Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 13
21 December 1998

C S A R D A S:
Building Sights
A Tragi-comedy in Two Acts.
Act Two: To Be, or Not to Be?
Metro Line 4

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

The playwright continues his analysis of Hungarian politics. Following on the heals of the National Theatre drama, the audience in Budapest awaits to see whether the hero, Prime Minister Victor Orban will succeed in thwarting his metropolitan rival, Mayor Gabor Demszky. The future tunnels of the new Metro line hang in the balance.

[Act one appeared last week in CER]

Dramatis Personae: Victor Orban, Prime Minister. Thirtysomething. Football player. Dynamic. The hero. Fidesz party (Young Democrats).

Gabor Demszky: Mayor of Budapest. Cold-blooded pragmatist. Just returned for a third term in office. Enigmatic, colourless.

Janos Latorcai: Pretender to the throne of Budapest. Fidesz candidate for Mayor. Distinguished-looking elderly gentleman who looks good in cardigans. Supporting role only.

Entering the Metro station on Kossuth Square after a leisurely stroll through the sludge-filled streets of Pest, every window sill lined with a huddle of pigeons, the Parliament dome iced like some Gothic cake maker's winter fantasy, the heat rising from the tunnels is like a sigh of relief. The steep, swift escalators are crowded with homeward-bound shoppers, laden with seasonal packages, striped carrier-bags, wrapped with scarves and woollen gloves and hats. My blatant bare-headedness attracts disapproval: "Young man, aren't you freezing? You'll end up with typhus of the head!" It sounds alarming, but I just shrug and mutter polite excuses. The Metro stations are particularly busy. Arm-banded ticket inspectors stand patiently at the bottom of the escalator, no escape for the fare-dodger. Beggars lie listless a few feet further on, silent, palms outstretched for salvation, signs around their necks relating a litany of deprivation. Sometimes they are accompanied by a dog for added appeal. "Dog's life" as the Hungarians say. Elderly women shuffle, proffering polystyrene cups, rattling the coins under the noses of those who have gathered around the copies of the daily papers framed in plastic along the walls, all to the tasteless jingle of the video screen's stream of consciousness flow of adverts. A typical slice of big city life, all social classes rubbing shoulders amidst smells of paprika, garlic, sweat. A breeze betrays the approach of the train. We move forward, expectant, impatient.

Away from the news-stands and women displaying their hand-embroidered linen, I walk across the Freedom bridge towards the Gellert Hotel and a welcome espresso. A huge barge floats forlornly mid-stream, replete with cranes. A young couple approach from the opposite direction, both sporting badges which attract my attention not so much because of the bright primary red on a white background as because the message is written in English, a rarity here: I love Metro 4 (the "love" rendered by a huge heart). I pause for a moment to lean on the parapet. A successful signature-campaign had been launched by Gabor Demszky and the badge was but a further gimmick in catching public attention. By the end of the year, Demszky expects 150,000 to have put their names to the petition, including 20% from outside the capital. Why? Because Orban decided to withdraw all support from building Metro Line 4, proclaiming that "The capital does not have a country, the country has a capital". In a fit of pique at his candidate, Mr. Janos Latorcai, losing the local government election contest to Demszky and in spite of one of the declared aims set out in Latorcai's manifesto being to accelerate the construction of the Metro, Orban pulled out the plug. He made no effort to conceal his displeasure at the good citizens of Budapest, stating publicly that, had Latorcai won, the situation would have been quite different. Instead, the earmarked money would be spent on motor way projects which will benefit province-dwellers as well.

The pre-history of the Metro dispute dates back to 1992, when the Budapest City Assembly and the City government decided to put in a bid to host the Expo. The state agreed to finance the infrastructure improvements that would boost the city's chances of landing the Expo which included the building of a new Metro line, the Green line (in Budapest, Metro lines are colour-coded; it would complement the existing Red, Blue and Yellow lines), and showed willing to cough up 17 billion forints. In 1994, the efforts were abandoned but it was decided that the transport improvements were so vital that they were not to be shelved.

Which brings us back to the barge. Trial drillings have been carried out in three locations, one of which is next to Freedom bridge. The clay stratum beneath the Danube does not allow water to permeate so that the tunnels could go ahead as planned. The drillings have so far cost 55 million forints. A further two soil tests may be required. If so, the price would increase by 25%. No thermal water would be released to the surface because of building work (this news came as some relief to the proprietors of the Gellert Hotel who were justifiably concerned that their renowned springs could be placed under threat by the drillings, jeopardising their livelihoods). Two separate tunnels would be bored. At their deepest point they would be 38 metres below the surface of the Danube. The route of the Metro, stretching from Kelenfold railway station in Buda to Keleti Station in Pest, would comprise a total length of 7.3 kilometres with ten stops. Had it proceeded according to schedule, it would have been operational by 2003 and trains would have run from 5.30 a.m. to 1.30 the following morning, metros never more than two and a half minutes apart. All for the sake of cutting a few minutes off the journey time. It would take 10 minutes less than the official figures published in the Number 7 bus timetable. For the passengers arriving from the provinces at Kelenfold, approximately five minutes would be shaved off the overall time needed to reach the heart of Pest by changing to the Metro rather than staying put on the train.

In part, there are sound environmental arguments in favour of the Metro, in part the whole affair could equally be described as a massive PR exercise to boost passenger numbers on a public transport system in decline. During the 1970's, 82% of the inhabitants of Budapest used public transport. By the 1990's, the numbers had dropped sharply to 60%. If the Metro were to be built, it would relieve congestion. CO emissions would fall by 1,690 kilos per day and, if the Metro were to replace bus lines, NO2 emissions would be cut by 24,120 kilos per annum.

An alternative long-term vision of possibilities has been largely overlooked by both Orban's and Demszky's factions, however. The Air Working Party, an independent group of public transport experts produced a report which draws some interesting conclusions (see Magyar Nemzet, 30/11/98). According to the Air Working Party, the Metro is not a worthwhile investment in cost-benefit terms, since too little time is saved by passengers in relation to the scale of the undertaking. The problems could be more efficiently and cheaply solved by bringing surface transport up to date, particularly by extending four existing tram lines and linking them up with other lines. Line 4 would be qualitatively different to Lines 2 and 3 in that it does not connect distant hubs. Given that this is the case, it would not end up being faster than taking the tram. For the same amount as has been set aside for the metro, the essential 60 kilometres of tramline could be laid and ample resources would be left over for funding acquisition of brand new trams. As the Working Party points out, the sole justification for the metro would be to cater for at least 20,000 passengers an hour during the rush hours along the proposed route. Overcrowding on this stretch is not to be feared, since BKV (the Budapest Public Transport Company) statistics demonstrate that the total rush hour volume for both Freedom and Erzsebet bridges does not exceed 14,500 at peak times. The metro would, seen from this angle at least, be a senseless waste of valuable funds, and trams are at least as environmentally friendly. What is at stake here, though, is inextricably linked with power play and prestige. Vanitas strikes again.

In an interview in Magyar Nemzet (4/12/98), Gabor Demszky slated the government for its opposition to the metro, deftly quoting figures as any politician worth his or her salt is wont to do. 25 billion forints have been agreed on for the millennium celebrations. In comparison, 4 billion a year spread over a period of 20 years appears as a mere trifle. The tone of moral disapproval of frivolities becomes even more apparent by the hint of menace in Demszky's claim that the citizens of Budapest will not forget who torpedoed their metro when they next go to the polling stations...

There can be no doubt that Orban's despotic way of handling the squabble has inflicted a major dent to the credibility of his party, and most probably to its popularity too. There has been dissent within the ranks, with Miklos Szalka putting forward an alternative route which would cost less, and renegades in the 11th district openly lending their support to the metro. In the meantime, Budapest Council has started court proceedings in an effort to obtain independent adjudication on whether or not the government is entitled to waive its contractual obligations unilaterally without facing legal penalties (the government, by scrapping the metro for the foreseeable future is also in direct contravention of a contract with the EIB).

In the meantime, vast amounts of money have been squandered on two ventures, the National Theatre and Line 4 for the sake of political posturing and delivering a rap over the knuckles to the disobedient ingratiates of Pest. Both could have cemented democracy further by encouraging co-operation and compromise across political faultlines in the interests of the country as a whole. Instead, we see the projects depicted as the hobbyhorses of rival political groupings. Orban has done his cause a disservice by pitting the capital against the provinces, treating it as a parasitic growth glutting on taxpayers' hard earned cash, a bottomless pit that compounds its wickedness by grabbing all the media attention to boot.

The Monopoly board for Budapest at the moment would certainly be blighted by the gaping wound at Erzsebet Square and the barge by Freedom bridge. To lapse into the parlance of the game for a moment, my message to Orban would be: do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars (not even if it were denominated in forints!).

[Curtain falls]

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 21 December 1998


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