ATHENS – While a stationmaster who admitted making an error in putting two trains on the same track that led to a head-on collision killing 57, evidence is emerging safety measures weren’t in place to prevent it happening.
The former Transport Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, quit almost immediately but said he had inherited a broken system he tried to fix, pointing to previous governments for lapses.
The rail workers union said the New Democracy government ignored its warnings about failures to implement safety measures that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – who first blamed the tragedy largely on “human error” – said would have made the crash impossible, even in the hands of terrorists.
What has come out, said Reuters in a report, is a chain of neglect that left the safety of 350 people on board a passenger train that crashed into a cargo train in the hands of a 59-year-old worker at the station for four days.
The news agency noted Greek rail workers issued a statement complaining about another minor accident on the network earlier this year and warning a more serious incident was all but inevitable without urgent improvements to safety systems.
“We won’t wait for the accident which is about to happen to see everyone shed crocodile tears … safety should be on the front line,” wrote the rail workers’ union but the Greek train company dismissed it out of hand and Karamanlis told opposition parties he would “ensure safety” on the railroads, but didn’t.
Investigators are looking into what happened but a three-member panel the government set up – without asking for opposition input – stopped in its tracks when one quit in a conflict of interest because he had been head of the train company earlier and cut staff.
The station master, identified by some Greek media as Vassilis Samaras although his name was not supposed to be revealed under privacy laws, has taken blame “proportionate to him,” said his lawyer, adding that others are responsible too.
Some rail workers and industry sources who spoke to Reuters pointed to remote surveillance and signalling systems, which control train traffic and guide drivers, saying they had not been functioning properly for years.
The Larissa station where Samaras worked alone, relying on a walkie-talkie to talk to trains drivers, had a signal system that tracked trains for about only 5 kilometers (3.11 miles) said government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou.
That meant station masters had to communicate with each other and drivers by radio to cover gaps and signals were operated manually, increasing the chance for “human error” that Mitsotakis first pointed to as the cause.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
But the unions said there’s been years of neglect, lack of investments and too little staff that got worse during a 2010-18 economic and austerity crisis when Greece had to rely on three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($347.8 billion) to prevent collapse.
The terms included privatizing state enterprises and the train lines were sold in 2017 to Italy’s Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, which left the management in the hands of Greece, no word on what it did to try to modernize the system.
“That section has been a black hole,” said a railway source close to the matter who wasn’t identified, referring to the stretch of track near Larissa.
That’s why station masters, in line with European railway regulations, have had to contact each other, once a train enters or leaves a station,” the source told Reuters, no word whether the Transport Ministry was doing about it.
With elections coming by July – and which were due to be set as soon as April 9 but an announcement pushed back – Mitsotakis backtracked on “human error” as the cause and apologized to the families of victims, promising an investigation and that the lines would now be fixed and made safer.
The management of state-owned Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE), which is responsible for managing and maintaining the rail infrastructure, resigned after the crash but wouldn’t answer questions from Reuters.
Oikonomou said the crash took place at a section where remote surveillance and signalling systems had not yet been set up but that they are working on 70 percent of the line elsewhere.
OSE did have remote surveillance in place from 2007 until 2010 at the section where the accident happened, Yiannis Kollatos, a former station master with the company who set up and operated the technology in Larissa, told the news site.
After that the system began getting worse, the report said, pointing to cuts in staff and funding that led to faulty maintenance of equipment, the railway source said, no word how 270 million euros ($288.05 million) in European Union aid went.
Panagiotis Terezakis, a management consultant to OSE, told the news agency that, “After 2011 this system started gradually to collapse. It was not maintained, to the point where the telecommanding system collapsed almost in its entirety,.”
He and the government said cable theft along the network was common with no report why it wasn’t guarded or pr otected. “If part of the system is cut and I don’t have the staff to fix it the next parts of the system start tripping as well,” Terezakis said of the problem.
OSE was broken up in 2010 under the terms of Greece’s first bailout and in 2014 a revamp of the remote traffic control and signalling system was due to be completed in 2016 but wasn’t.
BLAME PASSED AROUND
It still hasn’t on some parts of the 2,500-kilometer (1553 mile) long railway line system that has the worst safety record in the EU and been compared to the dire strait of trains such as those in India.
OSE’s construction manager, ERGOSE, signed a 43 million euro ($45.87 million) deal with engineering company Alstom Transport and Greek Tomi in 2014 to restore remote surveillance and signalling for some sections of the Athens-Thessaloniki route where the train was running that fateful night.
Alstom said it was fully cooperating with the Greek authorities and its customers to “assist with its technical expertise in the analysis of the recorded data on the sections of the line already equipped,” the report added.
Terezakis said that the remote control system now covered about 55 percent of the railway network, with the rest seen getting the equipment by September with Mitsotakis promising a swift fix after the tragedy.
ERGOSE has also been in charge of installing a European Train Control System (ETCS) on rail tracks and on the trains which is designed to prevent collisions with emergency braking, in use in France, Germany and Belgium.
The company has delivered the trackside equipment for part of the Athens-Thessaloniki route but the remote control and signalling system must be fully operational in each section before it can work, added the report.
But there are human problems too, it said, with rail workers long complaining about understaffing and being neglected. “There are currently 133 station masters, while there should have been 411,” said another OSE official.
Weeks before the accident, OSE had sought to hire 73 temporary station masters for six months starting April, according to a company document.
Hours before the tragedy another service on the same track was delayed, after high-voltage cables hit the train as it pulled into a station, immobilizing the train and requiring passengers to be taken the rest of the way to Thessaloniki by bus.
Greece’s Regulatory Authority for Railways – one of four rail companies involved and said to have little real authority – said it has launched a probe to examine if safety systems were in line with national and European regulations.
Its last safety report though is more than three years old and at that time said that theft of cable and financial problems had led to the destruction of unguarded signaling equipment along all main railway corridors.
Faced with rage and facing a likely fallout before the elections, the New Democracy government is trying to contain the damage even as funerals for the dead, many incinerated by a fire in the accident, had begun.
“Ιt’s not one or two causes. It has to do with chronic ills and weaknesses of the Greek public administration,” said Oikonomou, not adding what the current government had done to fix it.