Right on time

We Greeks love a deadline because it helps remind us there was something we were meant to do. Deadlines in Greece tend to be like speed limits on highways – most people treat them as a recommendation made in hope rather than with any belief. Yet amid this lax timekeeping, there exists in Greece an underground world that’s still a mystery to many but in which punctuality is treated as a rule, not an eccentricity. Since it first opened in 2000, the Athens metro has given residents a glimpse of what life could be like in their city if organization, efficiency, cleanliness and value for money were the pillars on which it operated. It was therefore no great surprise that the company responsible for constructing this fantasyland should confirm that the section of one of its lines running to Athens International Airport, which has been closed since February, will open more or less as scheduled at the beginning of September. The closure of this part of Line 3 has probably been the only serious blight on the metro in its nine years of operation. In the mad rush to get things ready for the 2004 Olympics, when deadlines suddenly mattered a great deal, the fate of three stations between Ethniki Amyna and Halandri in the northeast of the city was not properly thought through. As a result, trains have been terminating at Ethinki Amyna for the last five months, while engineers knock through the tunnel at three points so the platforms of the new stations can be built. The lack of service has inconvenienced thousands of commuters and even more tourists, whose first taste of Greece now involves scrapping it out at the airport’s taxi rank or jostling for a spot on the bus rather than grabbing a seat on the air-conditioned metro train. But if Attiko Metro keeps to its word and full service resumes in September, six months of inconvenience will seem like a small price to pay as the reopening will also signal the start of a period when 10 new stations are scheduled to be unveiled. This is just the first phase of a sweeping expansion plan that aims to see 85 percent of Attica residents have easy access to the metro. It sounds like it’s too good to be true but the story of the metro, where for a euro you can buy a few minutes of respite from energy-sapping reality, has always been about exceeding expectations. An even bigger challenge will be to convince Athenians to ditch their cars. According to the most recent survey by the Athens Urban Transport Organization (OASA) roughly six in 10 of the city’s residents shun public transport. Those that do utilize the transportation system mostly opt for the buses or trolley buses. The fact that they are the most easily accessible modes means that they accounted for almost 60 percent of almost 900 million journeys. However, transport authorities are now waking up to the fact that unleashing hundreds of buses onto congested streets might not be the best way to get people from A to B in the shortest time. It’s also difficult to convince a motorist to sit with dozens of other people on a bus stuck in traffic when he can do this in the comfort of his own car. But the main thing that deters people from using public transport is the thought of a complicated journey that involves changing from one mode to another. Due to a lack of foresight, Athens has individual systems that are fine in their own right but are ill-fitting pieces of an overall jigsaw. OASA says it plans to change all this by making the metro the centerpiece of the network. In other countries this might have been the plan before construction on the metro began but we find ourselves trying to integrate disparate elements after the fact. It may not be ideal but it’s a start and, as they say when you’ve missed a deadline, better late than never.