ECONOMY

Greek railways come of age

Until a decade ago, railways were a neglected mode of transportation in Greece. As Prime Minister Costas Simitis pointed out yesterday, in inaugurating a new railway section, in Europe, they electrified their rail networks in the 1960s and 1970s and introduced high-speed trains in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, Greece, already at a disadvantage because of its geographical isolation from the rest of Western Europe, lagged far behind. Until 1994, «express» trains running the 509 kilometers (316 miles) between Athens and Thessaloniki took 6 hours 9 minutes. Most of those Greeks who did use the train – and they did so because it was cheap, and it was cheap because services were degraded – remember taking nine or ten hours or even more to complete the distance. It was even worse in other parts of the network, such as in the Peloponnese. After a decade of major investments, which to date exceed 2 billion euros, Greece’s railways are slowly catching up with the rest of Europe. Beginning yesterday, the Athens-Thessaloniki section will be run in four hours and 30 minutes and in 2008 this will be cut down to three hours and 30 minutes. Hellenic Railways (OSE) is also planning a major expansion of the network to the west and a link between the Peloponnese and the northwestern towns of Ioannina and Igoumenitsa. This should be ready by 2014. Yesterday Simitis, along with Transport Minister Christos Verelis, inaugurated a new 35-km stretch of railway between the towns of Leptokarya, in Pieria prefecture, and Evangelismos, in Larissa prefecture. This section includes the narrow Tempe valley where Greece’s longest tunnel, 5.5 km, has been dug. That, and another 4.3-km tunnel just to the north, will now be open to rail travel, meaning that it now takes only an hour and 10 minutes to get from Thessaloniki to Larissa. Still, more improvements will be needed along the Athens-Thessaloniki route, more tunnels to be dug, especially along a 106-kilometer mountainous section in central Greece.