Bulgaria: Sofia has a Sexy Metro

The communist regime of Bulgaria started thinking about a Metro network for Sofia in the mid-1960s. This was not so much about fighting a traffic chaos, since there was none, but about making the “working people” move, and about being able to show off a “big achievement of the socialist fatherland”.

As early as 1978, twenty years before the first passenger would actually be transported, the construction started in the Liyulin quarter, near Nezavisimost Square. Workers started digging, in order to create “Vardar” and “Lyulin”, the first two Metro stations for line 1.

When the National Palace of Culture was constructed in the centre of Sofia in 1980, with the “voluntary” help of student brigades, the communist planners thought ahead. They included parts of the technical infrastructure, which would be needed for Metro line no. 2, decades down the road. And they already had a third line in the back of their heads.

Clean. cleaner, Sofia Metro stations. Photo by Imanuel Marcus.

At some point after the collapse of communism, when Bulgaria was not part of the European Union yet, there was a funding issue, to say the least. This aspect slowed down the construction substantially. At the same time, traffic in the Bulgarian capital got worse and worse, because everyone would purchase old Toyotas and Volkswagens in Western Europe, and use them on the streets of Sofia.

Along with the traffic situation, the air quality deteriorated. Now a Metro for Sofia was not just a nice project anymore, but it was badly needed.

The big dream came true twenty years ago today, on January 28, 1998. The first trains transported passengers between the stations “Slivnitsa” and “Konstantin Velichkov”. Since that day, the impressive number of 2 billion passengers has been transported by Sofia Metro.

One of Sofia's older Metro trains. Photo by Imanuel Marcus.

Especially at the beginning, the Metro was hip. In fact, it was so sexy that one of the most popular Bulgarian bands at the time, Grupa TE, used it for its video for the tune “Има ли цветя?” (“Are there Flowers?”). Sofia residents loved the Metro, but few used it, because it could take them from A to B only, while they lived in C and worked in D.

Of course the Metro network would have to grow, in order to make it attractive and useful for many. Today, it has two lines with 35 stations and a total track length of 40 kilometres. A third line is being built right now. It will supposedly be operational in 2019.

When Metro line 2 was being built, a heated discussion about archaeological finds slowed down the construction. That is a normal occurrence in Sofia, which was built on truckloads of ancient stones and walls. In 2012, the main part of the second line was ready to rumble. More and more stops were added to line 1 as well. Today, the Business Park in Mladost 4 and even Sofia Airport are included in the network.

The trains themselves are Russian products. They race back and forth on lines 1 and 2, with maximum speeds of 90kph.

Today, Sofia Metro is still the fastest, greenest and most modern part of Sofia’s public transportation system. It is also very elegant. While New York City’s “Subway” is loud and ancient, the Metro in Sofia is quiet and fast. Many “U-Bahn” stations in Berlin are old, grey and ugly, and they smell like urine and vomit. Sofia’s Metro stations do not smell at all and they are quite elegant.

In 1998, during its first year of operation, Sofia Metro transported 10,000 passengers a day. In the year 2000, that number had skyrocketed to 70,000. Today, 350,000 people enter Sofia’s sleek Metro trains every single day. That number will rise by at least a third once line no. 3 is in operation.

Sofia’s Metro is more important than ever, also because the air in the capital is terrible, which is still an understatement. Especially during the winter, the Particulate Matter concentration explodes. In early 2018, it hit values 28 times higher than level which the World Healthy Organization (WHO) deems sort of healthy.

So far, Sofia Municipality has taken only few halfhearted steps which are supposed to improve the air. New buses were purchased, a "Green Ticket" for commuters was offered once, and the Mayor herself, Yordanka Fandakova, has asked residents to refrain from driving "if possible", and to use electric heaters instead of solid fuels for heating.

Now Sofia is looking for someone who will get the following elegant job title: Director of the Climate, Energy and Air Directorate. This sounds a whole lot better than “Person to Blame for Terrible Air”.

Without Sofia Metro, both the traffic and the air in Sofia would be even worse.


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