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Society

Greece’s Railways Ran Unsafe Since 2000, Safety Measures Undone

ATHENS – The fatal head-on train collision in Greece, which claimed 57 lives, exposed decades of neglect and negligence in failing to implement automated safety systems, despite receiving €800 million ($857.61 million) in aid from the European Union. The tragedy triggered outrage, with protests erupting in Athens and Thessaloniki, where many of the victims were students returning to universities after a carnival celebration.

A report by EURACTIV detailed the apparent failures of successive governments, putting the responsibility for the tragedy at the feet of the New Democracy government just weeks before elections.

The site highlighted that delays, corrupt contracts, and a lack of accountability regarding the expenditure of funds intended to improve safety have exposed apparent EU failures in overseeing and inspecting the railway systems.

According to a document reviewed by the site, the European Commission has been urging Greek authorities to address two projects crucial to improving Greek railway safety, but they were never carried out.

An EU insider informed EURACTIV that a hearing is scheduled to investigate why the signaling and communication systems were not improved between 2000-2013, when the New Democracy and then-PASOK Socialists governed the country.

The projects were intended to include the installation of the European Train Control System (ETCS) from 2000-06 and the upgrade of train signaling and remote controls from 2007-13, according to the report.

Instead, some stations and lines in the country are left with manual switching and communication via walkie-talkie, despite the government’s claims of advancing Greece towards the high-technology era.

In a letter sent to New Democracy by the Commission in June 2021, the EU executive stated that two projects funded by the bloc had not been implemented, and demanded an explanation. The report also stated that an additional 18 million euros ($19.3 million) were at risk.

According to the site, the government has disagreed with proposed “financial corrections” and described them as “non-proportional” and “unjust” towards the government’s efforts to finalize the projects, given the amount of state funds invested. The site also reported that a new contract was signed in 2014 for the upgrade of the signaling system on Greek trains and remote control under another New Democracy government, with an expected completion date of 2016.

However, the situation became more complicated when the Radical Left SYRIZA took power in 2015, resulting in an entanglement over contracts that left the rail safety measures only 70% complete. A supplementary contract was prepared in 2018 while the Leftists were still in power, but New Democracy took over in the snap elections of July 2019 and the contract wasn’t signed until 2021, and it still hasn’t been implemented.

An anonymous EU source told the site that the deadline for completing the work is the end of 2023, which is too late for the victims. The government has promised it would be finished by then, but no details have been given.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) told the site that it has begun an investigation into “possible damages to the financial interests in the EU” involved.

Subsequent delays over contracts and bureaucracy, as well as differences about what safety measures were to be taken, have occurred. Greece’s government has asked to be exempted from some measures before withdrawing the request.

Sixteen days before the crash, the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced that he would visit a Railway Remote Control Center in northern Greece. However, according to the news site, such a center does not exist.

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