Russia’s Metrovagonmash and the Budapest metro refurbishment — A curious arrangement

The Budapest metro’s M3 (blue) line is undergoing a much needed upgrade. Budapest’s longest underground line (there are three other lines, all much shorter) spans 17 km, includes 20 stations and construction dates back to 1970. The line was opened in 1976 and the rolling stock to this day is comprised of the Soviet-built Metrovagonmash 81-717/81-714 type metro cars. The cars were once very prominent throughout the Easter Bloc, and are still in service in Budapest, Moscow, Prague, Sofia and Tbilisi.

Soviet-built metro cars currently in use on the M3 line in Budapest. This photo shows the section of the line between Határ út and Kőbánya, which runs above ground.

Soviet-built metro cars currently in use on the M3 line in Budapest. This photo shows the section of the line between Határ út and Kőbánya stations, which runs above ground.

The Metrovagonmash metro cars were replaced with new Alstom cars on the M2 (red) line, but they still service the city’s longest route. Both the metro cars and the tunnels, as well as the tracks, are in dismal shape. A 2014 report into the state of the metro line was classified by the municipal government and it is widely believed that the information included in it paints an alarming picture. The metro cars have regularly broken down, caught fire and stations have had to be evacuated, when blinding smoke from the tunnel enveloped the platforms on several occasions.

In July 2014, the Budapest Transportation Corporation (BKV Zrt.) observed that the M3 metro line would become “life threatening” within two years, if the cars were not upgraded or replaced, and if the infrastructure was not renovated. At the time, Budapest Mayor István Tarlós suggested that the line would have to be closed, if the national government did not agree to the upgrade. With a fatal metro accident in Moscow in 2014, killing 24 passengers, concerns about the safety of Budapest’s M3 only increased.

In 2015, the municipal government put the replacement or refurbishment of the M3 metro cars out to tender. The lowest bid came from an Estonian company called Skinest Rail, while Alstom, Škoda Transportation, CAF and Metrovagonmas also submitted competing bids. Skinest Rail’s bid would have made sense, as it would have refurbished the existing cars on the M3 line for approximately US $33 million less than Metrovagonmas. (Skinest offered to refurbish 222 metro cars for 72 billion forints, compared to the 81 billion offered by Metrowagonmas.)

When Mr. Tarlós was asked for his rationale for not choosing the lower bidder, the mayor said: “I don’t care if it’s the devil himself who builds [the subway cars], we can’t keep wasting time.”

The upgraded Russian-built Metrowagonmash metro car that will replace the ones currently running in Budapest, on the M3 line.

The upgraded Russian-built Metrowagonmash metro car that will replace the ones currently running in Budapest, on the M3 line.

The Metrovagonmash deal raises a number of questions. First, not only is the agreement  9 billion forints more expensive than the Estonian firm’s offer, but it also exceeds the estimated price tag produced by BKV Zrt., which stood at just under 63 billion forints. Additionally, the refurbished Russian trains will lack something that Budapest passengers came to appreciate on the new Alston metro cars running on M2 and M4, namely: air conditioning.

Second, the cost of replacing the metro cars outright, rather than simply refurbishing ones that are already 40 years old, would have cost only marginally more than the Metrovagonmash deal. A full replacement would also have made sense in that the city could have purchased the cars from Alstom, thus having roughly identical rolling stock on lines M2, M3 and M4. This would have reduced on-going maintenance costs. The full replacement would have provided metro cars that Budapest could use for the next 30 years. Instead, the only marginally cheaper Russian option of refurbished cars will run for just 20 years, before they have to be replaced.

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the deal was brought to light just a few days ago by a civic group of public transportation enthusiasts and specialists, called Metróért Egyesület (Association for the Metro). The group examined photographs of the old metro and the allegedly refurbished models at the Metrovagonmash plant, and determined that the two are not the same cars. In other words: Metrovagonmash agreed to refurbish existing cars that once served passengers in Budapest. Instead, Budapest will be getting metro cars that may have sat in storage in Russia for unknown reasons, but are now being passed off as the “refurbished” cars from Budapest.

The fact that no photographs were produced of the refurbishing process seems to bolster the suggestion by Metróért Egyesület.

So, in the end, Budapest’s municipal government, in consultation with the national Orbán government, decided to go with a higher bidder, to refurbish 40 year old trains at a cost that was only marginally less than buying new trains outright. Then, it would appear, that Budapest isn’t actually getting refurbished trains after all, but something “off the shelve” (possibly leftovers?) from the Metrovagonmash factory.

The waters are quite murky. Earlier, it was suggested that awarding the M3 metro upgrade to the Russians was essentially a done deal, already in 2014, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down for an in-person meeting. Reportedly, the two leaders had discussed the Russian involvement in the expansion of the Paks atomic plant in southern Hungary at the same time that they agreed to award the Russians with the M3 project.

Budapest last purchased new metro cars from France’s Alstom, for the M2 and M4 lines. At the time, the city paid 65 billion forints for 170 brand new, top-of-the-line, air conditioned metro cars. That, it would appear, was perhaps a much better deal for the Hungarian capital, than the murky arrangement of the present day.

4 Comments

  1. Charlie London says:

    It’s obvious why the Russian company was chosen.

    Orban had promised Putin this contract as ‘colateral’ for the PAKsII deal.

    But as a tender for new rolling stock it would have had to go through EU-rules tendering to other EU members. (Even if the process is rigged there too – as so many others have been.)

    Orban and Lazar must be laughing all the way to their Swiss bank accounts after coming up with this clever ploy with Putin.

    If the original trains are of Russian origin (which they undoubtedly are with the dour, drab, communist film-era look) then they can only be refurbished by old communist equipped factories that still have the jigs.

    Pity the poor passengers as the trains trundle out of Budapest to the Hungarian environs underground – in the 38C heat, the mosquitoes, and ‘Soviet’ suspension – with no air conditioning.

    It’s ironic that the first trains supplied to London Underground were trains built by Rába in Gyor, Hungary. They lasted forever! Rába are still going and need the business.

    These Russian cast off trains will: fool the EU; please Putin; and line the pockets of Orban and Fidesz.

    The train for Orban’s Choo Choo in Felcsút is refurbished 1960’s stock!

    So it’s back to the future – or deja vu all over again!

    • Charlie London says:

      On the face of it, and set against the PAKsII deal (from the information that has been made public – it’s a State secret not to be divulged for 30 years) this ‘refurbishment’ is financially miniscule compared with the nuclear contract.

      Minutely minute financially.

      By it is an enormous coup for Putin.

      It convinces him he is a member of the human race (he isn’t) with influence within the EU (he hasn’t).

      It is the perfidious sanction-busting – and betrayal of a neighbour by Orban (the Ukraine) – that is the real prize for Putin.

      And a National betrayal by Orban, whose own train manufacturing industry (Rába) desperately needs the business.

      It’s the jackpot for Putin – facilitated by Orban – that Putin relishes.

      A tiny train contract – but a massive psychological global victory.

      Orban? You traitor.

  2. A third factor – higher reliability and identical make/type allows for fewer stand by or “reserve” cars. E.g. by reducing the required 222 refurbished cars by just 8-12 would enable the purchase of new AC.ed ones.

    Maybe some day the proof of the crime will emerge, but the gross mismanagement is clear already. Another day in Orban’s Mafia state.

  3. Pingback: Reviving Hungary’s bus manufacturing industry — Confusion, chaos and concerns of corruption

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