The Budapest metro is very old, yet still unfinished. Its first line (they are now building the fourth) was the second oldest metro system in the world after the London Underground. Although the National Assembly approved the project in 1870, construction began only in 1894. Siemens & Halske AG employed 2,000 workers for the project. The initial metro line was built entirely from the surface using the cut-and-cover method; in this respect it resembles the New York subway system. This first line is still being used, with trains running every two minutes. It can handle 103,000 passengers on a work day.
Then came a long hiatus. Although there were plans to build additional lines in the early 40s, because of the outbreak of World War II nothing came of it. Another attempt was made in the early 50s, but for financial and political reasons the work was abandoned. At last the second line, between the Eastern and the Southern stations, opened in 1970. This is the only line, by the way, that goes under the Danube. Planning for line 3 began in 1963. Construction started in 1970 and proceeded apace until 1990. By that time the metro system was 17 kilometers long.
However, it soon became obvious that Budapest needs more subway lines due mainly to the ever growing surface traffic. Thus came the idea of line 4. This poor line has a history dating back to 1972; from the very beginning it ran into all sorts of trouble. However, in 1998 it looked as if work could begin because the City of Budapest managed to get a loan guarantee from the central government. But then came Viktor Orbán who doesn't particularly like Budapest because ever since 1990 it has been under the stewardship of a liberal-socialist coalition headed by the Lord Mayor Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ). The loan guarantee was signed in the last few months of the Horn government, but the new Fidesz government refused to honor the agreement. Thus construction had to be postponed. Four years later Orbán lost the elections and construction of the line at last could begin. If the line is finished by 2012, its planning and construction will span 40 years, longer than any other Budapest metro line.
That is, if it is finished. By now I'm not at all sure. It looks to me as if Fidesz is once again unwilling to support the project. I hear different voices in the background. The top leadership of the party seems to be very unwilling to commit itself while István Tarlós, Fidesz's candidate for the job of mayor, feels that the people of Budapest would never forgive Fidesz if it again stopped construction of the metro. So, Tarlós keeps saying that he is committed to the continuation of the project, but that doesn't mean much in Fidesz circles.
When it comes to the upper echelons in Fidesz there is a strong desire to portray the SZDSZ-MSZP leadership in Budapest in the worst possible light. If anything goes wrong with the construction and there are delays they seem to be extremely happy. They can show how inept the current city leadership is. Right now the actual drilling is coming along nicely but there is a new problem: the metro cars that were ordered from Alstom.
Alstom is a large French multinational conglomerate that holds interests in the power generation and transport markets. Alstom Transport develops and markets a complete range of systems, equipment, and service in the railway industry. With a market share of 18% and sales of 5.3 billion euros, the company is number one in ultra high speed trains, number two in tramways and metros. Alstom Transport is present in 60 countries with 26,000 employees. Alstom metrocars are being used in China, India, Chile, Singapore, Spain, and Turkey.
On July 30 the National Transportation Authority announced that the Alstom cars are not good enough and it refused to certify them. They don't conform to Hungarian standards. All sorts of stories circulated. It seems that, although there were several problems, the most serious was the brake system. These cars will not have drivers. Everything is computerized. Although there are several security features in case something goes wrong with the primary brakes, that didn't satisfy the Hungarians. Interestingly enough, the brakes of the forty-year-old Soviet cars currently running on lines 2 and 3 are just fine and dandy.
It is quite obvious that the decision of the National Transportation Authority delighted certain people. For example, the Fidesz members of the City Council. They moved to break the contract with Alstom. Immediately. If the City of Budapest decides to oblige, there might be a further three to four year delay because the whole competition procedure would have start from scratch. And let's not forget the National Transportation Authority whose members might find something else wrong four years down the road.
Well, it seems that Alstom is not taking this lying down. The company appealed the decision as of today. According to their announcement their system of brakes conforms to all the international and European Union standards though not the specifications of the Hungarian railroad system. Well, I find this funny. The Hungarian railroads specifications as the norm in 2010? Most likely the Hungarian specs are out of date and the experts at the National Transport Authority simply didn't know what to do with a very modern and sophisticated braking system.
In any case, Fidesz loves all this. As one of the headlines read, "Alstom didn't impress Fidesz." It turned out that László Deák, CEO of the Hungarian affiliate of Alstom, had a conversation with the Fidesz representatives of the City Council. István György, deputy chairman of the Fidesz delegation, announced afterwards that they didn't get much information from György and in any case, the "situation is clear." BKV must break the contract.
All this points to total chaos within the European Union. If there are European Union standards, as Alstom claims, how can Hungary have specs that are different? How can a so-called union work that way? But this is just the technical side of this absurdity. The other is the possible political thread. Is it possible that the National Transportation Authority's "experts" are in the service of a political party? Anything is possible.