Suburban railway proves to be mixed blessing for Athens area

Lacking administrative independence and a clear institutional framework within which to operate, and with few funds to run publicity campaigns, the suburban railway is trying to break away from the parental body of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and accomplish its mission of providing reliable high-speed transport. Since its days of glory in August, when road traffic restrictions brought it 10,000 passengers a day, the train has gone through an initial phase with many ups and downs. Corrective measures The Transport Ministry received much criticism when the suburban railway fell into relative disuse after the Olympic Games, since it was generally seen to conduct its (expensive) trips with unrivaled punctuality, though without passengers. Corrective steps for the unfinished portion of the railway line were announced along with the new public transport map of Athens (creation and reorganization of trunk bus lines, construction of car parks and reduction of the fare to the airport from 8 to 6 euros). But they are «not enough,» the railroad company’s managing director, Makis Papageorgiou, told Kathimerini. «When the discussion over the price policy is over, the Uniform Public Transport body established, and the new lines are ready (to Kiato in six months and Halkida in 18 months), then we can talk about a uniform, independent project that is viable and has a distinct presence in the market. These discussions didn’t happen at the outset, unfortunately. In March the suburban line was still a phantom company that had dozens of administrative employees – most of them from Aitolocarnania – and not one specialist. It had to rush to carry out its obligations for the Olympic Games and find a code of communication with the staff of OSE, under whose jurisdiction the new means of transport came.» The suburban railway is still facing difficulties, with trains borrowed from OSE, engine drivers also on loan from OSE (its own are still being trained), the high access tariffs it pays to OSE, a problematic operational charter which causes endless complications, and a viability study drafted during the term of previous transport minister Christos Verelis and based on overly optimistic assumptions. «The studies that were done when the suburban railroad was still in the planning stage,» says Papageorgiou, «primarily concerned a line that would go from Spata across Athens to Piraeus and would carry 50,000 passengers a day. On the basis of that study, we announced the initial fare of 8 euros and its division into zones (for a more flexible policy for people using the train). But that was not an attractive price. Now the fare has dropped by 25 percent, which means a loss to the company, but we hope it will bring in more passengers.» Passenger counts so far indicate that 90 percent of those who use the suburban train go from Nerantziotissa to Spata, but only 17 percent of those end up at the airport. «We realized that we were meeting the needs of a large area in the Mesogeio area and not necessarily that of linking the airport to the city. Erroneous studies and false assumptions led to mistakes. So, for example, land was not bought for car parks before land prices shot up. Now it’s all very expensive, but work should already have begun on building car parks at almost all the stations. The car park at Koropi has priority, and discussions with local government authorities will soon produce an outcome. Land has been appropriated for car parks at Kantza and Pallini, while discussions with local mayors in Neo Iraklion, Nerantziotssa and Doukissis Plakentias are expected to conclude shortly.» More needs to be done to link the suburban train with municipalities in the Mesogeio area. New bus routes are needed, for instance, to make the railway more accessible.