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Politics

Rage Against the Government: Mitsotakis Sorry, Says Will Fix Railways

ATHENS – With screams of “murderers” at protests and police clashing with them at demonstrations over a head-on train crash that killed at least 57 people, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after an apology his government will now modernize a railway system left to neglect for decades.

His mea culpa statement didn’t dissuade the angry from taking to the streets in fury after he waited five days to apologize, with skirmishes outside the Parliament even as he said he would now act with elections on the horizon.

“We cannot, will not, and must not hide behind human error,” following the crash, he said after he initially said that was mainly the reason, critics and political rivals saying he was pointing the blame at a station master who admitted having a passenger train and cargo train on the same track on the Athens-Thessaloniki line.

https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/05/europe/greek-prime-minister-apologizes-intl/index.html

There were more than 350 people on board the passenger train, many of them young and students returning to Thessaloniki after the end of an annual carnival celebration held for the first time in three years after being shut down by the Coronavirus pandemic.

As evidence mounted that successive governments – including his own – had let the country’s railway system that was already the worst and deadliest in Europe, further decay he turned away from blaming human error.

But a three-member panel set up to investigate added to the political dilemma when one of the appointees stepped down because of a conflict of interest as he had been head of the rail system and during his tenure the staff was cut.

The collision set off rage over safety standards on the Greek railway network but the response to protests by police was aggressive, firing tear gas and reports of assaulting some demonstrators, some carrying signs, said CNN.

“This crime should not be covered up, we will be the voice of all the dead,” read one of the slogans, with the rail workers union saying their warnings of an impending tragedy were ignored and the head of a railway safety panel quitting in disgust in 2022 over what he said were “unjustifiable delays.”

WHAT TOOK SO LONG?

Mitsotakis said it should not be possible for two trains moving in opposite directions “to be on the same track and not be noticed by anyone,” as more reports emerged that signaling and automated systems weren’t working for years and weren’t fixed.

That was despite Greece getting some 270 million euros ($287.35 million) to make the railways safer, no report where the money went, and as budget problems were also blamed for the problems.

Greece sold off the state-run system in 2017 Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane,

“As prime minister, I owe everyone, but above all to the relatives of the victims, a big sorry. Both personally, and in the name of all those who ruled the country for years,” Mitsotakis said.

Without explaining why his government also did little or nothing to fix the railways after taking power in July, 2019, he said he would now and that it would move to “immediately improve the safety of the railways.”

His former Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis – who said he inherited a broken rail system and tried to fix it – quit but pressure is building on the government with Mitsotakis’ rivals blaming his administration for the catastrophe.

Mitsotakis was also slammed for waiting to apologize, his statement coming as funerals were underway and people were seething, the government backpedaling in the face of ferocious criticism.

He said that if a safety project had been completed – delayed for three years without an explanation why – that,” If the telemanagement project had been completed, it would have been practically impossible for this fatal accident to occur. The fact that the Digital Control System will be fully operational within the next few months is no excuse. It makes my pain even greater that we did not have time to complete it before the misfortune occurred.”

He said there would also be a thorough investigation although the major opposition SYRIZA said he was already moving to deflect blame and official neglect in first calling the tragedy human error and setting up a panel that didn’t include other political party representatives.

RIDING THE RAILS

“Now we have a duty to stand by the families of the victims, acknowledging with courage the mistakes of the state,” he said, reported the state-run Athens-Macedonia News Agency AMNA.

“But this is also not enough. I will immediately ask the European Commission and friendly nations for their assistance in providing know-how, so that we finally have modern trains. I will fight so that we get additional Community funding in order to carry out the maintenance and quickly upgrade the existing network,” he added.

He said he now will propose to all the parties to make a commitment that a Special Committee will be set up by the next Parliament that will investigate all that has happened in the Greek railways in the last 20 years, which would include looking at governments other than his own.

“We all know that the railroads of the country are deeply problematic. They are perhaps the extreme expression of a Greece that does become us and which we want to leave behind. I know that many people will remember the phrase of one of my predecessors that ‘this is Greece’. But no, it is not only that. There is another Greece out there that gives us hope, faith and strength,” Mitsotakis said.

He lauded the rescue and recovery crews who had to pick through pieces and ashes of the remains in a crash so devastating that relatives had to give DNA to try to identify what was left of people, many incinerated in a fire that reached 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, twice that of used in cremation.

“We also saw the face of this better Greece in the passengers who risked their lives to save their fellow passengers. In the Greek women and men that rushed together to give blood and in the young people that protested silently and peacefully, carrying candle s…and with a slogan whose truth hurts us all,” he said.

“Personally, I am in politics to change this ‘bad country,’,this old Greece that hurts us. This is my effort every day. Sometimes I succeed and other times I do not. I know well, however, how much better we can make our country if we sweep away the remnants of the past that hold us back. This is the Greece we deserve and for which I will continue to fight,” he said.

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