A girl lights a candle, in memory of the trains collision victims, outside the train station of Larissa city, about 355 kilometres (222 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)
ATHENS – While Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, facing an upcoming re-election battle, already said the main reason for the head-on train collision in Greece that killed at least 57 people was because of “human error,” signs are showing it was tied to a chain of events including delays in safety measures.
It was the worst train crash in more than a decade in Europe on the worst railway system that for years has been neglected by a succession of governments despite receiving billions of euros in European Union aid to modernize a system so bad it’s been compared to India.
The Bloomberg financial news agency outlined some of the contributing factors that showed while the New Democracy government has already pointed the finger at the stationmaster who put the two trains on the same track that he was put in a position to fail.
The nation was grieving in the aftermath as funeral started and Mitsotakis delayed setting the date for elections and criticism as well over a supposedly independent investigating commission that was set up, one of the members quickly resigning because he was a former head of the rail system during whose time there were staff and service cuts.
Most of the fatalities were students heading from Athens to Thessaloniki, the disaster coming as annual carnival celebrations held for the first time in three years because of the Coronavirus pandemic had ended, putting so many people on the passenger train that slammed into a cargo train.
Many of the students, the report said, were in the doomed front of the train that was torn apart and set on fire, with temperatures as high as 2300 degrees incinerating anyone who was in the cars.
The tragedy brought protests and screams of “murderers” directed at the government and railway system that has four agencies, the Transport Minister quitting and the major opposition SYRIZA calling for the investigating commission to be disbanded, claiming it was biased.
The news agency said with elections required to be held by July – they were see coming as soon as April, 9, a week ahead of Easter before the crash – that the collision is “now set to play a critical role for voters.”
SYRIZA said Mitsotakis has already tried to deflect any criticism after New Democracy blamed the Leftists and former premier Alexis Tsipras for July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 103 people.
SYRIZA said by declaring it largely “human error,” that Mitsotakis and his government essentially want a scapegoat in the unnamed 59-year-old station master who had been on the job only a month and reportedly knew the trains were heading for each other.
“If that is the case, it was certainly a human error that the poor state of Greece’s railways made increasingly likely,” the news agency said, noting that Mitsotakis had acknowledged “chronic delays” in fixing the rail system but didn’t say why it continued under his administration.
DIDN’T SEE IT COMING
“The network has been running with Europe’s highest level of passenger risk for some time,” the report said, a Feb. 23 report from by Britain’s Office for Road and Rail, Greece’s railways posed the highest risk to passengers by a substantial margin between 2017-21.
Greek railways had the highest rates of risk to passengers by train kilometers traveled as well as the highest risk to employees and people traveling over level railway crossings, the report added.
While railway systems in other countries are far more advanced with trains and safety systems, Greece has for decades not invested in trains, preferring trucks to carry good and leaving passenger trains largely neglected.
“Greece’s railways nonetheless posed a greater risk to passenger safety than any country in Europe’s former Eastern Bloc too, its levels of whole country risk exceeding that of Slovenia and the Czech Republic by more than five times,” also said Bloomberg.
The low standards were said to be for a number of reasons even though the train operator, Hellenic Train, was sold in 2017 to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, no word on what they’ve done to modernize the system.
The report said the sell-off, part of austerity measures demanded by international bailout lenders, created “a fractured structure in which the rail infrastructure company, still in public hands, suffered from underfunding and neglect.”
It said that included “Greece’s railways remain without electronic signals or the train protection and warning systems standard elsewhere in Europe,” and delays in implementing the European Train Control System, which calculates safe maximum speeds for trains and overrides the driver if they’re exceeded.
The bureaucracy and inactivity in Greece that’s so common proved fatal in this case and in 2022 saw the head of a committee responsible for implementing the safety systems quitting in complaint.
That means – in the 21st Century – that automated systems often don’t work and the railways are largely run manually, a union leader telling Kathimerini that on the stretch where the collision happened that the signaling systems are inoperative.
The unions said that they had been protesting failures to fix the system and had warned in February there could be a tragedy but were ignored, almost a common factor in the country.
Vaibhav Puri, Director of Sector Strategy and Transformation at Britain’s Rail Safety and Security Board told the news agency that despite even those lapses and neglect that the trains could have been made safer.
“There are plenty of rail systems that are not at the high end of sophistication and work perfectly, as well as systems that do have that sophistication that can fail,” he said, noting that what’s critical is communication ensuring that data on accidents, risks and near-misses is collected, shared and reflected upon.
“It’s vital to look at all situations where things are not necessarily best practice, even if an incident doesn’t occur,” he said, which didn’t happen in Greece and as the investigation has already been impeded by criticism.
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