Stationmaster Arrested After Greek Train Crash, Questions Linger

LARISSA – “We have to ask why? How could this tragedy happen?

That’s what Sotiris Raftopoulos, the President of the Panhellenic Association of Retired Railway Workers wondered in the aftermath of a head-on train collision on the Athens-Thessaloniki that killed at least 42.

It was the same question on the lips of people around the country even as Health Minister Thanos Plevris said it was not the time to ask it, but to deal with the tragedy that came as the date for elections was about to be set.

It was a scene of unspeakable horror on the tracks about 235 miles north of the Greek capital as the train was heading toward the country’s second-largest city and ran smack into a cargo train that was allowed on the same line.

Debris lie next to the trains after a collision in Tempe, about 376 kilometres (235 miles) north of Athens, near Larissa city, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

Almost immediately, the blame was put by authorities on a 59-year-old stationmaster with little experience in the job who admitted he made a mistake and arrested, rail workers said warning systems weren’t working.

The tragedy, said the British newspaper The Guardian, also revealed an open secret in Greece that no government dealt with after promising they would, the wretched state of a rail system that in 2017 was privatized and sold to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato, no word what it did to make improvements.


Announcing his resignation after visiting the site of the crash, Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis said the network was so flawed it did “not befit the 21st century,” but didn’t explain why he didn’t fix it.

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

But also, he said, as an assumption of responsibility “for the Greek state’s and Greek political system’s mistakes over the course of history,” although Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – about to set the date for elections coming in weeks – blamed it largely on human error and not government failures.

Workers stand on the rail lines after a collision in Tempe, about 376 kilometres (235 miles) north of Athens, near Larissa city, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)


He said there would be an independent investigation to determine the cause and underlying contributing problems but didn’t say how long that would take with the elections coming, unless they are delayed.

He called the accident “a horrific rail accident without precedent in our country,” the worst on the railroads in decades despite their woeful state that workers said had been neglected.

“There is one thing only that I can guarantee: we will learn the cause of the tragedy and we will do whatever passes through our hands for something like this to never happen again,” he said.

Mitsotakis vowed that “responsibilities will be assigned.” An independent cross-party committee of experts would, he pledged, immediately start looking into the causes of the crash.

“I met with relatives of the victims and the missing at the Larissa hospital. In their unspeakable pain, with great dignity, they asked me ‘why’,” he said. “It will also examine the longstanding delays in implementing railway projects.”

Flowers and candles lie in the memory of the victims of a deadly train crash outside a train station of Larissa city, north of Athens, Greece, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

Earlier in February, one union warned trouble was on the way and said that,  “Like all the previous government, today’s has other priorities and it is not the safe transport of citizens,” blaming his administration for doing nothing.

Nikos Tsikalakis, who heads the Association of Rail Workers and works as a pointsman, told the newspaper that the system was not only chronically understaffed but outdated.

“The state has voted and has said, itself, that there should be 2,100 workers on the railroad when today there are 750 people who serve it all over Greece. It’s not possible that a stationmaster should (have to) talk to another stationmaster. Everything should be a little more automated.”

A police investigation was also launched into the cause of the crash. A public prosecutor, Stamatis Daskopolopoulos, tasked with overseeing the inquiry, said witnesses were giving evidence, the paper reported.


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