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Politics

As Greece Mourns Train Tragedy Dead, Fatal State Failures Exposed

ATHENS – Even as recovery crews scoured the wreckage of a head-on train collision in Greece that killed at least 42 and dozens missing, decades of neglect of the train system that caused the tragedy were pointed out.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, about to set the date for elections, went to the scene in Tempi on the line from the capital to Thessaloniki where the train carrying 342 was headed and said an investigation would determine what happened.

Many of the dead were young people who were returning home and to school following Greece’s carnival celebrations and survivors and relatives were, said Reuters, still dazed and left in the dark about the tragedy.

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hours-after-deadly-train-crash-greece-agonises-over-what-went-wrong-2023-03-01/

The news agency said that questions were being asked whether the fatal collision of passenger and freight trains could have been prevented as the rail workers union cited negligence by successive governments in failing to maintain the system and said that warning systems didn’t work.

A stationmaster was arrested and reportedly admitted during the preliminary testimony that he made a mistake, attributing it to “bad timing” and later that it was a switching error caused by a system malfunction.

Firefighters collect bodies from the wreckage of a train after a collision in Tempe, about 376 kilometres (235 miles) north of Athens, near Larissa city, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

In 2017, as part of measures required by bailouts, Greece privatized the train service that had been described by users and critics as woeful, poorly maintained, trains frequently late, dirty and graffiti-covered.

Greece has the worst safety record in the 27-member union for train safety and every government has done little to improve it despite pledges, the accident leading Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis to step down and admit there were problems for years left unfixed.

Karamanlis said he had taken over infrastructure “not fit for the 21st Century” when he was appointed in 2019, and then said he would try to fix it. “These efforts were not enough,” he said without explaining why he didn’t do more.

Hellenic Train, a unit of Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato which acquired passenger and freight operations, said it was working with authorities on the investigation, the news report said.

NO LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL

Labor unions said the collision revealed what they had long warned was coming, some chronic deficiencies: lack of staff and resources, broken lights and a patchwork of modern and outdated facilities.

“It’s still very early but more than two factors are needed for an accident like this to happen,” Nikos Tsikalakis, head of the workers union’ at the Greek railway infrastructure operator OSE, in apparent reference to human error and a technical fault, the report added.

Flowers and candles lie in the memory of the victims of a deadly train crash outside a train station of Larissa city, north of Athens, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

Tsikalakis said that there were only about 750 workers on the railways, down from at least 2,100 people that were initially expected to be employed for the railway system to operate effectively under a state-approved plan.

Another unionist, Yiannis Ditsas, said only part of the signalling system from Athens to Thessaloniki was complete, with the rest handled manually. “We had reported it, have done for at least the past 25 years,” Ditsas told state TV.

Basic safety mechanisms that could have prevented the deadly train crash  were out of order, Vassilis Zavogiannis, who represents train workers on the board of the operating company said, reported Kathimerini.

“The fundamental problem on this particular line, between Athens and Thessaloniki, is that the remote-controlled operation and signaling systems – that is the basic safety measures that protect trains from accidents – do not work,” Zavogiannis said.

There were angry protests outside the offices of Hellenic Train that police had to disperse, the demonstrations continuing later outside the Parliament as anger surged across the country.

Workers supported by a crane try to remove debris from the rail lines after a collision in Tempe, about 376 kilometres (235 miles) north of Athens, near Larissa city, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

Mitsotakis said it was a “terrible train accident without precedent” in Greece, promising that the tragedy would be “fully” investigated, said Agence France-Presse (AFP)  and as he said his words wouldn’t be an empty promise.

https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230302-greece-seeks-answers-over-deadliest-train-tragedy-as-toll-rises

“Everything shows that the drama was, sadly, mainly due to a tragic human error,” Mitsotakis said, taking no responsibility nor mentioning workers warnings about systemic problems for years.

Train unionists have said the safety shortcomings of the Athens-Thessaloniki railway line had been known for years. Nikos Savva, a medical student from Cyprus, told AFP that the disaster was only a matter of time.

“The rail network looked problematic, with worn down, badly paid staff,” he said. And for years, rail workers had said the same but said nobody had listened.

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