Rough station in thessaloniki at the inauguration of a subway without trains

Rough station in thessaloniki at the inauguration of a metro without lanes

Photo: Office of the Prime Minister, photographer Andrea Bonetti

Greece’s election fever and its outgrowths

Potemkin had had his pleasure. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras inaugurated on Saturday, 29. December 2018, the metro in Thessaloniki one. Does Thessaloniki, officially designated as the secondary capital of Greece, finally have a subway railway?

If the government is to be believed, as Tsipras and the Minister of State for Macedonia and Thrace Katerina Notopoulou solemnly announced on Saturday, the "Thessaloniki Metro" No longer a joke, but rather finally a reality. Giannis Mylopoulos, the chairman of Attiki Metro, the company that now oversees the metro in Thessaloniki in addition to the Athens metro, proudly posted on Facebook: "On Saturday 29. December, we say goodbye to the year 2018 and welcome the year 2019, a year in which the metro will be put on the rails for test runs." For Mylopoulos, this ends the year with the 29th anniversary. and not with 31. December.

The Efimerida ton Syntakton, or EfSyn, a pro-government daily headlined: "For the general public, the first completed station of the Thessaloniki Metro is opened." This title is by no means completely wrong, just a bit hyped up. For the "first finished" Station "Syntrivani-Ekthesi" near the site of the International Fair of Thessaloniki is not yet really ready. Apart from the tracks and the opportunity to board a subway car, the ticket booths and other details are missing. Quickly installed dummies provided the backdrop for the obligatory photos. At least the escalator of the almost finished station is already working.

Tsipras traveled to the event together with numerous ministers and parliamentarians. His inauguration speech for the metro, like all his public appearances, was broadcast live on the state broadcaster ERT. As in all his other public appearances, ERT took the opportunity to fill half of the evening news program with Tsipras’ speeches and the ceremony for the Thessaloniki metro.

Commentators on the state radio emphasized how important the metro is for Thessaloniki and how great it is now that it will be completed. Ready? there are several versions about the time of an actual opening. According to Tsipras, as early as 2020, northern Greeks will be able to combine their Christmas shopping in Thessaloniki with rides on a state-of-the-art subway system. He even promises that the metro will be operational earlier, in February 2020. However, all stations of the first line can be completed in the first half of 2021 at the earliest.

The Thessaloniki Metro – a three-year joke

"With a small delay of thirty years, the joke ceases to be a joke. The metro is here. The citizens may not have a chance to see it, but the work is almost 95 percent complete as far as the construction of the 13 stations is concerned. The wagon trains and the owner are missing. The owners are the citizens of Thessaloniki, who after so many years of waiting have a right to a modern infrastructure that will change their quality of life, their daily routine", said the prime minister in his speech.

Why Tsipras is already putting on this show? 2019 will be an election year. He wanted to demonstrate that in the three and a half years of his reign, things were created that were only promised by the previous governments. For the same reason, in September, coinciding with the International Fair of Thessaloniki, a modern express train, the "Asimenio Velos" (Silver Arrow) the route from Thessaloniki to Athens and back. The train had been specially brought to Greece from Italy to demonstrate what will be if Tsipras stays in power for a long time.

To this end, the prime minister also told of the plan to hire 150 new bus drivers for Thessaloniki, to buy new buses and to revamp the city’s poor public transport system. A new university is to be founded for the surrounding area of Thessaloniki and the city itself, Tsipras told the audience. He did not forget to promise that an extension of the metro is also planned for the most populated parts of Thessaloniki, the western parts neglected so far by all governments.

The prime minister used the opportunity to present himself as a doer. The expropriations, which had been necessary for the construction of the line, had cost only 188 million euros, according to court proceedings sought by the government, instead of 1.1 billion euros as demanded by the expropriated owners. Moreover, the problem with the archaeological finds has been solved, Tsipras ared.

Beneath modern Thessaloniki are the remains of the ancient city, Roman and ancient Greek houses, temples and cemeteries. This was another reason for the decades-long delay in construction.

The hole of Kouvelas

The first inauguration of the Thessaloniki Metro took place in 1986 under the then mayor Sotiris Kouvalas. The conservative politician wanted to finance the Metro with the revenues of a newly founded municipal TV station TV 100. Kouvelas loved to dig a hole not far from the place of this year’s inauguration, stood in front of it and told stories about the now founded subway railroad and about almost inexhaustible underground parking facilities.

This was the beginning of the popular joke about the Thessaloniki Metro. The hole was not a means of transport, but a reservoir for rainwater that had to be constantly emptied by pumps.

In May 2018, the now inaugurated station saved the city from a worse disaster. At least that’s how Mylopoulos explained it at the time: "The construction sites for the metro saved the city", he said. Stormy rain had flooded the city. The construction sites for the station Sintrivani and Vardaris "functioned like equalizing reservoirs. The water had, if there were not the construction sites of the metro, flooded the surrounding shops and apartments", found Mylopoulos. Perhaps he thought that the purpose of the tunnels and stations was a distant utopia?

Foreign visitors to the city loved it, the local patriotic locals with the question: "Where can I buy a ticket for the subway??" to pester. Work on the tunnels under the city hardly progressed until, as in Athens, modern tunneling machines were used instead of excavators, shovels and hoes.

The first plans for a metro, however, had already been made in the sixties of the last century. Discussions about a theoretical possibility are said to have taken place as early as 1918, at least according to some sources. Since 1976, the city’s municipal budget has included a budget item for the subway. Until it finally runs, it can certainly be inaugurated a few more times. In fact, such inauguration ceremonies are already a tradition, which have already served Tsipras’ predecessors in office. Costas Simitis, Konstantinos Mitsotakis and Kostas Karamanlis each had their "Metro show". However, Tsipras outshone all the others with his inauguration of a station that is not yet a station.

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