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Letter from Athens: Greece’s Unsafe Railways System: Asleep at the Wheel

Little did the riders on Greece’s filthy, graffiti-covered frequently late antiquated trains know they were putting their lives in someone else’s dirty hands and part of a game of chicken with oncoming traffic, until the inevitable tragedy.

For 12 minutes late on the night of Feb. 28, a passenger train carrying 342 people from Athens to Thessaloniki, many of them young, including college students returning home or to school after celebrating the annual carnival for the first time since the coronavirus broke out, had no idea what was coming.

It was a cargo train on the same tracks, a stationmaster later admitting it was an error that he said was caused by systems failing to work on a railway system in the 21st Century that’s more like in the 19th Century.

The miserable condition of Greek trains is an open secret in the country and every government, including the now-ruling New Democracy, said they would be fixed and brought into the modern age – but they never are.

So, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote the tragedy down to primarily “human error” but he didn’t mention some of the humans in his administration, although Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned almost immediately.

The trains under the state-run TRAINOSE were so bad that they were privatized in 2017 under a requirement that was part of international bailouts, sold to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, which was supposed to modernize them.

Karamanlis, pointing the finger at the previous ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, said that, “we received the Greek railway in a state that does not befit the 21st Century. In these 3 ½ years, we have made every effort to improve this reality. Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough to prevent such an accident.”

What efforts? We need to know because according to the rail workers union, warnings about poor maintenance and systems not operating were ignored. In this 21st Century, isn’t there a central computerized computer monitoring stations anywhere that shows where all the trains are all the time?

If not, that’s human error – and while the station master will be served up like a sacrificial lamb before Easter, and the elections have been roiled by the tragedy, the government must find out what happened.

This goes beyond one guy switching trains onto the wrong tracks, extending to criminal negligence for years. And if nobody now is to blame for this disaster, then neither was former premier Alexis Tsipras for the 2019 Mati wildfires that killed 103 people.

Karamanlis said, “when something so tragic happens, it is impossible to continue and pretend like it didn’t happen,” he told reporters, saying he quit as “a mark of respect toward the memory of the people who died so unfairly.”

But he also quit, he said, as an assumption of responsibility “for the Greek state’s and Greek political system’s mistakes over the course of history,” a sad comment indeed because it revealed just how little any government cared about an essential network that has the worst safety and fatality record in the 27-member European Union.

The price for negligence and neglect was paid by those on the train who were pulverized or incinerated or crushed like cars in a junk yard press, not even pieces to find, or maybe some ashes.

It could have been even worse. The train had just come out a tunnel and if the head-on collision happened inside it the death toll would likely have been far higher because the temperature hit 2,700 degrees when fires broke out, and flames and smoke would have filled the tunnel and made escape and rescue impossible.

Citing an unnamed railway official, The New York Times said that the trains don’t have special breaking systems to prevent accidents and that electronic monitoring and warning systems along the track didn’t always work.

That was, it was alleged, because of unexplained budget problems – and due to the fact that the system wasn’t fully operational, which is human error of a different kind, at a far higher level than a stationmaster operating manually.

Job One for any Transport Minister should have been the trains because everyone of them knew they weren’t working and didn’t care. They had plenty of time to fix the problems, but didn’t.
Yiannis Ditsas, head of the Greek rail workers’ union, told Greek TV the trains never knew they were heading toward a crash because the state’s railway system didn’t have warning capabilities working.

Kostas Genidounias, President of the association of Greek train drivers, told state broadcaster ERT, “nothing works. Everything is done manually,” he said, adding that neither signals nor the traffic control system worked.

“If they had been working, the drivers would have seen the red light and the trains would have stopped 500 meters away from each other,” he added, noting that he and colleagues had frequently reported malfunctioning systems recently. “We are constantly complaining about it,” he said.

“Preventive maintenance has been a problematic issue for years now,” Spyros Pateras, President of the Hellenic Railways Organization, the body that oversees rail infrastructure in Greece, told a transport conference last year.

Visiting the scene, Mitsotakis said that, “I can guarantee one thing: We will find out the causes of this tragedy and we will do all that’s in our power so that something like this never happens again.” He’d better – or this will be his Mati and sad legacy.

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