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Budapest Metro Line M4

by DoDo Mon Apr 21st, 2014 at 02:27:19 AM EST

A week before the parliamentary elections in Hungary, Budapest opened its fourth metro line (M4 or Green Line), a 7.4 km, 10-station all-subway connection between two railway main stations. The construction project has a 42-year history, which is explained by the fact that it has been a political pinball for most of the time and has been mismanaged spectacularly.

Station Kálvin tér (junction station with line M3)


Budapest was the second city in the world to open a subway line (built for the 1896 Millenial Exhibition), but then that was it for a long time, until two Soviet-style lines (M2, M3) were opened in sections between 1970 and 1990.

Map of the Budapest metro system (with normal rail and dedicated suburban rail lines also shown) from UrbanRail.Net

Line M4 was first proposed in 1972, but the old regime had no money to launch a third project in parallel. The plans were then dusted off after the first free elections. Between 1990 and 1994, implementation was held up by the tussle between Hungary's centre-right national government and the liberal city government: the first wanted the line as part of a proposed 1996 World Expo Budapest and eyed a specific contractor, the second didn't want either. In the next four years, both governments were socialist-liberal coalitions, but austerity delayed agreement on financing until just before the next elections – which they lost. 1998–2002 were the years of Viktor Orbán's first government, but the capital remained in socialist-liberal hands, thus Orbán "punished" Budapest, chiefly by not respecting the inherited funding agreement for Line M4. From this time, the project also became a focus of capital–countryside tensions.

At Kelenföld vasútállomás (Kelenföld Rail Station), the construction of the metro end station was coupled with a reconstruction of the rail station, with a new concourse below the rail tracks and above the metro platform. This looks nothing special for someone from Western Europe, but in Hungary, this is the first platform tunnel that is not a stinking dark concrete hole

Socialist-liberal coalitions ran both the national and city governments again from 2002, so the project was re-launched in 2004. However, it was mismanaged spectacularly: funding (which included EU funding) was a mess, the construction contractors were selected without care, showed lack of expertise, underestimated geological challenges and their own costs; delays and costs (extra costs due to delays and delays due to extra costs) spiralled, especially when work stopped due to disputes between project management and contractors. On top of all that, Fidesz media added its own spin and made-up stories, but the delays and cost inflation didn't stop after Fidesz took over in 2010. In the end, it opened six years behind schedule and 130% above the original budget, even though some planned parts were dropped to save costs.

Above: a train at end station Keleti pályaudvar. Platform doors were saved, even though suicides aren't infrequent on the Budapest metro

Below: the concrete surfaces of the station roof aren't very appealing, but the combination of natural [from the left] and artificial illumination is special

Trains for the new line and new trains for Line M2 were ordered jointly from Alstom. These became the subject of another controversy when the operator and the Hungarian Rail Authority noted safety-relevant deviations of the design from specifications (even though Alstom's metro trains are built according to international standards). These were solved in part with retrofits and in part with a derogation and tests showing a proper safety level. Some background: there is a regulation on the Budapest metro that trains have to have multiple totally independent brake systems. This is taken seriously since an accident on Line M2, when the last car of the last train of the day decoupled and rolled back several stations, stopping after a number of swings at a low point, because brakes failed. The most discussed problem of the Alstom trains was an interdependence of two brakes. (I must note, though, that from the documents I saw, the interdependence appeared to be safety-irrelevant.)

Above: inside an Alstom metro train on Line M4. For passengers, the novelty of the latest generation of metros is wide door-less passageways opening up the entire length of the train, and handrail "trees" in the middle of the standing room between the doors

Below: Line M4 trains are automated, but operate under supervision in the first six months (the man visible is only a friend talking to the supervising driver, though)

Environmentalists in Hungary weren't exactly in love with metros because the construction of Lines M2 and M3 was coupled with tearing up tram tracks and building 2x2- or 2x3-lane main roads on the surface above. A similar city-planning crime was averted in the end along the route of the now opened first section of Line M4, but the tram along the planned north-eastern extension was discontinued due to lack of track maintenance in 1997 and most of the track has been torn up since. As for extensions, while the line would bring the most benefit if it could serve commuters with extensions at both ends, those are off the table for at least 15 years, I think – in which time the comparable systems of Prague, Warsaw and Bucharest (not to mention Vienna) will continue to grow. The city government now focuses on some tram extensions in other parts of the city.

Above: the name-giver of the eastern end of the metro line, Keleti pályaudvar (East Railway Terminus) and the half-open pedestrian underpass in front of it. The M4 station is directly under the bus stop. The terminus of the tram line that used to run along the road on the left was at the far end of this hole

Below: a train leaves for the setting-back track to change direction at Kelenföld vasútállomás. In some uncertain future, the tunnel will continue into a western part of Budapest where now the only public transport is buses

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I bring news about three other, more or less troubled projects around the world in the comments.

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

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My first extra story is on Gautrain, a limited-stop commuter rail system connecting Johannesburg, Pretoria and the airport in South Africa, the first part of which opened for the 2010 World Cup. It was a public–private partnership (PPP) project of the build-operate-transfer (BOT) type with all the typical problems: difficulty to find a contractor, the latter's difficulty to find financing, inflated ridership estimates and a concession period for the private operator much shorter than the lifetime of the infrastructure (requiring quicker return on investment), massive cost overruns and delays, so it was of course attacked as a white elephant.

As often happens with such projects, ridership on the part-opened project started out way below the inflated forecasts (100,000 passengers a day, which was particularly unrealistic given that they didn't order enough trains to carry that much...), but then rose solidly:

The operator is now struggling to add more peak hour capacity, and feasibility studies will be launched for 200 km of extensions.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 02:43:51 PM EST
Taiwan High Speed Rail was an even better example of an essentially successful system producing a financial disaster due to the BOT project structure. While it achieved virtual monopoly along Taiwan's west coast (eliminating airline links altogether and suppressing conventional rail and highway buses) and boosted urban rail development in the cities served, operator THSRC left the tunnel financially only after some debt restructuring and a change in the depreciation model (turning a profit since 2011).

Last autumn, however, management implemented a classic example of bad fare policy: citing rising energy costs, fares were raised 7–10%, only achieving public outrage and – compared to the prior months' growth trend – a similar drop in ridership (which previously almost reached the original forecast of 140,000 a day). This led to the replacement of the CEO, and now there is talk of righting the again worsening financial situation by capital reduction (to reduce debt and thus the interest load) and extending the concession period (to reduce the depreciation rate).

Source: THSRC's statistics

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 02:47:14 PM EST
In Spain, austerity and recession depressed passenger numbers overall, both over short and long distances. However, thanks to the opening of new high-speed lines and a new fare policy (and in spite the Santiago disaster), long-distance rail bucked that trend, and for the first time in possibly decades, it beat planes in recent months. This breaks down to strong rail domination over relations served via high-speed lines (for example 60% on the Madrid–Barcelona route) and air domination elsewhere.

Diagram from El País (hat tip to Migeru via email)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 02:51:31 PM EST
Are they planning to run driverless trains without platform doors?
by Gag Halfrunt on Tue Apr 22nd, 2014 at 06:01:55 AM EST
They are already running that way, the drivers on board (and upon checking I corrected the diary with a transition time of just six months rather than one year) are only for the case something goes wrong. There are motion and obstacle detectors, and they think that's safe enough. But IMHO rather than safety, they could have focused on traffic disruption due to suicides as a weighty argument for spending a few Euros more.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 22nd, 2014 at 12:08:30 PM EST
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