Two years ago I wrote a post titled “Another Russian-Hungarian deal, good only for the Russians,” about the contract for 37 metro trains with 6 cars each to replace the by now almost 40-year-old Soviet-made metro cars servicing the M3 metro line. Their replacement was long overdue. The decision could no longer be postponed because of the frequent technical mishaps that could endanger lives. Soviet metro cars built in 1970 for the M2 line had already been replaced with brand new Alstom cars. The new M4 line also uses Alstom-built cars, and therefore it would have made sense to purchase the 222 metro cars for the M3 line from Alstom as well.
But this is not what happened. After years of often acrimonious discussions between the central government and Mayor István Tarlós, it was decided in the spring of 2015 that Budapest cannot buy new trains. The old rusted-out Soviet wrecks will have to be refurbished as a cost-cutting measure, and naturally the job will be done by the same Russian company (though subsequently renamed). The suspicion from the very beginning was that this Hungarian “favor” was part of the Paks II deal. After all, the Russian government would be giving Hungary a 10 billion euro loan to build a nuclear power plant, and therefore it was only fair that the Hungarians spend 222 million euros for the 222 metro cars. From the Russians’ point of view, it was a reasonable position to take, even though it was an unethical and illegal business deal. But what I find totally unacceptable is that Viktor Orbán, the great patriot, the prime minister of Hungary, lent his name to this thoroughly dirty deal that was disadvantageous to his own country. It was clear from the outset that the so-called refurbished, technologically outdated, non-air-conditioned cars are vastly inferior to the new super-modern ones even though the City of Budapest was going to pay almost as much for the refurbished cars as it would have for new ones.
But that’s not all. There is a twist in the story that makes the whole deal absolutely sickening. Many experts, after looking over the first cars that arrived in Hungary about a year ago, are fairly certain that these cars are in fact new. One could retort: what’s wrong with that? Actually, it sounds like a good deal. One pays only for refurbishing old ones and gets new ones instead. What a great bargain. Well, not quite. It seems likely that the manufacturer, Metrovagonmash, built a whole series of metro cars in 2008 which were not competitive with products built by Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier, etc. If the City of Budapest were to order new cars, Metrovagonmash couldn’t possible win the tender. Hence, the deal worked out by the two crooks, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. Under the guise of cost-saving refurbishing, the City of Budapest ended up with inferior new cars for practically the same price they would have paid if they had bought Alstom cars. This is how Viktor Orbán in the service of Putin was helping a Russian company in obvious financial straits. Because it has become evident lately that Metrovagonmash is ready to speed up production in order to be paid as soon as possible. They seem to need cash.
But now Metrovagonmash might be in trouble. After months of one technical failure after the other in the nine trains delivered so far, BKV (Budapest Közlekedési Vállalat / Hungarian Transit Co.) has lost patience. They refuse to accept any more cars and demand more than 800 million forints by way of penalty for non-performance. They also told Metrovagonmash’s management to come to Budapest to discuss the matter. And there will be a lot to discuss.
The first train with six cars arrived in Hungary during the winter of 2016, but the train still needed a lot of work. It made the long trip on existing railroad lines, which could have ruined certain parts of the train, including its engine, if it had been completed. So, the final touches were done in Budapest. Then, drivers had to be trained. At last, on March 20, the first train made its debut. But after a few hours the train had to be taken out of service. There was something wrong with the opening of the doors.
Ever since, there have been constant problems with the Russian trains. Although nine trains have been delivered, only four of them are actually being used. The rest are obviously not yet travel-ready, and those that are deemed so are under constant repair. It is bad enough when the doors don’t open, but it can be fatal when they open on the wrong side, as happened on June 13. Or, even worse, the doors open on both sides. Then it can also happen that the train is already on its merry way but the doors are still open. As one of the passengers said, “It was very frightening.” On June 14 the Russian engineers triumphantly announced that they had found the problem and from here on all will be well.
That turned out to be false optimism. A week later a new/old train arrived at the Western Station metro stop but the doors didn’t open at all. The train arrived later than expected and was absolutely jammed. During the next 12 minutes, the driver asked for patience and apologized for the inconvenience several times. Eventually he announced that the train must be shunted in order to enter the station again when the doors are supposed to open. As time went by, the passengers expressed their dissatisfaction not only with the train but with the government. They said nasty things about Lőrinc Mészáros, Fidesz, the stadiums, and claimed that conditions were better in the 1980s. As time went by, panic set in. Some women cried, others, the more claustrophobic types, were so eager to get out that in two of the cars strong guys tried to pry open the emergency exit. That, by the way, was quite a feat, given the less than satisfactory construction of the emergency exit. Several men were required to turn the handle that was needed for the operation.
This incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. BKV will not send more old cars Russia to be “refurbished,” it is claiming a penalty for non-performance, and they talk about future severe sanctions. Erzsébet Gy. Németh, DK member of the Budapest City Council, who was the only representative who voted against the deal initially, demanded that István Tarlós break the contract with the Russians. In any case, the Közlekedési Hatóság (Transport Authority) has withdrawn all six refurbished subway trains from use.
Erzsébet Gy. Németh, being an opposition politician, also demanded István Tarlós’s resignation. Although I find Tarlós an objectionable person, this time I must say that this whole dirty deal is not his fault. He had no choice. The old cars were becoming dangerous; the City had to take out a loan, which couldn’t be done without a government guarantee. The guilty one is Viktor Orbán, who perhaps one day will have to answer in court for what I consider to be abuse of power by knowingly forcing a disadvantageous deal on the City of Budapest for political gain. According to the Hungarian penal code, if he is found guilty, a three-year jail sentence is the minimal punishment. Wouldn’t that be nice, after the scores of innocent people he dragged into court on trumped-up charges?
As I was reading the description of what happened in that metro car where the doors wouldn’t open, I was thinking that there have been occasions in world history when something that ordinary sparked a revolution. The fact that people verbally abused the government in a country where fear is palpable is remarkable by itself. Slowly we may be edging toward a moment when dissatisfaction will burst into action.