ATHENS – It’s too late for the 57 deceased and their grieving families and friends, but a head-on train collision on the railway connecting the Greek capital to Thessaloniki has prompted the government – which had delayed safety measures – to announce that they will finally be implemented.
This will occur alongside an investigation into the sequence of events that led to the disaster, which claimed the lives of numerous college students returning to Greece’s second-largest city. There is widespread anger over reported negligence on the part of successive governments, with much of the ire being directed towards the train company and the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Elections that were expected to take place just before Easter have now been postponed.
After initially blaming “human error” and an inexperienced stationmaster admitting to making a mistake by allowing a passenger train carrying 350 people to travel on the same track as a cargo train, Mitsotakis apologized for the tragedy. The new Transport Minister, Giorgos Gerapetritis – who replaced Kostas Karamanlis, who immediately resigned after the Tempe accident – has now stated that the railways will finally be made safe after years of neglect.
“We will greatly enhance the level of safety,” he declared at a press conference, which is an uncommon occurrence in Greece as leaders and ministers tend to opt for issuing tweets and statements to evade questioning.
He acknowledged that infrastructure issues had played a role in the collision, and The New York Times reported that he conceded that until the accident, the railway system had been “chronically obsolete.” However, he did not clarify why it had not been addressed earlier.
According to him, contracts that were signed by successive governments over the past decade with the objective of installing an electronic signaling and remote surveillance system remained unfinished, and only 70% of the work had been completed.
“If we had a fully operational remote management system in place across the country, this tragedy most likely would not have occurred,” he said, without elaborating on why the current government had not addressed the issue in the four years since coming to power.
Train services have been suspended since the collision, with rail workers staging rolling strikes and protests throughout the country. He stated that the work to repair the tracks would be completed by the end of the year, after trains had resumed operations.
As Greece has the poorest rail safety record in the European Union, the country has enlisted the help of transportation experts from other countries to provide guidance on running its railroads and finally meeting bloc safety regulations that had previously not been adhered to.
Gerapetritis stated that measures would be taken to resume travel, possibly by the end of March when tourist season begins, but only if “absolute” safety could be ensured. He did not explain how this would be possible if it would take until the end of the year to ensure safety.
Amidst reports in Greek media that two experienced stationmasters had departed their positions prematurely and left them in the hands of Vassilis Samaras, who was subsequently arrested, he announced that henceforth, there would be two stationmasters stationed at every stop.
He further stated that there would be fewer trains in operation – it was not specified whether this would lead to some reduction in service, particularly with the summer tourism season on the horizon and Thessaloniki being marketed as a destination.
Furthermore, he stated that more personnel would be employed. This followed a letter from rail worker unions in February that warned of an impending catastrophe due to insufficient staffing, including only one-third of the required stationmasters.
Gerapetritis also expressed regret for the inability to prevent the tragedy. “I am in shock,” he stated. “I understand the collective pain that this catastrophe has inflicted upon society,” he continued, adding that the outrage sparked by the crash was “completely justified.”
This was in reference to the protests, including one outside Parliament that drew roughly 40,000 people – the largest demonstration since the country’s bailout and austerity crisis.
Protesters held signs in the streets, demonstrating that their outrage over the crash had not waned. “We will never forget the crime!” “Our lives matter!” and “Let anger lead to overthrow now!” Similar demonstrations occurred in other major cities, including Thessaloniki and Larissa, the city in central Greece closest to the site of the collision.
An agreement signed in 2014 for the automatic operation and signaling of the railway network is currently under investigation by the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to determine where the funds, totaling at least 270 million euros ($286 million), were allocated.
The newspaper reported that, two weeks before the crash, the European Commission had already commenced an inquiry into Greece’s failure to comply with EU regulations regarding rail transport, although it is unclear whether any findings were made.
However, even if an electronic signaling and surveillance system had been completed, Gerapetritis stated that it would have needed to be supplemented by another system that included emergency braking and other features, referring to the European Train Control System that was not in place.
Government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou stated that Mitsotakis would request further EU funding to modernize the railways, although he did not clarify how previous funds had been utilized.
Following the appointment of a three-member panel to investigate the incident, one panel member resigned due to a conflict of interest; he had previously served as the head of the rail system and implemented staff reductions during his tenure.
They were appointed without input from Greece’s opposing parties, who voiced complaints, prompting Mitsotakis to establish a cross-party committee of experts last week to investigate the causes of the tragedy.
According to the paper, the Supreme Court’s prosecutor, Isidoros Doyiakos, is also investigating the accident as well as the system-wide flaws of the Greek rail system and the delays in implementing a technological infrastructure upgrade.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, a group of European Parliament lawmakers was dispatched to Greece to examine media freedom and the rule of law. They claimed that the high court prosecutor is vulnerable to political interference.