Lisbon commuters struggle as austerity strain tells on public transport

Passengers prepare to board a ferry
Passengers prepare to board a ferry Copyright Pedro C. Garcia
By Pedro C. Garcia
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Years of belt-tightening have put pressure on infrastructure.


On a December morning, after realising that the ferry connecting Seixal, a city on the southern bank of the river Tagus, to Lisbon was going to be delayed again passengers share glances of resignation but decide to board nevertheless.

Anabela Vicente was one of the first onto the boat, ignoring the warnings about overcrowding. As more and more passengers clambered aboard, it became clear that the craft would not be able to depart for safety reasons.

“I stayed inside for more than one hour” waiting for it to leave, Vicente recalled. “The invasion was just a cry of outrage from people fed up of the permanent undermining of services”, she adds.

She gets daily reminders of commuters’ fury as co-founder of a popular Facebook group of more than one thousand members, where hundreds share their daily stories of delays, poor maintenance and breaks with schedule on the part of public ferry operator Transtejo. A Transtejo spokeswoman confirmed Euronews a “mutiny-like boarding” in December, adding that “currently there are no constraints and every line is in normal operation”.

The challenges faced by those trying to cross the river are repeated across the capital. Buses, trams and metro services are also targets of commuters' rage, as rising numbers of tourists and limited capacity prompt delays, long queues and overcrowding.

Cecília Sales, a member of the Lisbon Transport Users Committee, tells Euronews about a malfunction on a metro train:

“A door was defective and did not close”, she recalls. The alarm was triggered - but the train proceeded to the next station, a few kilometers away, where it was taken away for maintenance.

Cuts during the crisis that hit the Iberian country after a 78 billion euro bailout from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission forced authorities to put off much-needed investments. Now the country is profiting from a tourist and investment boom that has helped its economy to grow around 6% in the last four years, according to Portugal’s statistics bureau INE.

Some of that windfall should find its way into the public transport system, but travelers worry about when, and whether it will be enough.

Led by the Socialist party - with parliamentary support from Left Bloc and the Communist parties – the government pledged to invest 3.4 billion euros by 2030 in an overhaul of public transport in Portuguese cities, earmarking 1 billion euros for the capital.

But some aspects of the network are in danger of not being able to last that long. The train line that links the village of Cascais to Lisbon relies on rolling stock built with components that date back to pre-war times.

One testament to the lack of investment is the graffiti that masks almost all the infrastructure on the line as a shortage of workers in maintenance roles mean aesthetics and cleanliness need to give way to safety priorities.

Meanwhile, part of Transtejo’s ferry fleet has been crippled by problems linked to the long worklife of several vessels - some of them in service since 1980 - forcing the public company to dock them frequently for maintenance. The public operator juggles with available boats every day, canceling some connections to make others possible. The number of complaints is, meanwhile, an indicator of user dissatisfaction, skyrocketing from 433 in 2014 to 2047 in 2018, according to data sent by Transtejo to Euronews.

Last year, the government announced it would acquire 10 new ferries to patch up the fleet, pledging to open an international public tender in the first months of 2019 worth 57 million euros. According to data sent by the Portuguese Environment Ministry to Euronews, the first of the new ferries is due for delivery at the beginning of 2021 at the latest, while the remaining must be handed over by the tender winner by 2024.

Meanwhile, a 127 million euro-investment for Metropolitano de Lisboa will only fully bear fruit in 2025, the year when all of the 14 new trains ordered will be in place on Lisbon’s subterranean tracks.

A bright spot lies in the bus and tram system. Lisbon’s city hall, which owns bus and tram operator Carris, announced the acquisition of 365 buses and 30 trams by 2022 to respond to growing demand, in what will be a 109 million euro investment. Metropolitano de Lisboa pledged to hire 30 workers before May, mainly to make up for shortfalls in the workforce caused by unreplaced retirements during the years of austerity.

The ferry and metro services - funded directly from the government - “will continue to deploy every effort to maintain the quality of service in public transport, ensuring as well the availability of circulating stock through scheduled maintenance works,” according to an Environment Ministry spokesman.

“Many announcements were made concerning the millions of euros to be invested in public transportation…. but they are clearly insufficient to tackle the problems, and they are late in coming,” warns Sales from the Transport Users Committee.


“Lisbon has an aging transport network, in growing decay, without a fitting and wide-ranging strategy for the city,” she concludes.

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