Greece’s railway on uphill climb

Greece’s railways have long been undergoing constant improvement and the Athens-Thessaloniki «fast track» is no exception. Since 1945, although many lines have been abolished, no new tracks have been laid apart from those on Attica’s new suburban line. At present, about 2,500 of the total 2,800 kilometers of track are in use, as many as in the 1930s. About 650 kilometers (mostly in the Peloponnese) are narrow gauge, which cannot be used by the new fast trains. Every attempt to expand the network has failed. For example, Epirus and Western Sterea are two of only a handful of European regions without any railway, even though the European Union has offered to finance the project. It appears that it was forgotten amid the plans for the Rio-Antirio bridge which, unlike most such bridges in the world, has no provision for a rail line. As a result, only 1.8 percent of journeys in Greece are made by train (excluding sea and air transport), which ranks the country third to last in Europe, ahead of Lithuania and Estonia. In most European countries, train travel accounts for an average of 8 percent (led by Hungary with 13.2 percent). Yet people prefer to travel by train when it is reliable and fast. «The introduction of the intercity trains won over one in three people who travel between Athens and Thessaloniki,» said Yiannis Metaxas, a member of the Friends of the Railway association. «Today the fastest train takes four hours and 15 minutes to travel the route, compared to seven hours previously.» But this is still well short of the speeds reached by European bullet trains. Greece’s intercity trains are still powered by diesel fuel. Work has been continuing on the Athens-Thessaloniki line for nearly 30 years. The Kallidromiou and Othryos tunnels have been half-finished for years. The Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE)’s inefficiency has been due to contractors’ interests, bureaucracy, profiteering and the state’s general incompetence. Yet huge sums of over 11 billion euros have been made available to complete the work. The goal is to cut the Athens-Thessaloniki journey to 3.5 hours and Athens-Patras to two hours. The lines must also be electrified. If such speeds can be achieved, people will prefer to travel by train on domestic journeys and will rely less on cars, buses and aircraft. There is also enormous growth potential for freight trains, a sector which is still in its infancy in Greece. «The volume of products transported by train has almost doubled since 2005, simply because the system has become more reliable,» said Metaxas. The problem is one of political will. So far, governments have focused on major road networks, while Sweden has committed itself to building 2 kilometers of rail for every kilometer of highway built.