“The only thing I can say is good luck”: How trains abolished by Switzerland are now back in business in Greece

Original image by Mathew Black | Modified under Creative Commons license

Twenty years ago, the Swiss press dubbed the ETR 470 train — serving the Milan-Switzerland route — ‘Pannenzug’, meaning ‘breakdown train’. Meanwhile, the website that documented its problems was named CessoAlpino, meaning (in elegant translation) ‘Alpine toilet’. Two former officials familiar with this train, who were contacted by Investigate Europe and Reporters United, find it hard to believe that the five remaining ETR 470s not sent to the scrapyard are now being touted as the future of the Athens-Thessaloniki rail link — the most important route in the Mediterranean country.

“The advice from Switzerland: hands off these trains,” says Walter Finkbohner, former secretary of the board of directors of Cisalpino AG, the subsidiary of Italian and Swiss railways that bought the ETR 470s from the manufacturer, Fiat Ferroviaria in the 1990s. “Buy proven trains or new trains. There is nothing for free in life,” he adds. But Greece is not in a position to accept such recommendations, nor to choose which rolling stock circulates on its tracks, since its railways were fully privatised five years ago, as required by its creditors. The Italian state company Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (FSI) bought 100% of TRAINOSE, the Greek rail operator, for a mere €45 million. The privatisation contract remains secret, but people familiar with its terms, such as the current vice-minister for infrastructure and transport, Giorgos Karayannis, dub it “colonial”. This is unusually strong language from a member of a conservative government. The Greek transport ministry has agreed to subsidise the Italian company to the tune of €50 million a year to run certain routes, as outlined in a Public Service Obligations (PSO) contract.

Secret contracts

However, this contract also remains secret, despite Freedom of Information requests submitted by opposition MPs. Thus, passengers in Greece can only complain about subsidised routes being scrapped or neglected, without being able to prove a breach of contract. Meanwhile, PSO contracts between railway companies and most other EU governments, including between Ferrovie dello Stato and the government of Italy, are public. The Greek government promises more transparency and better oversight from now on. Last but not least, TRAINOSE has secured, until 2024, an exception from the EU Passengers Rights regulation that obliges railway companies to compensate passengers for mishaps. In practice, TRAINOSE does sometimes offer compensation for delays and cancellations but these payouts are voluntary and the sums are determined by the company. 

TRAINOSE and its parent company are hitting back against criticism by drumming up the imminent launch of the “new trains that will improve comfort, safety and speed at the Athens-Thessaloniki line”. 

“When network infrastructure upgrades are complete with the implementation of the ETCS (European Train Control System) traffic management system in 2022/2023, a maximum speed of 200km/h will be possible, covering the distance between Athens and Thessaloniki in less than 3.5 hours,” says Ferrovie dello Stato spokesman Carlo Valentino. The ETR 470 is indeed a fast train, faster than the meagre 160 km/h that the Greek network can support in its current state. Speed, however, is not the only characteristic that counts in the purchase of a used car, much less in the procurement of five used trains.  

Tilting troubles 

The key feature of the ETR 470 is its tilting mechanism, which has given it the name “Pendolino”, meaning small pendulum. When entering curves, the train is lifted by a hydraulic system on the outside and “sinks” on the inside, gaining an 8-degree inclination, which allows it to reach higher speeds. Tilting was seen as the future of railways 30 years ago, and today, some tilting trains are still in operation in Europe.

Some experts argue that the reason tilting technology hasn’t caught on was that these trains were too complex and thus not robust enough. Alstom, which absorbed Fiat Ferroviaria, manufacturer of the ETR 470, has retained the popular “Pendolino” name, but now many new models bearing that name do not have a tilting mechanism. 

“The ETR 470s were not bad trains. What did not go well was the poor maintenance in Italy (Milano), despite high costs. The maintenance of ETR 470s is more than demanding. I doubt if it can be guaranteed far away from Savigliano [Alstom’s headquarters near Turin],” says Finkbohner. “Your research is very important, better to prevent than cure afterwards. After all, these trains are now of a respectable age,” he adds. 

Alstom Greece has upgraded the train depot of Menemeni, in Thessaloniki, in order to provide for the maintenance of the ETR 470s. The upbeat announcements about this “new railway era” for Greece are in sharp contrast to yet another warning from Switzerland. The Swiss Railways (SBB) couldn’t fix the ETR 470’s issues even after increasing funding and taking full control of their maintenance. The former head of SBB, Benedikt Weibel, told Investigate Europe: “At one point, 50% of the complaints we received were about the [ETR 470] Pendolino, while it served 1% of rail traffic.” Weibel’s successor at the helm of SBB, Andreas Meyer, was even blunter. “We’d better get this horror over with,” he was quoted as saying in 2011. 

Fires, breakdowns, cancellations

The ETR 470 is the train that led the Swiss railway unions to require, on a permanent basis, two specially trained staff, in addition to the driver, on trains entering tunnels longer than 1,000 metres. This was the conclusion drawn from the incident on 11 April 2006, when a Pendolino ETR 470 travelling south from Stuttgart caught fire inside the Zimmerberg tunnel. The passengers were evacuated with the help of a second railway employee who happened to be travelling on that train. That year saw the end of the ETR 470’s short career in Germany, where it was initially received with great enthusiasm as it saved almost one hour on the Milan-Stuttgart route. According to the website hochgeschwindigkeitszuge.com, it was withdrawn from service in Germany because the tilting system repeatedly malfunctioned at a certain point on the route.  

Another fire broke out on an ETR 470 in May 2011, only five minutes before entering the 15 km-long Gotthard tunnel. In 2012, an ETR 470 caught fire in the Zurich Central Station. In the same year, a carriage turned into a “shaker”, wobbling its passengers for 10 minutes at Lucerne Central Station due to an extremely rare malfunction of the tilting system.

“The ETR 470s must be immediately replaced by other rolling stock,” said a joint resolution of the Swiss train drivers’ and railway employees’ associations in May 2011. “Since their entry into service in 1993, the ETR 470s have continually experienced the same technical problems, which cannot be resolved. They constantly cause enormous difficulties for traffic and damage the image of the railways. They often fail to keep to timetables, stop mid-journey or break down completely. All this puts staff under great pressure, exacerbated by constant and justified complaints from passengers.”   

Finally, in 2014, when Swiss Railways sent its own four ETR 470s to the Kaiseraugst train dismantling yard, saving one first-class carriage for the railway museum, Trenitalia rerouted its own five on the gentler Rome-Reggio Calabria route. There, as on the Swiss line, the ETR -470s were complementary to other, more advanced trains. There is no data on how many of the five were fit to run at the same time. When asked by Investigate Europe, Ferrovie dello Stato spokesman Carlo Valentino replied that everything went well: “After the initial period of adjustment to new engineering systems, the performance of the trains has always been very good, with absolute maintainability and reliability compared to the rest of the train fleet,” he said. 

But in fact, the ETR 470s differ from the rest of Trenitalia’s fleet because they were never fitted with modern fire protection systems. By 2005, past incidents had convinced Italian authorities to toughen fire protection regulations and to require high-pressure water mist systems on the ceiling of every wagon entering tunnels longer than 500 metres (UNI 11565 standard, revised in 2016). The regulation was immediately applicable to all new trains, while trains already in service had to either be modernised or withdrawn before spring 2020 (due to the pandemic, the deadline was slightly postponed). Instead of upgrading the ETR 470s to make them fit for tunnels, FSI sent them to Greece.

On the Athens-Thessaloniki route, there are several tunnels over 500 metres long, while four (the Kallidromon, Othrys, Tempi and Platamonas tunnels) are over 2.5 km long. Was the advanced active fire-fighting system included in the overhaul of the ETR 470s after they left service in Italy and before they arrived in Greece? Investigate Europe requested the list of works from Alstom Greece, which did not reply, directing questions to TRAINOSE, which didn’t provide the list either.  

Press reports indicate that the answer is no. The trains were reportedly adapted to the Greek 25kv power supply network and fitted with the ETCS traffic management system, new passenger information screens and WiFi. Ferrovie dello Stato states that “ETR 470s have a fire protection system and there are fire extinguishers on the trains. The UNI11565 standard is Italian legislation. The ETR 470s comply with Greek legislation”. 

They most certainly should comply, otherwise, they will not be licensed by the Greek railway regulator, RAS. (In spring 2021, TRAINOSE was met with a firm no by RAS after applying to licence the ETR 470s without fitting them with adhesion-improving sand-dispersion devices, as required by Greek national rules.) But, on fire safety, RAS told Investigate Europe that in Greece, there is no national rule requiring high-pressure, water mist active fire-fighting systems for wagons entering tunnels, like there is in Italy. 

Neglected network

There is more. Turin Polytechnic transport engineering professor and author of studies on tilting trains, Bruno Dalla Chiara, explained to IE that these trains require excellent track maintenance, otherwise they interpret the uneven height of the rails as entering a curve, activating the tilting mechanism, even though the train is travelling on a straight line. Also, their big asset — their capacity for swift acceleration, increases the risk of losing traction. “Good track maintenance is a prerequisite. If you send a tilting train on a line that is not well maintained, you’re going to have a problem,” Dala Chiara pointed out to Investigate Europe. But in Greece, large creditor-mandated cutbacks have left the new OSE (network operator), with 800 employees, a ratio of workers to kilometres of rail lines that is less than half the European average. The former state monopoly, OSE, employed around 12,500 people.

Today, the new OSE (network) and TRAINOSE (train operations and train maintenance) employ around 2,000 people in total. Many older workers retired without a chance to share hard acquired know-how with a younger generation of railway personnel. This workforce struggles to meet the most basic needs, as was painfully obvious during the January 24 cold snap when, for the first time in living memory, two intercity trains were stuck in the snow for multiple hours, in the main and most modern line of the country, between Athens and Thessaloniki. On this point too, Ferrovie dello Stato sees a non-issue for the deployment of the ETR 470: “As far as railway infrastructure is concerned, there are no particular limitations,” said spokesman Carlo Valentino.

Finkbohner, the former secretary of the board of Directors of Cisalpino, points out that there are examples of trains similar to the ETR 470 that work very well, such as the CPA4000 in Portugal, which connects Lisbon and Porto at speeds of up to 220 km/h. Portuguese train drivers told Investigate Europe that they enjoy the ability to enter curves without slowing down, while Comboios de Portugal (CP, the Portuguese Railways) said they were satisfied with the performance of these trains. “In 2003, we switched to an RCM II maintenance methodology, similar to that used in nuclear power plants and aviation, increasing the availability of these trains by 20% and their reliability by 50%,” says CP spokeswoman Ana Portela.

The CPA4000s, assembled in Portugal and sourcing components from different contractors than the ETR 470s, run on a flat line along the Atlantic coast, one without tight bends and steep gradients. Between Lisbon and Porto, there is no trace of a hill, unlike the steep mountains found between Athens and Thessaloniki, where the terrain is more akin to the Italian-Swiss Alps than to the Portuguese coastal plain. 

So how have the ETR 470s fared so far in the test runs on the Athens-Thessaloniki line? Could it be that, in order to simplify maintenance and prevent potential issues, TRAINOSE will deactivate the tilting mechanism, reducing train speed, as the Polish railways have done with their own Pendolinos? Then why all the fuss about “fast trains”? 

“On the Pendolino,” says Weibel, the former head of Swiss Railways, “the only thing I can say is good luck.”

With contribution from Paulo Pena, Maria Maggiore, Ingeborg Eliassen and Lorenzo Buzzoni. Editing by Sindhuri Nandhakumar and Nikolas Leontopoulos (Reporters United).