Anything new carries an aura of a promise and consequently an expectation. The not yet operational New Ikonion – Thriassion rail line does exactly that, as it unfolds from its origin in the heavily guarded Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT) facilities to the under construction Thriassion Freight and Intermodal Center. Scenarios about Cosco’s expansion that may generate employment in the area are futuristic and speculative. Unsubstantiated hopes have risen high amongst residents populating the areas that the rail crosses, expecting benefits for their communities, which will come, depending on their location, either from the development of Piraeus harbor and the PCT terminal, from Cosco or from the rail line itself.
The line, although not electrified yet, has been completed and runs from the busy Piraeus container terminals up to an ambitious freight centre that is currently under construction. The line goes underground as it leaves the port and it becomes visible again when it reaches Schisto avenue. From Schisto, the line moves to Thriassion.
Both a café owner at Neoktista (the Newly Builts), a small town near Aspropyrgos, and a topographer at Thriassion told us that they saw a container train on 6 March. We didn’t see any evidence of cargo when we visited the Thriassion site a day later. But we saw a diesel engine parked next to the new line, which we hadn’t seen in our first visit.
It is said that the Persian emperor Xerxes watched the battle of Salamis (480 BC) from one of the peaks of Mount Egaleo, which is included in the Municipality of Perama. Like Xerxes, the residents of New Ikonion, one of the three settlements of Perama, watch PCT’s operations every day down below.
Cosco’s motto ‘bridging the east with the west’ begins in the port of Piraeus. In Perama, the relation between Greece and China takes a new dimension.
The New Ikonion settlement, which unfolds north to the port on a small hill, and its unfinished structures – for example, the church of Saint Paraskevi has been under construction for about 20 years – is visible from the busy and newly constructed Piers II and III. Framed between new quay cranes and super post-panamax quay cranes, New Ikonion appears as an irregularity or a forgotten backdrop standing totally irrelevant to the working norms of PCT.
The lives of the residents of Ikonio seem to be affected by PCT and its daily operations. Stacks of containers, large quay cranes and tracks going in and out of the piers are the predominant view from this rather precarious settlement. The mechanical sounds coming from the piers contribute to the unavoidable presence of PCT in the area. Besides the common complaint that New Ikonion lost its view to the sea, most residents agree that Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) were there before they settled in the area in the 1970s.
They could have hired more people from this area we were told, ‘but they are not here to help us’. Most people of New Ikonion used to work at the ship repair docks to the west of Pier III. Since 2009, the shipyards lost more than 70% of their business leaving most of New Ikonion residents unemployed.
After a small but intense argument about the percentage of poverty in the area, the clients of a café agreed that about 80% of the New Ikonion population is below the poverty line and they are dependent on food distribution delivered at the courtyard of Saint Paraskevi.
Contrary to state and media ebullience for the Cosco investment in the Greek economy, few residents seem to be trapped in the wagon of progress, hoping for benefits for their community. Mostly though, poverty, unemployment, state and municipal indifference have crashed their hopes.
New Ikonion residents still speculate about the motives behind Cosco’s expansion of the ship-repair yards and development of the Thriassion Freight and Intermodal Center. They also wonder about social investments (parks, shopping centres, restaurants) in the land separating the PCT piers from the New Ikonion settlement, on which stand several abandoned and inactive petrol tanks.
The heavily guarded Cosco facilities and operations are clearly visible with a naked eye from New Ikonion. Pier II and Pier III, which is operable only on its eastern side for now, are working in near full capacity. PCT platform trucks moving containers from new quay cranes are running close to berthing places leaving the large middle area empty. There is no sign of anyone walking around the piers.
Pointing at trucks going in and out the PCT gate, a former worker at the shipyard, unemployed since 2009, maintains that the ship to truck business would be reduced dramatically when the transport of cargo via railway will be operable. ‘All these trucks’, he said, ‘will disappear one day soon’.
The ship to rail intermodal transport route seems to gain an increasing significance with European Union transport policy towards greener transport and the EU support for the further development of the ship to rail transport of cargo (currently standing at 20-25% of the overall volume of cargo transport in Europe.)
Leaving from OLP and PCT Piers the New Ikonio-Thriassion line goes underground. The tunnel runs under a soccer field and it becomes visible again as it reaches Schisto avenue. We were told that about one and a half kilometers into the tunnel there are two fully computerised control rooms, one opposite to the other. To accommodate traffic, the line branches inside the tunnel and becomes a single line again at Schisto. Unemployed since 2009, a local resident told us that he followed the line and walked into the tunnel looking for work. ‘If I see people working somewhere, I go and ask for work’, he said. ‘When I walked into the tunnel I hadn’t had any idea what kind of work the people going in the tunnel were doing. They told me they were installing control equipment for the train line’.
From Schisto, the line, clean and polished, runs its lonely route to Thriassion.
One can climb on the tracks in several spots from Schisto Avenue. Security is lacking and twice we encountered a horse which had entered the rail tracks. In most areas there is a light wire fence along the edges of the rail, possibly to prevent animals from getting on the tracks. But the line remains vulnerable in its journey.
The Newly Builts
Most Roma families in the Newly Builds (Neoktista) – about a 1000 people – used to be involved in the scrap metal ‘industry’ and scrap metal facilities exist along the New Ikonion-Threassion line. The scrap metal industry favors copper, found in electric cables, for its higher price in the scrap metal market. According to an OSE official, OSE suffers a great deal from stolen electric cables, metal pipelines and tracks, with the tracks being the less favorable item. Do the Roma or those who are involved in the scrap business present a real danger to the New Ikonion-Threassion line? Approached from auxiliary roads, individuals or organised groups can reach the line and damage it for reasons other than scrap collection.
Local youths have already interacted with the new infrastructures, with graffiti artists putting their tags on the walls of small tunnels on the route of the line. Anything can happen inside the tunnels.
In Triassion, new railway light signals welcome the arrival of the line. Here, as in most areas on the route of the line, it feels as though you are entering a huge set design for a Western movie.
Thriassion, a vast ambitious freight centre, currently exists in architectural drawings only. In 2013, OSE signed a contract with Aktor Alt-Alstom Consortium with an overall deadline for completion of the project in 2016. An Aktor electrical engineer told us in one of our visits that there is a modification on the plans of the original contract. The modification has to do with the realisation of the construction of infrastructures to facilitate freight’s logistical needs. Now, the consortium will construct fewer buildings, ‘primarily offices and public bathrooms’, the same source told us. The modification may also be related to arguments against the emphasis that has been placed by the responsible actors (the state and some state-owned companies) on developing infrastructures rather than attracting the cargo that will potentially move through them.
In Aspropyrgos and Thriassion there are plenty of vacant warehouses that could accommodate cargo if required.
If PCT can fire up expectations for development, construction of community facilities and jobs to New Ikonion residents, the brand New Ikonion-Thriassion train line does exactly the same. As it crosses the Attica landscape, the line carries the optimism of growth implied by the state and the media and the illusion of change, even when all it does is make itself visible as infrastructure without an economy. Forgotten settlements imagine themselves within this cartography of promised growth. If such growth does ever eventuate, it will carry along another aura: the aura of technological development that may affect the lives of the communities it transverses in ways different to what their residents currently imagine.
The train is coming, the train is coming!