Tube dream in Vilnius

LONDON - For years they’ve been saying it will never happen. For years it’s been dismissed as little more than a pipe dream, a flight of fancy, a mere hypothesis, and yet maybe the dream is inching ever closer to becoming reality. And then again, maybe it’s not.

And that’s how it’s been for decades. I am of course talking about the Vilnius Metro, or rather the metro Vilnius does not have - the Vilnius Metro that is perhaps most conspicuous by its absence.

Despite a government proposal for a metro system for Vilnius being supported by an overwhelming 84% of Lithuanian parliamentarians when it was presented in 2013, the project has finally been axed.

But why? It largely boils down to cash, or the lack thereof, and a fear of creating a “white elephant.” As former Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas stated last year: “If Vilnius were a rich Saudi city, money wouldn’t matter” - thus implying that Vilnius would have a metro if it could afford it.

It would seem that although a wind of change is blowing through Vilnius, it’s not strong enough to blow away the Soviet mentality that still prevails in many aspects of political thinking.

The Soviet prerequisite for a metro system needs a city to have a population of at least a million inhabitants - or at least a million potential users. Sadly, Vilnius falls somewhat short of this “magic million”, and although including the population of the surrounding suburbs and daily visitors bumps the figure up to around 900,000, it’s still not enough.

Under the Soviet ethos, size really does matter. That’s why Minsk has a metro system and Vilnius does not.

Yet some may believe that this criticism of Soviet mentality is unfair. It should be pointed out that Lithuania was under Soviet rule in the 1960s/70s when the idea for a metro in Vilnius was first mooted.

The Soviet authorities undertook detailed studies and various designs were considered, however nothing got off the ground. It seems even the Soviets liked the idea of a metro, but didn’t want to pay for it.

Fast-forward 50 years and little has changed, except that the population of Vilnius has more than doubled, and is now just under 550,000. Who knows what the figure will be in 2050?

It’s clear that something has to change. Vilnius’s transport network relies heavily on diesel buses and to some extent on its fleet of ageing trolleybuses. It’s hard to decide whether they should be loved or hated. Certainly they are cheap, reliable and have something of a quaint, dilapidated charm that harks back to a bygone era, but are they shabby-chic or just shabby shabby?

Is shabby-anything an image that Vilnius needs? Often bedecked with cheap frills, the older trolleys resemble giant rusty sardine tins or mobile tarts’ boudoirs that groan and whine as they judder their way around the city, crawling round corners like snails as passengers sit in the Formica-backed seats, which are about as comfortable and supportive as a half-folded ironing board.

So what does Vilnius need? The answer is obvious – a metro system! Perhaps Vilnius should look to other cities with populations of under a million which are served by thriving metro systems?

There are quite a few: Stockholm, Helsinki, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Rennes, Toulouse, Lausanne, Charleroi, Nuremburg, Catania, Turin, Brescia, Genoa, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Oslo, Lisbon, Porto, Bilbao, Granada, Palma, Malaga, Valencia, Glasgow, Prague, Yerevan and Tbilisi.

Despite the existence of several cities that are shining examples of effective transport planning, strangely, Vilnius has looked to London for example - which has quite possibly the worst transport system of all!

It seems as though the days of the Vilnius trolleybus may be numbered, although this is something about which the Vilnius city municipality and transport network, VVT, is decidedly coy.

Routes seem to have been scaled back and there has been mention of a new fleet of… wait for it… bendy buses! Oh my flipping God, NO! Please, Vilnius, DON’T DO IT! Learn a lesson from London’s mistakes!

When former mayor Ken Livingstone brought the accordion-esque bendy buses in, they soon became loathed by Londoners, quickly garnering a reputation for being unsafe mobile hotbeds of crime.

When Boris Johnson came to office, he flogged them all off to other cities and brought in a modern eco version of London’s famous “routemaster” bus. Happy days - or would have been; however, the ecological hybrid battery technology doesn’t work properly, which means that many have been left running completely on diesel.

The BBC recently reported that the battery bus project has beenan expensive, embarrassing failure.

London’s Oxford Street is now one of the most polluted streets in the world. It is an artery clogged with lanes of gasping buses and gasping pedestrians choking on diesel fumes.

Eight million people, over 700 bus routes AND a metro system, and we still can’t cope! It’s not a pleasant place to be. A few hours in central London leaves traces of dirt on the face and encrusted in the nostrils.

Many of the bus lanes are too narrow for buses to pass through, which only result in more congestion.

Vilnius is keeping an eye on nearby Kaunas, where a trial of battery buses recently began; however, it is hard to understand how such expensive technology will be viable, both in terms of cost and practicality, particularly during the icy grip of long Lithuanian winters.

Interestingly, Kaunas recently bought a fleet of cheap second-hand diesel bendy buses from the Netherlands. The buses were bright red, just like the ones London have got rid of.

Perhaps Vilnius should look to Leeds where, as part of a multi-million pound development, they are actually bringing back trolleybuses after a 40-year absence.

If anything, Vilnius should be getting more new trolleybuses as part of their “sustainable transport plan”. The newer models provide a smooth, comfortable ride and have served the city well.

Let’s hope the “live wires” at Vilnius Municipality make the right decisions. If they don’t, they must be off their trolley!

As for the metro, it seems that it remains a twinkle in the eye of the idealistic and a hope in the heart of many. One day, we’ll get there.

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