Athens LRT: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Guest Blogger, Kevin Thomason discusses the Athens LRT

This time I would like to profile the Athens, Greece LRT system built for the 2004 Summer Olympics that has been problematic. There are several things that we can learn for our Waterloo Region LRT system from the challenges they have encountered – though there are also a few things that they have done well too.

Starting with the positive –

Grass and Greenspace – About 70% of the Athens LRT system runs on a wonderful grass surface. It creates a beautiful green belt through many parts of this otherwise dry, crowded, ancient stone and concrete city. Despite the dry climate and the intense heat, the grass grows well without much maintenance, and significantly dampens the sounds and vibrations of the LRT trains. Most stations (even those in the middle of narrow streets) have some trees and greenery integrated into them and a few stations are gorgeous with huge flowering shrubs, lush green grass, and significant trees all planted as part of the LRT project.

The Beach – the Athens LRT is unique as it is one of the few LRT’s one can ride from the downtown core and National Parliament right to the beach and seaside. In fact, there are 17 LRT stations right on the beach and waterfront making it quite common on nice days to have some of the passengers in business attire with briefcases and other passengers in bathing suits with beach umbrella’s and water toys. The Athens LRT can get alarmingly crowded on summer evenings when thousands of people are heading home from the beach at sunset. It is a very efficient way to move these large crowds of people (particularly when there is little available parking along the seashore).

However, moving on to some of the negative aspects of the Athens LRT:

Construction – we can learn in Waterloo Region from the construction of their system. I was lucky enough to be in Athens in July 2004, the week that their LRT system opened just hours before the start of the Olympic games. Needless to say that despite using some innovative ideas such as pre-fabricated sections of track to quickly cross highways and minimize construction interruptions, the work on the system was too rushed in the lead-up to the games, too many corners were cut, and the system has been functioning poorly and failing prematurely as a result.

A Very Rough Ride – The Athens LRT is by far the roughest riding LRT system I have ever been on. The eight years since the Olympics has not been kind to Greece nor their LRT infrastructure. This past summer the maximum speed the LRT trains could achieve was less than 60km/hr and any speed over 30km/hr saw the trains lurching, rattling and shaking quite disturbingly. I’m not sure if the problem is in the tracks, the suspension, or the truck carriages of the LRT trains but something is definitely wrong and everyone has to hang on tight as the Greek LRT’s bounce and toss everyone around despite going fairly slowly compared to other LRT systems that are truly rapid. We need to ensure that we have better engineering and a fast, high quality ride.

A Very Noisy Ride – Unlike the extremely silent LRT systems in Strasbourg, Istanbul, Vienna, etc. the Athens LRT is extremely noisy with loud track squeals on bends, lots of thumping and rumbling noise. Thank goodness for the grass track sections where it runs smoother and much quieter than on the very rough and noisy concrete and gravel sections.

Poorly Maintained – It was astounding for a system that is only 8 years old to see how battered, scratched, dented and beat up it has become. There is no way that they are going to get 20 or 30 years out of trains that are already falling apart. It was incredibly sad to see the contrast between the gleaming new system I rode in 2004 and the damaged system it has so quickly become. Twice in July LRT’s I was riding in broke down and the driver had to take panels in various parts of the train apart to reset electronic systems to get us going again.

Lines to Nowhere – While some portions of the Athens LRT system are quite heavily used with good passenger loads, other parts go to distant abandoned Olympic sites that are now empty wastelands of shuttered buildings. Some stations sit empty with no prospect of much ridership to those areas. Thankfully, the Athens LRT uses a stop request system where one has to push a red button that sounds a bell (similar to most Canadian urban buses) to request to stop at the next stop. This works extremely well as if no one requests a stop and there is no one on the LRT platform the LRT will not stop at that station and will continue on passing through empty stations until someone requests a stop.

This can make it quite fast to get through some of these seldom used parts of the Athens LRT network though it must make scheduling the LRT’s a challenge as it would be hard to predict how many times each train is going to stop on any particular route.

I have noticed on the Toronto Metrolinx Bombardier Flexity Freedom 2 mockup they now have (and we should borrow for special events) that it is equipped with stop request buttons so I would presume that if Toronto will be implementing a stop request system that is being considered here in Waterloo for our LRT too. It could be a good feature to not always have to stop at every station if nobody is there, nobody is getting off and nobody is boarding. We want our system to move people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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