded the laws of their state are not going to trade this bliss of isolation for the give-and-take of a functioning community very easily. The decision this week of many bar and restaurant owners to flout the recent ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces because they feel it harms their business is evidence of how deeply mired Greece is in the “me first, me only” way of thinking.

The successful rescue of the miners, though, is a reminder of the reward of overcoming fear, selfishness and lack of vision. “We aren’t the same as we were before the collapse on August 5,” said Pinera. “Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world.” Unlike the burst of media interest in the Chilean miners’ plight, Greece has been the subject of prolonged media exposure this year. There were roughly 60 journalists for each miner at the San Jose mine and at times Athens has felt a bit like that with the international media probing every aspect of Greece’s misfortune. It has been uncomfortable but, as Chile has shown, there is no bigger news in the world than a catastrophe being turned into a triumph. “For the moment, Chile has received a reputational windfall,” wrote Mary Dejevsky in UK newspaper The Independent. “It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.” A trickle of positive comments about Greece’s economic reforms has already begun but it can’t compare to the cathartic effect that a deluge of praise would have if the country completes the metamorphosis from pariah to shining example.

Chile experienced a moment of salvation when the miners were lifted safely from the depths of the Atacama Desert. “It started as a tragedy but ended as a blessing,” said Pinera. As a result, the South American country can now look to the future with more hope and its spirits lifted: Viva Chile. For Greece, redemption still seems to be at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It’s now clear that grabbing a lifeline will not be enough — the country needs togetherness and belief to haul itself into the light. Only then will it be in a position to turn to the world and shout: “Viva Grecia.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 22, 2010.

Waiting for the great leap forward

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, if you wait on the banks of the river long enough, your enemy’s corpse will eventually float by. This essentially reflects Greece’s longstanding philosophy on attracting foreign investment: If we sit back and do nothing, then someone, somewhere, will sooner or later want to give us some money.

At this most crucial of times, it’s the Chinese and their capital that are floating into view but Greece is still having difficulty shaking off its passiveness. It’s perplexing that just a few days before the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Athens accompanied by Captain Wei Jiafu, president and chief executive officer of the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), the government is allowing creases to form in the fabric of this new relationship rather than ironing out any problems.

COSCO, the world’s second-largest shipping company, is about to complete the first 12 months of its 35-year, 3.5-billion-euro concession deal for one of the container terminals at Piraeus. Secured under the previous conservative government, the momentous deal has been threatened by this administration’s intractability and incompetence.

State-owned COSCO was due to take over control of Piraeus’s Pier 2 on October 1 last year but this was delayed for a month because of a strike by port workers who’d been told by PASOK that the contract with the Chinese would be renegotiated if the Socialists came to power after the September elections. This, of course, never happened as PASOK realized it risked entering a legal minefield and blowing Greece’s reputation to smithereens.

Having shown patience with the strike, COSCO, which has hired 300 Greek workers of its own this year, is now in dispute with the government over its failure to give back to the company some 20 million euros in value-added tax (VAT) payments. The delay is due to the Finance Ministry holding back a series of VAT returns for fear of creating a gaping hole in public finances. Although 20 million euros might seem a drop in the ocean for a huge company like COSCO, it’s the difference between the firm showing a profit or a 10.6-million-euro loss on its investment in Greece for the first six months of this year.

Also, according to reports, the Chinese side has expressed concern that the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP), which operates the other container terminal, is not competing on an equal footing with COSCO and is benefiting from the privileges it’s afforded as a state-owned company. The Chinese were also reportedly surprised by the Thessaloniki Port Authority’s (OLTH) announcement this month that it would hold a tender in October for the 220-million-euro contract to expand one of its quays. Possible Chinese investment in Thessaloniki port was expected to be one of the items to be discussed by Wen and Prime Minister George Papandreou on October 2.

Wen’s trip follows a May visit to Greece by Captain Wei, when the government beseeched him to invest in anything that moved, including the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) – although given the slowness of its trains, it’s debatable whether they do actually move. Wei politely pointed out that COSCO was a shipping company, not a railway, electricity or any other kind of firm but promised to convey to the Chinese government Greece’s supposed willingness to do business. This precipitated China’s Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang’s visit the following month, when he signed 14 investment deals.

So, having cultivated this budding relationship with China, Greece would be expected to prove there is fertile ground for further cooperation. The situation doesn’t require anyone to bend backward but simply to project forward and envision the benefits to be gained from enticing further Chinese investment. COSCO is set to spend a further 500 million euros on improving Pier 2 and building Pier 3 at Piraeus and is interested in investing more than 150 million euros in constructing a logistics terminal in the Thriaseio Plain, west of Athens, to transport goods to the rest of Europe. So, by the time the Chinese premier visits next week, Papandreou and his team have to be clear in their minds about what they want to gain from this relationship and how they can gain it. The visitors from China will have little appetite for any more of the shilly-shallying of the past few months.

Some might argue that if the Chinese were to withdraw their interest, then someone else would step in to fill the void — but Greece has a miserable record of attracting foreign direct investment and the current economic conditions have left few major players in the game. Papandreou spoke this week to wealthy Greek-Americans in New York but they cannot match the financial muscle of the Chinese. Greek-Americans have repeatedly shunned invitations to plough their money back into Greece, which suggests they know their homeland and its traps too well and are reluctant to get involved in political games that only outsiders like the Chinese – who did a deal with the New Democracy government but executed it under the PASOK administration – can avoid getting tangled up in.

Others might express concern about the apparent disparity in the way that China and Greece, as a European Union member, view work-related issues like safety and laborers’ rights. After visiting the Piraeus port earlier this month, the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) described the employment conditions at Pier 2 as “substandard.” IDC complained that COSCO is employing “union-busting” tactics and endangering workers’ safety. Presumably, the Chinese company would respond by saying that it successfully manages ports in other EU countries such as Naples in Italy, Antwerp in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands without any labor problems. Also, although worker safety is often compromised in the rapidly developing Chinese economy, the Communist Party has shown a growing willingness to address the problem. Deaths in Chinese mines were down from almost 7,000 in 2002 to about 2,600 last year, according to The Guardian newspaper, and Wen recently ordered pit bosses to go down into the shafts with miners in a bid to encourage safer conditions.

Skeptics will also emphasise that the line between a sell-off and a sell-out is extremely thin. COSCO, for instance, has been linked with a 500-million-euro investment in Crete, where it has plans to build a container terminal at Tymbaki, on the island’s southern coast. Locals, who have protected the area from excessive tourist development, oppose the scheme as they fear it will damage the local environment, including endangered sea turtles’ nests. It’s a conundrum for the government: Greece cannot afford to shun foreign investment but is it willing to pay the price of investment at all costs?

These are all questions Papandreou and his ministers will have to be in a position to answer in their talks with Chinese officials next week. Other countries came to terms with these dilemmas many years ago but, as with so many things, Greece is only now facing up to the rigors of reality and time is not on its side. The late Chinese leader Mao Zedong wrote in one of his poems: “Time passes. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour.” If Greece doesn’t do so now, it’s possible the only thing floating by will be another wasted opportunity.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 24, 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.