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History of the Greek railways.

History of the Greek railways

While, in 1930, Athens with 400,000 inhabitants featured 88 km of tram line and 153 km of urban and suburban railway, it dropped to only 26 kilometres of electric railway since 1977 until the Athens Metro operated!

Track-based means (train, metro, tramway) are discussed as the best solution in areas with traffic and pollution problems. At the beginning, they were only preferred because they ensured cheaper and faster transportation.

In Greece, the first railway line to operate outside Attica was the Pyrgos-Katakolo line in November 1882. The operation of the line was the result of constantly increasing transportation needs for the Greek currant trade, which flourished at the time due to the destruction of French vineyards by phylloxera (the Great French Wine Blight).

The mayor of Pyrgos (Letrina at the time) P. Avgerinos called engineer A. Strait to design the project and the Koumoundouros government legally granted the right to build the 12.5 km long line. The project was built by the General Credit Bank of Greece, which granted the operation to the company “Pyrgos – Katakolo Railways” (SPK). SPK was absorbed by SPAP (Piraeus – Athens – Peloponnese Railways) in 1951.

SPAP was the company established for the development of the Peloponnesian network in 1882. A group of banks undertakes to construct metre gauge networks to connect Piraeus – Corinth – Argos – Nafplio and Argos – Myloi.

The first small section to be built was the one connecting Kalamaki (currently the location of “Motor Oil” refineries) with Corinth. The reason? None other than to connect, at least by train, the Corinthian Gulf with the Saronic Gulf (note that at the time the Corinth Canal was not built yet). Therefore, ship passengers arriving from Italy or the Ionian Islands were not obliged to travel around the Peloponnese, but simply took a short trip by train and continued to Piraeus on a different ship. This activity generated abundant income up to 1893, when the Corinth Canal operated.

Before that, back in 1885, the line from Piraeus was smoothly progressing up to the moment it reached Corinth. It was the time when the first problems started to appear. Some contractors declared they are unable to continue, while the company’s assets were running out. New loans were concluded, while contractors were paid with shares. Despite or even because of the delays, Prime Minister Trikoupis proposed in April 1887 the extension of the network. by construction of a line from Myloi to Kalamata funded entirely by the State.

In 1889, SPAP was granted the construction and operation of a cog railway connecting Diakofto and Kalavryta, which was completed in 1896. New sections of the network were delivered or awarded for construction. The only area with a reason to complain was Laconia, although there were proposals for the creation of a junction from Leontari of Arcadia to Sparta and Gytheio.

The network was completed in 1904 and in 1922 SPAP assumes the form of a privately owned company, while 1929 the company acquired the line Neo Irakleio – Lavrio in Attica. The company adopted dynamic marketing policies, taking advantage of tourist destinations among other things. A point of reference in this type of policy was the “Party people train”, launched in 1930 and offering its passengers a luxurious trip to the Loutraki casino.

In 1940, SPAP became State operated. By that time, the total length of the network was 730 km. By the end of the War the Peloponnese network counted huge losses, as the Germans had blown out 82 bridges and thrown locomotives and coaches off the cliffs.

In 1953, SPAP undertook the Agrinio – Mesolongi – Krioneri line, which up to that time was operated by SVDE (North-western Greece Railways). This network had a main line length of 62 kilometres and was built in 1890. Later, three junctions to the centre of Mesolongi, Aetoliko, Katochi and the river Acheloos were added to it. Charilaos Trikoupis was accused by his rivals that he constructed it at the State’s expense (for the first time without the responsibility of private entities) for political reasons, as he came from Mesolongi. However, he did have plans to extend the line to Epirus and Thessaly as well as to connect Rio – Antirio. The feature of the network was that it owned a steamship, the legendary “Kalydona”, which took passengers and merchandise from Kryoneri, where the train stopped, up to the quay. From there, passengers took the ship to Patras.

In the 1940s mobilisation, the line played a key role in the transfer of troops to the Albanian border, while later the Italian conquerors attempted to extend it to Amfilochia by removing the track of Aetoliko junction. The line stopped operating in 1970 during the Greek junta, due to excessive deficits, since it had never been seriously expanded. On the contrary, roads were built and the Rio – Antirio ferry served cars in a much shorter time. In 1995, the reoperation of the line was decided, as repairs were possible with only minor interventions. Indeed, the project was awarded to a contractor with a budget of 1 billion drachmas, but the disbursements were never made. The materials delivered were left to rust and officials claimed that such a project was pointless, as it did not lead to a port. To make matters worse, the currently completed bridge of Rio-Antirio had no provisions for a railway line.

SPAP suffered yet another blow in 1957, when the operation of the Athens-Lavrio railway stopped, following pressures from motorists. A very important corridor that could decongest the Attica Basin was therefore lost.

In 1962, SPAP merged with the Hellenic Railways (SEK), the company that was succeeded by modern OSE. Nowadays, modernisation projects, such as the creation of a double normal gauge line to Corinth, are currently being implemented with Community co-financing.

If the projects continue, the railway may provide an alternative to suburban commuting to people who work in Athens but wish to live e.g. on the western coast of Attica or the Corinthian Gulf. However, there are fears that as long as a large section of the network (southwards of Corinth and Patras) is abandoned and the rolling stock is not renewed, routes will continuously decrease and this will lead to the definitive abolition of a railway that had paramount contribution to the economic growth of Greece.

The landmark year for Greek railways was 1882. The Athens-Piraeus railway line started to develop and dozens of tram lines were established. People had overcome their phobias and financial conditions were better for the country, as more international funds were looking for a way out of the economic crisis in Europe. Thessaly, with its fertile plain, was ceded to Greece. Agricultural production was rising and sought export routes, as industrialisation was delayed. All the above were combined with the rise of Charilaos Trikoupis in the office of Prime Minister, who took the decisions that materialised railway transport for Greece after many years of discussions.

During his speech in the Parliament the newly elected Prime Minister said:

“Within four to five years maximum, not only the Athens to Patras and Nafplion railway, but the entire network of our domestic railways must be completed. It is unacceptable that Greece waits any longer. The country has waited till now, because its means did not allow it to act alone, while its credit did not allow it to construct railways with foreign funds. Now, however, its credit does allow it such an action and its means also allow it to respond to the obligations that it will undertake, via said credit….”

The main question, which was the focus of many years of discussions and political controversy, concerned the railway track gauge. Namely, whether the Greek trains would run on standard gauge (1 metre and 435 millimetres) so that they could connect to international rail networks, as former Prime Minister Alexandros Koumoundouros claimed, or a mixed network would be built, as Trikoupis claimed. The track gauge affected the cost of works (earthworks, line laying, bridges, tunnels, etc.) and as a result, Trikoupis’s proposal covered larger areas of the country, as it was cheaper.

The discussion essentially started in 1869, when the Athens-Piraeus line operated. We quote the proposals that professor Lefteris Papayannakis describes in his book “The Hellenic Railways”, plans portraying a very different image of Greece and clearly a more organised one, in terms of transport, compared to that of today:

■        The famous engineer Vitalis, who had constructed the Calabria – Sicily line, proposed the construction of a 305 kilometre long Athens – Kravasara (Amfilochia) line, with cost of 60 million drachmas, which would pass from Thiva, lake Kopaida and Parnassos (via underground tunnel). From Amfilochia, the transportation would continue by steamship to Brindisi, Italy. Many people measured distances and argued on which area of Greece would provide the best combination for a line between Europe and India. The significance of the Thorikos (Mesogia of Attica), the Messenian and the Laconian Gulf was exalted on the grounds that these areas are closer to Suez than Brindisi, Thessaloniki or Volos.

■             The most popular proposal concerned the Piraeus – Athens – Lamia – Borders line. An agreement was reached in 1870 for the construction of such a line, between the Voulgaris government and the French engineer E. Piat, who, however, failed to raise funds.

■             Meanwhile, another group of French capital holders exploits Austria’s proposal to link its railways to those of the Ottoman Empire. In Greece there was a heated discussion on the opportunity that should not be wasted and the French group proposed to undertake the Piraeus – Borders line, also constructing the Piraeus – Corinth – Nafplio – Tripoli – Sparta – Gytheio – Armyros of Kalamata line with a junction to Patras – Western Peloponnese. The proposal was well received by financial players associated with the Peloponnese, but it was not fruitful.

■             The Valtatzis Group proposed two lines: Porto Rafti – Athens – Corinth – Patras and Antirio – Mesolongi – Acheloos – Preveza. The ferryboat at the Rio-Antirio strait was to carry the entire train!

■             In 1872, a group of Greek capital holders, represented by Andreas Syggros and S. Skouloudis of the Bank of Constantinople, proposed to undertake the Piraeus – Borders line. The government of E. Deligiorgi accepted, legislated, but the projects stopped in October 1873 due to a dispute between the company and the state regarding the location of the station in Piraeus!

■             Another ambitious proposal, aspiring to make Greece a “link between the East and the West”, was submitted in July 1879 by Count De Moutresi. It included four lines:

  • Piraeus – Lamia – Borders – Larissa – Thessaloniki with junctions to Thiva – Chalkida, Livadia – Aspra Spitia, Lamia – Stylida.
  • Porto Rafti – Corinth – Patras – Mesolongi – Kravasaras – Ioannina with junctions to Vonitsa and Preveza.
  • Ioannina-Metsovo-Trikala-Larissa.
  • Corinth – Tripoli – Kalamata with junctions to Nafplio and Sparta.

In return, the following were required from the State:

  • granting of the land required for the construction of the lines for a period of 99 years.
  • the uncultivated public and municipal plots adjacent to the lines.
  • all state and municipal lakes and marshes.
  • the quarries, mines and coal mines located 10 kilometres from the lines.

While views were exchanged, Greece remained with only 9 km of railway and 312 miles of carriageways. The transfer of wheat from Kalavrita to Aigio cost 10-12 cents per oka (=1,282 kg) in 1869, while its transfer from Russia to Greece cost 5 cents/oka. It cost much more to transfer the flour from Livadia to Piraeus than it did from Odessa to Athens. Therefore, Ch. Trikoupis in 1882 decided to cancel the contracts signed by his predecessor, A. Koumoundouros in 1881 for the construction of the standard gauge lines Piraeus – Patras and Piraeus – Larissa, guaranteed by the state for a minimum profit of 5%. He disagreed not only with the state guarantee for profits, but also with the standard gauge. Namely, he believed that the low growth rate did not allow predictions for profit and the automatic integration of the country in the international trade network (Europe-India line) was anything but definite. He also believed that the state ought to be first domestically organised at the smallest cost and build an extensive network seeking development.

He therefore signed final agreements for three networks, totalling 700 kilometres in length in Thessaly, the Peloponnese and Attica. He also covered the prospect of building some 700 kilometres more on the lines Piraeus – Larissa – Border, Kryoneri – Agrinio and in the Peloponnese.

He concluded various types of agreements with the companies that undertook the railway construction. He started with a lump sum of 20,000 drachmas per kilometre as subsidy to the contractor, but later, when he found private entities had became rather unwilling, he assigned the role of the contractor to the State. In this way, Greece developed a network that was partly private (Piraeus – Corinth – Nafplio – Myloi, Piraeus – Patras – Olympia – Katakolo, Volos – Larissa, Volos – Karditsa – Kalampaka, Volos – Pelion) and partly state owned (Piraeus – Borders, Agrinio – Mesolongi – Kryoneri, Myloi – Tripoli – Kalamata – Kyparissia). All the above lines were metre gauge, except for the Piraeus – Borders line that was constructed according to standard gauge.

In 1902, twenty years after 1882, 1,065 km of the railway network were in operation. Half of these (543 km) were delivered in the first five years (1882-87). In the second five years, some 374 kilometres more were added, with great difficulty. In 1892, Trikoupis admitted that “Regretfully, we are bankrupt” and in the five years that followed, only 50 kilometres of the lines were built. In the five-year period 1897-1902 an additional 100 km were added, but most importantly final agreements were concluded for the construction of 520 km more. In 1910, 1,600 km of railway line were in operation. From that date onwards, the Greek railway network only grew when the geography of Greece changed. The “five-year” deadline that Trikoupis set in 1882 had passed almost sixfold, but many believed that there was no other way that contemporary Greece could acquire such an extensive railway network.

1835: French engineer Francois Feraldi suggested the construction of the Athens-Piraeus railway line, without any progress made thereafter. In the summer of the same year, Piraeus Street opened for pedestrians, carriages and wagons.

1843: Alexandros Ragavis’ proposal for the railway was not well received. The use of steam in land transport was considered dangerous by some, who called the railway “hell-way”. Others claimed that “European scum want to bring along the bloody machine to bring us down”. It should however be noted that the fear of the railway existed even abroad, hence the anecdote: In Manchester (the birthplace of Railways), in 1830, a young man wrote to his fiancée, who lived out of town, that he would visit to propose. To avoid delays, he would travel by train. However, instead of a warm invitation, he received the following message from his future father-in-law: “Dear sir. Your visit is totally unnecessary. I could not possibly entrust my daughter’s happiness to a man who unreasonably exposes his life to danger”. By that time, Athens had more than 19,000 inhabitants and Piraeus more than 4,000!

1855: The population of Athens, at the time was 31,000 and of Piraeus 6,000. The stagecoaches running up and down Pireos Street were not enough. The decisive step was taken on 16 June, when Prime Minister Alexandros Mavrokordatos spoke in the Parliament to say:

“Today I have the honour to present a bill for the establishment of a railway between Athens and Piraeus”. He went on to explain that it was a “fast, cheap, pleasant and dust-free means of transport”, while its operation would “ensure the infinitely advantageous stop of foreign warships…”

At another point of his speech – which stills sounds very familiar – he underlined that the government had still a lot to do and should not increase its expenses by undertaking the management of the railway and limiting the industrial activity of private entities. Therefore, law TZ’ was voted and the government awaited tenders by companies or individuals to award the project.

1857: The right of exclusive operation for 55 years, as provided by law TZ’, did not enthuse private entities. A new law granted the above right for 75 years and the tender was awarded to the French company managed by Francois Feraldi. The Greek company, with the participation among others of the Governor of the National Bank of Greece, Georgios Stavrou, Baron Simon Shinas and Eleni M. Tositsa, lost the tender.

1861: Feraldi was declared in default, as he failed to progress the project. A new tender awarded the project to the company of Decage, De La Laurencie and Paganelis, which however also missed the deadlines and was finally declared in default.

1867: The project was awarded to English capital holder Edward Pickering, with the obligation to construct the line within 9 months.

1868: An English company, under the name “Athens-Piraeus Railway Societe Anonyme” (SAP) was established, achieving the extension of the deadline for the construction of the 8.5 km line. At the same time, in the USA, lines were constructed at a rate of 17 km per day.

1869 (27 February): The grand day of the inauguration had arrived. At 2.00 p.m., the train with the officials started, amidst cheers and the smoke of the “Queen Olga” steam engine. It covered the distance from Thissio to Piraeus in 15 minutes. Ticket prices: First Class: 1 drachma, Second Class: 75 cents, Third Class: 45 cents. Routes: Eight to ten a day per direction.

1875: Pickering decided that the revenue was not enough and sold SAP to the Industrial Credit Bank of Greece, established by G. Skouzes.

1880: SAP was re-established with a share capital of 4,000,000 drachmas to implement a development programme. The hotel in Neo Faliro was refurbished, where later a platform would be added for sea bathing in “bain mixtes”, as well as theatre and a funfair. The creation of a popular amusement centre combined with financial stabilisation provided profitability for the railway.

1882: A separate company was established in collaboration with Belgians and an extended network of horsecars was developed, connecting the centre of Athens with its then suburbs (Patisia, Abelokipoi, Kolokynthou) and Omonoia square with Zappeion, Gazi and Keramikos. Soon thereafter, SAP established a horsecar to Piraeus connecting the railway station with the customs office. All lines later became steam-powered and electrified.

1885: On 4 February (Monday of Lent), the “Monster” of Kifisia made its first route. It belonged to the company “Attica Railways” (Sidirodromi Attikis), which lent its name to Attikis Square, its departure station. It was manufactured by the Metallurgical Company of Lavrio, in return for debts of their owner, Serpieris, to the Greek State. The upgrading of the countryside suburbs of Maroussi and Kifisia thus began. Four years later, the line expands up to Lavrio Square on Tritis Septemvriou Street. On 20 June, the second junction of the line was inaugurated, starting from Neo Iraklio and passing through Halandri and Mesogia and ending in Lavrio.

1886: This was a difficult year for Athens, as the French, English and Russian fleets applied a blockade to the port of Piraeus as a punishment for the stance of Greece. This however proved the significance of inland transport development and of railways in particular.

1887: The “Kolosourtis” (“Ass dragger”) appeared, the steam powered tram that started from the Academy of Athens, crossed Panepistimiou, Amalias and Thisseos Street and reached Faliro. It was thus named because it was slow uphill and looked like it was dragging on the ground, due to its low height.

1895: The new SAS central station was delivered; it was located near Omonoia Square, next to the old city hall, at Athenas and Lykourgou street crossing. The train reached the station, via the new underground tunnel that ran under Athenas Street and ended to an open pit (maybe this is why that point remains very wide to date). The creation of a central station at different locations was also discussed, such as at Athenas and Ermou street crossing, at Mega Monastiri (Monastiraki), at the contemporary Criminal Court, at modern Kotzia Square and at Boukouras Theatre of Menandrou Street.

1896: Railway and tram networks showed their potential during the first Olympic Games in Athens. The Games started on 25 March and many foreign visitors arrived by sea, while many of the sports required travelling. Three days later, the “Acropolis” newspaper wrote: “All passengers that could be transferred from Athens and Piraeus by tramways and the train services from Athens and Piraeus every twenty minutes, did indeed travel. Spectators were more than ten thousand and crowded the venue to asphyxiation, as the velodrome had a capacity of only eight thousand”.

1904: This was the year of electrification for the underground railway, with the reactions already mentioned. To overcome the phobias of the public, the young (31 year-old) manager of SAP, Alexandros Vlagalis travels every afternoon to and from Athens by train with his wife.

1908: SAP reduces fares to address the Athens-Faliro tram competition.

1910: The end of “Kolosourtis”. All EETAPP tram lines (16 operating in Athens and 5 in Piraeus) were electrified. SAP wanted to reinforce its own tram line at the beach of Piraeus (Train Station-Customs) to transport goods, but stopped following the reaction of coachmen and porters. Many years later, the beach tram was associated with Melina Merkouri, as it features with the film star in “Never on Sunday”.

1926: Order returned after the Balkan wars and the Asia Minor catastrophe, and the English Power and Traction Finance Company (known in Greece simply as “Power”) joined the game, cooperating for the establishment of two new companies: EHS, the successor of SAP, which undertakes the electric railway and the beach tram, and HEM which undertakes the rest of the tram network, the railway of Kifisia and some bus lines.

1928: The new SAP station building in Piraeus, in the Eiffel Tower style, was inaugurated.

1929: The line of Lavrio fell under the jurisdiction of SPAP (Peloponnese Railways) and was connected to the line ending in Piraeus.

1930: Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos inaugurated the new underground station of Omonoia square. Venizelos said in jest: “Archaeologists will certainly be disappointed, as Athens now starts being an attraction for its culturally modern, practical projects, apart from its antiquities”. Two years earlier, at the foundation ceremony of the same station, the minister of Transports, I. Metaxas said that thanks to the electrification of the line, millions of Athenians would settle “in healthy and proper houses in Kifisia and Marousi”.

1936: The Perama train started its operation, mainly to serve transfers to and from the naval station of Salamina. Perama was still considered countryside and Mount Egaleo featured pine trees.

1938: The “Monster” of Kifisia died on 8 August, running its last route. The train was so named by the roar, tremble and black smoke that accompanied its course, especially when moving uphill, but also by the curses of housewives whose laundry it soiled. A crowd of people accompanied it in its last night route with firecrackers, candles and even with funeral programs and chants.

1940: The scenes of crowded trams carrying smiling soldiers during the mobilisation of 28 October are famous.

1944: Piraeus was bombarded by the British Air Force (RAF) and the electric train station along with the warehouses and the machine shops suffered great damages. Transportation was interrupted for about a month. During the German Occupation, most of the transport was made by electric trains and trams, since liquid fuels for other means of transport had become scarce.

1952: The operation of railcars on the Athens-Lavrio line started and the route took 1 hour and 50 minutes, regardless of the time the route was running.

1957: The electric train arrived in Kifisia, after many successive expansions to the stations of Victoria, Attikis, Ano Patisia, Nea Ionia and Neo Iraklio. However, in the same year, rather than becoming a major suburban railway axis the train of Lavrio was abolished.

1960: This was the year when tram lines were completely abolished. It was the conclusion of a course for the strengthening of bus owners (the “bourgeoisie” of the time) and car owners, who were annoyed by the “cumbersome” trams. This course had started with the removal of the tram lines at Panepistimiou Street, in the morning of 16 November 1953, at the initiative of the then minister of Public Works, Konstantinos Karamanlis. The yellow and green trams, one after the other, bade their farewell to the streets of Athens and Piraeus. In their 52 years of operation, they had transferred 3 billion passengers, organising the life of the city. In the same year, EHS submitted a study for the expansion of the electric railway from Iraklio to Halandri and Gerakas, which remains unexploited to date.

1969: In celebration of one hundred years of railway operation in Athens, EHS issued a book where it claimed that the underground railway and its expansion was the only solution for Athens with the traffic problems generated by the 187,000 private cars of the time. It was also mentioned that the forecast for 1985 was that there would be 450,000 private cars and it would be impossible to map new roads and find parking spaces.

1976: EHS was acquired by the State and renamed to ISAP; in the following years the new stations of Eirini, Tavros and KAT were established.

1977: On April 4, Good Monday, the last tram, operating on the Piraeus – Perama line, left the track. Routes had normally stopped twelve days ago, but were resumed due to a bus strike. The tram was received in Keratsini by residents, who held flowers and protested against the stop in tears and booing.

1978: In July, OSE tried to set up a suburban service, operating 13 trains a day to Elefsina and 20 to Agios Stefanos, in addition to the already existing 9 services to Chalkida. Of the above, a sufficient number of routes remained on the Athens-Chalkida line.

1991: OSE reoperated the Athens – Loutraki line, with a view to become the western section of the suburban railway.

1992: The construction work for the two new metro lines started. According to officials of the Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works, the sections Syntagma – Sepolia, Syntagma – Pentagono were to operate on 31 December 1999, while the section Syntagma-Dafni in October 2000.

1999: The procedures started for the granting of the construction and operation of the suburban railway of OSE to a joint venture. In the first phase there was a provision for the upgrading of the lines to Corinth and Oinoi-Chalkida, and for the construction of a new line from Menidi to the new airport in Spata. The objective was for residents living in these areas to commute to Athens without using their cars and to serve the passengers of the new airport.