The wreckage of the trains lie next to the rail lines, after Tuesday's rail crash, the country's deadliest on record, in Tempe, about 376 kilometres (235 miles) north of Athens, near Larissa city, Greece, Friday, March 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
ATHENS – A safety warning system designed to keep trains from colliding wasn’t installed in Greece almost three years ago that would have alerted the drivers of two trains heading toward each other before they smashed head-on, killing dozens of people and dozens missing.
Citing “unjustifiable delays”, a senior official in the New Democracy government quit in 2022 to protest the inaction as the administration is pointing toward “human error” The New York Times said.
A stationmaster who admitted an error in having the trains on the same track was blamed although he said automated systems weren’t working, echoing the complaints of railway workers their warnings were also ignored.
The paper said that the cause of the slow upgrades to the safety system were not immediately clear, but union and safety officials and experts cited tight budgets, supply chain problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic, bureaucratic delays and contract disputes.
Without operational aid from systems often not working – and unfixed for years by a succession of governments – railway workers have to rely on manual methods, Greece having the worst rail safety record in the European Union.
The newspaper said there was, as often in Greece, a confluence of events that led to delays in installing the warning systems, and that not even simpler systems such as lights and signals working, according to union and safety officials.
That, the paper said, left train safety in the hands of people, the stationmaster arrested after the accident, the state failures leaving the Athens-Thessaloniki route open to every safety systems are designed to prevent: human error.
With an investigation unfolding at the same time the recovery crews are trying to remove burned and crushed remains from the crash that resulted in temperatures as high as 2,300 degrees, it’s still unclear how it all happened.
“But officials and experts agreed on one thing: If a modern safety system had been in place as planned, it would have been all but impossible for a freight train to end up on the same track as a crowded passenger train.
Warnings would have sounded, and automatic brakes would have kicked in. “Yes, certainly so,” said Josef Doppelbauer, the head of the European Union Agency for Railways, which has warned for years of significant inadequacies in Greece’s railway safety system, the paper said.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was just about to set the date for elections coming as soon as April, said it was human error but Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis went to the accident scene and then quit.
He said he inherited a system of failures that couldn’t be fixed and that he tried, without explaining what he had done or if he ran into obstacles although the train system in 2017 was sold to Italy’s Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato to run.
The Times said the crash revealed years of neglect and negligence by the state to modernize the railways, budget problems also blamed although the European Union provided $700 million, no accounting given how that was spent.
The EU has set a deadline of the end of 2029 for sophisticated new procedures known as the European Train Control System to be in place in its 27 member states.
Those monitors trains and takes control when they go too fast, blow through red lights or end up on the wrong tracks, the EU wanting to expand cross-border train traffic, Greece’s railways so bad they don’t leave the country.
“If the European Train Control System would have been installed and working properly, it should have absolutely prevented something like this from happening,” said Jedde Hollewijn, the railways policy officer for the European Transport Workers’ Federation.
“The intention is that all European countries implement this, and we know that Greece has been lagging significantly,” he said without adding why Greece has been allowed to drag its heels for years.
The country has never had a national automated safety system, EU records show and and the switch system in Larissa where the stationmaster was located had had parts missing from basic signaling equipment, said Nikolaos Tsikalakis, President of the staff union of the Greek national railroad organization.
Rail union officials have written angry letters to the Greek government for years, including in February, warning about safety problems and saying there would be a tragedy but said they were ignored, no indication whether they had alerted Karamanlis as well.
“We will not wait for the coming accident to see them cry crocodile tears,” the letter read. “What else are they waiting for to happen to intervene?”
“We have told every government about these issues, but we have not found open ears,” Tsikalakis said. “Thus, we came to this tragic accident. I don’t want tears and blood on the tracks.”
Rail safety officials in Europe said Greek authorities neglected the critical task of monitoring and updating safety procedures and equipment across the network to improve even its rudimentary safety system, they said.
The EU earmarked around $117 million specifically for safety upgrades on the Athens-to-Thessaloniki route, on which the trains crashed but it wasn’t explained where it went and why the fixes weren’t made.
Doppelbauer, said his safety organization had issued reports and called on member countries to do better but could not force national governments to make changes and that Greece’s government didn’t respond.
Two weeks before the crash, European officials took Greece to court over its refusal to make public the key contract spelling out how the railway will be managed as it modernizes, the government not giving an account.
At a news conference, Greek State Minister, Giorgos Gerapetritis, apologized to the families of the crash victims and promised an investigation, and said now the government would modernize the system, too late for the victims.
He said it would be done to “restore the safety of rail travel and boost a sense of security in the psychology of citizens,” even as rage built over the tragedy and fingers pointed at the government and the railway company.
KANSAS CITY, Mo — Missouri prosecutors said Tuesday that two men have been charged with murder in last week’s shooting that killed one person and injured 22 others after the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade.
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