Safety concerns mount after Metro 3 subway fire scares

December 16, 2016

“If Metro 3 will have to be shut down because of some unexpected development before the renovation work begins, it will be an undeniable political scandal for the entire political community, and I would like to avoid that.”

That is how Budapest head mayor István Tarlós has responded to concerns over the safety of Budapest’s Metro line 3 after the line was shut down twice in two weeks over fire scares. Replacement buses took over metro services on November 30 after smoke was detected at the Corvin Negyed stop, and again on December 13 when the lead metro car was seen smoking at Deák square. Each of the stations were evacuated and firefighters were called but no fires were discovered. (Numerous other service interruptions have occurred in recent months due to smoking cars on the M3. It happened 9 times this year.)

On December 5, two metro trains on Metro line 2 collided, causing five serious injuries. It was reported that the Budapest Transport Authority (BKV) knew there were safety concerns on the line before the accident occurred: a lower speed limit had been imposed on the trains several days before the accident, and drivers were told to operate the trains manually and without the assistance of the automated computer system.

The safety concerns led Budapest city assemblywoman Erzsébet Németh Gy. (Democratic Coalition) to claim that “passenger safety on Metro 3 was eliminated years ago” and that “István Tarlós and [BKV] are surely saving money on the safety of passengers while they allow half a million people to travel at risk to their lives.” Democratic Coalition has initiated an information campaign in Metro 3 stations called “What to do in an emergency?” The opposition party says that the metro cars are in “catastrophic condition,” and each one contains 11 parts which “could cause a multiple-victim, fatal catastrophe at any time.”

Tarlós rejects the claims, saying that if passenger safety is threatened in any way, authorities will shut down the metro line regardless of political consequences or election dates. According to the mayor, the city has done everything it can to begin renovations of the aging line as quickly as possible, and passenger safety has been improved in recent years after the replacement of significant stretches of rail. A 2014 survey of the technical condition of the metro, however, showed that even then the line was in dire need of renovation. The condition of the tracks was at a “critical” level from overuse, and the condition of several of the line’s technical systems reflected standards of 25-30 years ago. No substantial renovation or modernization to the metro’s operational systems have taken place since the metro opened 40 years ago.

The Unified Transportation Trade Union (EKSZ), which represents transport workers, including BKV employees, said that “an intolerable and laughable circus is going on around the operation of the clearly broken down technical condition of the Metro 3.” The union recommended giving daily authorization to each individual train before sending it into service to ensure the safety of workers and passengers.

Service interruptions have regularly taken place on the 40-year-old metro line in recent months as the tracks, trains and stations deteriorate. Plans to completely renovate the line have been continually pushed back over political and financial conflicts between the Hungarian government, Budapest city government and the European Union.

Estimates

Initial estimates for a complete renovation of Metro 3 were set by the city of Budapest at HUF 120 billion (USD 400 million), but further estimates by engineers and other experts put the number at HUF 160-180 billion, a cost which far exceeded the financial support allocated by the Hungarian government and European Union development funds. Plans were partially redrawn and a compromise was reached where certain elements of the plan, like elevators, were removed, and the city settled on a figure of HUF 137.5 billion (USD 459 million). The city wrote a tender for the project and began accepting bids from contractors, but bids were reportedly 30 percent higher than the city’s HUF 137.5 billion estimate. The Ministry of National Development made it clear to the city: the government would not give any more money for the project. In response, the city eliminated plans to renew the line’s 19 deteriorating stations, settling on basic renovations to the tracks and trains. Wheelchair-accessible elements were also removed from the plan, cutting the project’s price tag in half. Brussels then withdrew its pledge to fund 60 percent of the HUF 137.5 billion plan, saying it would only support the development if it contained the required accessibility infrastructure.

Back to the drawing board

Tarlós announced in November that all tenders for the project had been withdrawn and a new construction plan would be developed which would put potential contractors at less contractual risk. Tarlós said he hopes the new tender, which will be offered in spring, will be more agreeable to contractors and that they will make bids suitable to the financial allocations the city has to work with. If an agreement can be reached, construction can begin as early as June 2017, he said.