THESSALONIKI, Greece (Reuters) - Once an unpopular travel option, Greece's slow and creaky trains are winning new fans for the first time in decades as Greeks struggling with soaring fuel prices and high road taxes leave their beloved cars at home.
The rail network remains patchy in a country of thousands of islands, skipping many towns altogether and beset by strikes. But it remains a cheaper alternative to car travel for Greeks facing the country's worst economic crisis since World War II.
Rail traffic between Greece's two biggest cities - Athens and Thessaloniki - surged by 33 percent in the first 11 months of 2012, even if the night train plying that route is jokingly called "Karvouniaris" (coal-fired) to suggest it is slow and noisy enough to be a steam engine from a bygone era.
"Life as we knew it has changed. There's no money for luxuries like a car when you don't even know if you'll be able to pay your rent for the month," said Vanesa Varveri, a 55-year-old accountant from Athens who began using the train to visit her parents near the port city of Patras when she lost her job.
Tax hikes as part of austerity measures to keep Greece afloat have pushed up fuel prices to about 1.7 euros per liter in December, making them one of the highest in Europe.
"We just can't afford it (a car)," Vassilis Davoras, a teacher in the northern city of Veria, said as he sipped coffee in the pastel-blue carriage of the fast train from Thessaloniki to Athens - a six-hour train ride over 500 km that takes about 4.5 hours by car.
Davoras, who travels 30 km to the nearest station, makes the trip to Athens a dozen times a year and used to spend about 200 euros on filling up his car tank and paying tolls each time. A train ride in comparison costs him only 60 euros on average.
As Greece slumped deeper into crisis this year, traffic on the Athens-Thessaloniki route surged after falling over the 2009-10 and 2010-11 periods, according to Trainose, the heavily indebted state monopoly which runs the network.
Owned by Railway Organization of Greece (OSE), Trainose operates 500 routes on 2,500 km of railways slowed down by narrow tunnels and hundreds of kilometers of one-way tracks. It is due for privatization next year.
Last December, the ailing company swung to a profit for the first time. In the first two months of 2012 - the latest earnings data available - it made a profit of nearly 142,000 euros, compared to a loss of 12.6 million euros a year earlier.
The company is trying to modernize the rail network and Greeks predict the newfound appeal of trains is likely to continue as long as the country's economic troubles last.
"It's cheap and that's the only thing that matters these days," said 65-year-old pensioner Yanna Papamichael as she recalled a trip to central Greece for Easter in April that took twice as long via a train and then a bus compared to a car.
(Additional reporting and writing by Karolina Tagaris)