Prime Minister Costas Simitis, along with Transport Minister Christos Verelis, last month inaugurated a new, improved section of the Athens-Thessaloniki railway that cuts travel time between Greece’s two major cities by 27 minutes, to four hours and 30 minutes. “What was once considered an impossible dream is gradually becoming a reality,” Mr. Simitis said concerning the development of railways in Greece.
The 35-kilometer Evangelismos-Leptokarya section, straddling the divide between Macedonia and Thessaly, includes two tunnels, 5.5 and 4.3 kilometers long, and 600 meters of bridges. It cost 490 million euros and took more than eight years to complete. (Travel between Thessaloniki and Larissa now takes only an hour and 10 minutes.)
Until a decade ago, railways were a neglected mode of transportation in Greece. As Prime Minister Costas Simitis pointed out in inaugurating the new railway section, European countries electrified their rail networks in the 1960s and 1970s and introduced high-speed trains in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, Greece, already at a disadvantage because of its geographical isolation from the rest of Western Europe, lagged far behind. Until 1994, “express” trains running the 509 kilometers (316 miles) between Athens and Thessaloniki took 6 hours 9 minutes. Most of those Greeks who did use the train -and they did so because it was cheap, and it was cheap because services were degraded- remember taking nine or ten hours or even more to complete the distance. It was even worse in other parts of the network, such as in Peloponnesos.
After a decade of major investments, which to date exceed 2 billion euros, Greece’s railways are slowly catching up with the rest of Europe. Rail travel from Athens to Thessaloniki now takes four hours and 30 minutes but plans are that by 2008 this will be cut down to a mere three hours and 30 minutes – more tunnels will be dug, especially along a 106-kilometer mountainous section in central Greece.
Hellenic Railways also plans a major expansion of the network to the west and a link between the Peloponnesos and the northwestern towns of Ioannina and Igoumenitsa. This should be ready by 2014.