Budapest’s metro disaster: Russian metro cars and the saga of the M3 line

Budapest is in the midst of sweltering summer weather and during my stay in the Hungarian capital over the past ten days, I have experienced first-hand tram and metro cars that have interior temperatures topping 35 degrees Celsius. (The M2 and M4 metro lines are air conditioned and the 4-6 tram line is hit or miss, so if you are about to visit Budapest, try to take the two aforementioned metro lines whenever possible.) But I was fortunate enough not to be one of hundreds of Hungarians in Friday morning rush hour who got stuck aboard the malfunctioning Russian-built metro car on the M3 line, where furious passengers were held captive for close to 15 minutes, because the doors would not open. We are talking about the recently refurbished Metrovangonmash metro cars, which HFP’s readers were introduced to earlier on. 

On Friday morning, the refurbished, but ill-fated Russian metro cars were travelling on the M3 line, when one of these cars, heading towards Újpest, broke down at Nyugati pályaudvar, near the city centre. The car stood in the station for 12 minutes, with doors closed, as passengers wondered what was going on. The metro driver used the PA system to apologise to the passengers on 6 different occasions, but it was not possible to open the doors, not even with the emergency lever that would be essential in the case that the train has to be evacuated. As it turned out, the emergency lever was non-functional. In the end, the metro cars had to back-out of the station, into the tunnel, in order to enter the station again, thus potentially allowing the doors to open automatically.

According to an Index journalist, the passengers aboard the refurbished train, which is supposed to serve the city for some thirty more years, began lambasting Fidesz, the party that governs both the country, as well as the City of Budapest.

“Don’t worry kids, soon they will start releasing the gas,” said one passenger, in an apparent reference to World War II concentration camps. “We sure have football stadiums, yet they can’t fix the metro,” said another, in reference to the Orbán government’s unwarranted and absurd stadium-building mania and obsession with soccer. Some people heaped scorn on Lőrinc Mészáros, the Fidesz village mayor and plumber, who managed to rather inexplicably become a billionaire since Viktor Orbán, a resident of Mayor Mészáros’ village, was elected prime minister.

In the end, two stronger men managed to force open the doors, releasing the captive passengers.

Budapest has since decided to place all of the shiny, brand new Metrovagonmash metro cars out of service. The most recent incident is part of a series of deficiencies. The metro doors get jammed on a regular basis and in some cases, the automated PA system is known to announce that the metro is out of order and not carrying any passengers when it is in fact packed with travellers.

The refurbished metro car at the Pöttyös utca station on the M3 line. Photo: Máté Kemény.

Budapest Mayor István Tarlós, of the Fidesz party, called all of this “normal growing pains” this past spring. Since then, union officials have told journalists that the new metro cars are dysfunctional at almost every level. The train’s tracking system does not seem to know where it is on the line, the communication system on board the cars is faulty and the newly refurbished cars are less efficient than the ones that they are supposed to replace.

Both Fidesz and the opposition recognize that the M3 metro line is a human tragedy waiting to happen. The rickety old Metrovagonmash cars and a tunnel in desperate need of renovation means that the oldest section of the M3 metro line (namely the segment between Kőbánya-Kispest and Deák Ferenc tér in the city centre) is life threatening, with previous instances of cars catching fire in the tunnel.

Fidesz has governed both Budapest and the national government for the past seven years, yet the much needed renovation of the M3 line and the replacement or refurbishment of the Metrovagonmash cars has been delayed year after year. This has resulted in a conflict between Mayor Tarlós and the Fidesz national government, but the mayor–known to bully his municipal opposition–seems to get weak-kneed when it comes to advocating for Budapest residents within his own party.

Earlier in June, Mayor Tarlós announced that the Orbán government would not provide any new funding for the desperately needed renovation of the M3 line. The Orbán government did agree to provide 137,5 billion forints in support to the city for the metro project–an amount that falls far short of the total price tag. Mayor Tarlós must now dip deep into the city’s line of credit to complete this project. He told journalists that the first phase of the renovation will proceed this September, “come hell or high water,” adding this was an issue of good conscience. Budapest’s deficit is now expected to increase by 100 billion forints.

I spoke with Csaba Horváth, the leader of the Hungarian Socialist Party in Budapest, at an event on Saturday. Mr. Horváth noted the city’s plan to start with the reconstruction of the north-end (the Újpest segment) of the metro line is nonsensical, as this is the newest part of the line, whereas the south-end, near Kőbánya-Kispest, is the oldest and in dire need of repair. Earlier Mr. Horváth also noted that if Budapest must use credit to complete the M3 line renovation, the city will have no funds left for any other development.

Mayor Tarlós has been unable to advocate for his city within Fidesz. And now, the capital faces a daunting predicament: the trumpeted, refurbished metro cars are not reliable enough to replace the dated, rickety old Metrovagonmash cars and the city has no funding to properly complete the renovation project. Meanwhile, more than 626,000 passengers travel each day on the 16.5 km M3 metro line, which was first opened to residents in 1976 and then expanded in 1984 and 1990.

Fidesz is playing with fire when it comes to the M3 line. The controversial decision to refurbish old metro cars in Russia has proven deeply problematic. And the lack of proper financing of the renovations, as well as delays, means that the governing party is playing with human lives.

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