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A Year After Deadly Train Crash, Are Greece ‘s Railways Safe Yet?

February 28, 2024

ATHENS – On the one-year grim anniversary of a head-on train crash just outside a tunnel in central Greece, which killed 57 people, promises made in the immediate aftermath to add long-delayed safety measures haven’t been met.

“Trains will resume operations with safety at the maximum possible level,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said weeks after the crash, and that an investigation would hold those accountable responsible.

Neither has happened. Crash experts and railway officials told Reuters that little has been done to improve train safety despite evidence that electronic systems weren’t in place and there was improper training for station masters.

The main train station is closed during a strike in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. A nationwide 24-hour strike by public and some private sector workers is expected to disrupt public transport and leave ferries tied up in port. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas)

And the probe has been kept secret, with lawmakers from the ruling New Democracy who are the majority in a parliamentary committee barring disclosure of discussions or any findings, leading some rivals to walk out.

Remote train control and communication systems, mandatory under European Union law, are still not functioning, officials told Reuters. Railway staff numbers at the main rail operator have fallen and training has lagged.

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/year-after-greeces-worst-train-disaster-railway-safety-fears-persist-2024-02-28/

A lack of reform to Greece’s fragmented railway management has slowed progress, they said, several different agencies having overlapping responsibilities and only a handful of officials facing prosecution.

An aerial view of the wagons and other parts recovered from a train wreck, near Larissa city, central Greece, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Greece’s deadliest rail disaster killed 57 people when a passenger train slammed into an oncoming cargo train. The tragedy shocked the country, with many of the victims being university students. (AP Photo)

Families of some victims want immunity for lawmakers and ministers stripped and answers about what made the trains crash, and there are worries that despite vows to fix the railways that they still aren’t safe.

“We haven’t learned our lesson and haven’t acted,” said Costas Lakafossis, an accident investigator commissioned by victims’ relatives. “Unfortunately, the railway is not in a better state.”

The Greek transport ministry told Reuters it is implementing a comprehensive plan to revamp the railway and that progress has been made despite extensive damage caused by flooding in September.

Panagiotis Terezakis, head of Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE) which operates the rail network, says it is safe. The OSE had installed 300 infrared cameras in tunnels and had made progress on the installation of safety systems.

He acknowledged, though, that more needs to be done.

An aerial view of the wagons and other parts recovered from a train wreck, near Larissa city, central Greece, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Greece’s deadliest rail disaster killed 57 people when a passenger train slammed into an oncoming cargo train. The tragedy shocked the country, with many of the victims being university students. (AP Photo)

OSE has 640 employees, according to unions, fewer than 2023 and half the number in 2013. It plans to hire 90 people next month and up to 500 soon, Terezakis said, adding that the OSE employs 0.4 workers per kilometer of rail, nearly half the EU average.

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“This is a railway system which for the past 15 years has been in decline. You cannot resurrect it within a year,” he told Reuters, adding that red tape remained a big hurdle. “I have a degree in engineering. I am not God.”

On February 28, 2023, a passenger train packed with students collided head-on with a freight train just before midnight on a line linking Athens with Greece’s second city Thessaloniki. Many were students returning to university in Thessaloniki at the end of Greece’s carnival period.

The crash, the country’s deadliest in history, triggered protests across Greece, where it was seen as the result of a wider neglect of public services following a decade-long financial crisis, said the news agency.

The secret investigation, seen by Reuters, found that the crash might have been averted if two key systems had been in place: ETCS, which can remotely control a train’s speed and its brakes; and GSM-R, a wireless network allowing communication between station masters, train drivers and traffic controllers.

An aerial view of the wagons and other parts recovered from a train wreck, near Larissa city, central Greece, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Greece’s deadliest rail disaster killed 57 people when a passenger train slammed into an oncoming cargo train. The tragedy shocked the country, with many of the victims being university students. (AP Photo)

GSM-R is still not activated on all trains, two OSE officials told Reuters.

The ETCS has been installed across rail tracks, after a nine-year delay, but is not operational as it has not been added to trains pending certification, four OSE workers and officials told Reuters. An EU prosecutor has charged 18 Greek public officials over multiple, illegal extensions to the project.

Flooding later damaged telecom systems across a 90-kilometer (56-mile) section on the same Athens-Thessaloniki route. The cost to restore it is estimated at 450 million euros by the government.

“The situation remains largely the same, unfortunately,” said Nikolaos Tsikalakis, head of the workers union at OSE.

The EU Agency for Railways completed a safety assessment last year, whose draft findings were seen by Reuters. It said EU regulations were not implemented correctly in Greece, while underfunding and a complex system of overlapping agencies had slowed change.

“There appears to be no entity in Greece taking on overall responsibility to ensure railway safety,” the draft said.

Maria Karistianou, who lost her 20-year-old daughter in the disaster, says politicians must assume responsibility for a crash caused also by systemic deficiencies and 800,000 people signed a petition to end immunity for officials.

That would include then transport minister Kostas Karamanlis, who is close to Mitsotakis and from an influential Greek family, who resigned but wasn’t investigated over delays in installing safety measures and then was put on New Democracy’s ticket for Parliament and elected.

“The state is still playing with our pain, our grieving and undermines the entire society,” Karistianou told Reuters and survivors of the inferno that incinerated many victims said they are suffering post-traumatic stress and haunting nightmares, according to five lawsuits against the state, seen by Reuters.

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