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Traffic prompts toll thoughts March 19, 2008

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A metro and Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway strike yesterday added between 200,000 and 300,000 cars to Athens’s streets as Transport Minister Costis Hatzidakis suggested that the government is considering introducing congestion charging in the city center.

Almost 3 million passenger journeys are made on the public transport network in Athens each day but 4.5 million trips are carried out by car. This number shot up yesterday as thousands of Athenians had little choice but to use their cars, since a sizable chunk of the public transport system was out of operation. With up to 300,000 more cars on the road, traffic in the city center, on main arteries in and outside Athens and side streets normally used as short cuts was particularly heavy.

“It makes you realize how important public transport is, especially the trains and tram, for the smooth functioning of the city, even though the proportion of journeys made via these modes remains low,” Yiannis Handanos, the head of the Greek Institute of Transport Engineers, said.

The government has flirted with the idea of introducing a toll system in central Athens, similar to the congestion charging schemes applied in other European cities such as London, Stockholm, Berlin and Cologne, to curb traffic on a regular basis, not just when there are public transport strikes.

Hatzidakis said yesterday that he could not rule out such a system being introduced. “The Transport Ministry… wrote to the European Commission yesterday with regard to this particular matter, saying that it could not be ruled out as a thought,” said the Minister. “Before we reach that point, though, we will have to do our research. We will certainly have to strengthen and modernize the fleet of trains.”

Hatzidakis said that transport engineers argue that a city such as Athens should have some 150 train and metro stations. Athens currently has 58 and the Minister said congestion charging could not be introduced before this figure increases.

All aboard the night trains March 14, 2008

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A strike by Athens metro and Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP) workers yesterday prevented commuters from using trains but a recent pilot scheme that has led to the service being extended on Friday and Saturday nights has proved a resounding success, according to new figures.

On Saturday night, some 21,000 people used the metro and electric railway during the extended two hours of service, from about midnight to just after 2 a.m.

The two-month pilot scheme began on February 8 and its success has encouraged the Transport Ministry to consider making it a permanent feature of the weekend timetable.

Syntagma metro station is the most popular with commuters on weekend nights, some 4,000 people pass through the station after midnight on Friday and Saturday. About 8,000 people ride on the electric railway during the extra two-hour period each weekend night.

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Commuters take to night train March 8, 2008

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A pilot scheme to keep trains on the metro system and the Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP) running until late has attracted stronger-than-expected interest from nighttime commuters, raising hopes the measure may be extended on a permanent basis.

The scheme involves trains running until 2 o’clock on Saturday and Sunday mornings, rather than finishing at midnight, in a bid to offer Athenians an alternative to getting to and from their nighttime entertainment.

Initial figures show that an additional 11,500 passengers have been using the metro line thanks to the longer hours, well above initial forecasts of an extra 3,000 to 4,000 passengers. ISAP passengers have also taken warmly to the measure, with 7,000 more passengers using the electric railway.

The Transport Ministry and the City of Athens are in favor of the move as they see it as an obvious way to increase passenger numbers on lines 2 and 3 of the metro, which first opened to commuters seven years ago. AMEL, the firm that operates the Athens metro, estimates that the longer timetable will cost the company an additional 300,000 euros a month. Two-thirds of this cost will be for staff overtime.

Athenians have been slow in switching to public transport, as many still opt for their own car despite the city’s massive traffic problems.

Figures released recently show there were 35 million more passenger journeys on the city’s entire public transport network last year, compared to 2006, but this figure is considered to be a disappointingly low increase by many experts. Last year also saw increased use of the tram network.

Some 16 million passengers used the two tram lines last year, compared to just 3.2 million in 2004, when the service was inaugurated. The Athens-Piraeus Electric Railway (ISAP) saw perhaps the most impressive rise, as 8.2 million more journeys were made compared to 2006.

However, the bedrock of the public transport system, the ETHEL buses, recorded hardly any rise in commuter figures. Just over 360 million journeys were made by bus in Athens last year, which represents 51 percent of the city’s public transport network usage. 

Rail contract to upgrade Athens rail link March 4, 2008

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Hellenic Technodomiki, Greece’s biggest builder, won a 79-million-euro contract to upgrade an Athens city rail link.

Hellenic’s Aktor unit will undertake the project to upgrade the ISAP line link and tunnel between the stations of Omonia and Monastiraki, according to a statement from the Athens-based company.

New metro line in works February 13, 2008

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Work has begun this week in preparation for the construction of a totally new metro line that will run between Maroussi in northern Athens and the Veikou woods near Galatsi but will also pass through neighborhoods such as Kolonaki in the city center.

It was revealed yesterday that civil engineers have begun testing the ground in various parts of the city to determine where the tunnels are to be dug.

The preparatory work is due to be completed by the end of the year. The Environment and Public Works Ministry will then have to issue the final go-ahead for the project.

Line 4, also known as the “U” line because of its shape, will be some 21 kilometers (13 miles) long and will have 20 stations that will include Filothei, Zografou, Pangrati, Exarchia and Kypseli. A time frame for the opening of the line has not been made public yet.

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Late-night trains a hit with Athenian youth February 12, 2008

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More than 5,000 commuters used the metro and urban electric railway (ISAP) during the first weekend of extended nighttime service, metro officials said yesterday.

Most of the commuters using the service between midnight and 2 a.m. last Friday and Saturday were youngsters and many central stations including Syntagma Square, Omonia and Kerameikos, were buzzing with revelers.

Metro officials said they were “satisfied” with the turnout but expected it to increase considerably over the course of the two-month pilot program.

The crowds were much bigger than they had been during the Athens 2004 Olympics, when some 300 commuters used the metro and train service nightly. Last Saturday night, some 2,900 commuters boarded metros and trains.

It appears that many exploited the increased commotion to dodge their fares but ticket inspectors were out in force and penalized 50 fare-evaders in the first hour of the extended service alone. Every year some 30,000 passengers get fined for fare evasion on the metro.

Athenians prefer alfresco parking February 9, 2008

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Multistory car parks in Athens have been a commercial flop for most operators, as narrow streets continue to be filled with illegally parked vehicles.

«Where am I going to find a parking space now?» has become an almost rhetorical question Athenians have become accustomed to asking themselves.

Despite the construction of a number of large multistory facilities in the last few years, the parking problem does not seem to have eased, particularly in the center and densely populated residential areas like Kypseli, Kolonaki and Pangrati, and is now spreading to some suburbs, such as Holargos, where the opening of the metro station has created a whole new situation in terms of parking needs.

Indeed, the cost of buying a parking space now approaches that of a small flat in the city center, varying between 15,000 and 60,000 euros.

Realtors go as far as to say that the existence of a parking space is now a key factor in the sale of old homes, while more than one parking space is a frequent bonus given by developers to buyers of upmarket apartments.

«At a time when prices in most branches of real estate remain stable and demand is subdued, particularly for housing, parking spaces are an ‘oasis,’ with prices rising steadily,» says Lefteris Potamianos, head of the Search and Find realty agency. «The more people are attracted to an area, the more the demand for parking spaces rises, as in the suburbs of Halandri, Maroussi, Aghia Paraskevi and Neo Psychico

According to market players, the price of buying and renting parking spaces went up by an average of 15 percent in Athens in 2007 alone. A price tag of 74,000 euros has been reported for an underground parking space in Kolonaki, an amount which could buy a small old apartment in other areas of the city, such as Kypseli. Underground spaces are especially expensive.

The average annual return from renting out a parking place is about 10 percent, much more than most other forms of real estate in Greece. Moreover, prices seem to be little affected by market ups and downs, while a parking space requires little if any maintenance. Of course, the more upmarket the area the higher the price of a parking space and the higher the rate of return.

The extent of the problem seems to have spurred great profit expectations among developers and construction companies which have built a large number of parking facilities at central locations in Athens and Piraeus. However, most of them seem to have underestimated the impact of the Greek habit of parking illegally and the lack of policing.

«As the situation stands, recouping our investment seems a difficult affair,» says Babis Isaias, the general manager of Polis Park, a joint venture of major construction companies, which has built four multistory car parks in Athens at a cost of 35 million.

He says that a large segment of the public may be misinformed about the cost of multistory car parks. «The rates at multistory car parks are clearly more competitive than open-air ones, often less than half. But people are perhaps misinformed, considering that the more organized a car park is, the more expensive it is» he says.

«The development of car parks is a risky business, given the general lack of order… and I am referring to the huge problem of illegal parking. For this reason, our group is not going to develop anymore independent facilities but will focus on those that are complementary to commercial facilities, such as malls» says Thedoros Haragionis, head of the Haragionis group.

The Athens metro company also operates multistory car parks adjacent to three stations, Syngrou-Fix (640 spaces), Katehaki (420) and Ethniki Amyna (300), as well as two open-air facilities at Doukissis Plakentias station, totaling 630 spaces.