A Greek passenger train with 350 people and crew onboard, and a cargo train with two headed, toward each other for 12 minutes before colliding head-on, killing at least 36 because warning systems reportedly weren’t working.
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 that the system wasn’t fully operational although Greece sold the state operator TRAINOSE to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 under bailout-driven privatization that was supposed to modernize it.
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, with the worst safety record in Europe, didn’t have warning capabilities working.
Kostas Genidounias, President of the association of Greek train drivers, told state broadcaster ERT that, “Nothing works .Everything is done manually,” he said, adding that neither the 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.
Many of the 350 people aboard the passenger train were students returning from Greece’s raucous Carnival, officials said. This year was the first time the three-day festival, which precedes Lent, was celebrated in full since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
It is an issue that the country’s railway officials have been aware of, the Times reported, but government officials and police shied away from questions about how the accident could have happened.
“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.
NO QUESTIONS PLEASE
He said that while the government had allocated 25 million euros, about $26.5 million, for maintenance, perennial lack of funding and staff “has been lacking in recent years.”
Visiting the accident scene, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the government must help the injured recover and identify the dead.
“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,” Mitsotakis said.
The accident happened several days before he was going to set the date for elections, likely early April, and could lead to questions about why the government allegedly ignored warnings from the rail workers about systems not working.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned immediately, saying he felt it was his “duty” to step down “as a basic indication of respect for the memory of the people who died so unfairly.”
Health Minister Thanos Plevris said it was not the right time to try to explain how it happened. “The priority now is to nurse the injured and support the families who have lost their loved ones. Everything else we will deal with afterward,” he said.
Greek police arrested the station manager in Larissa, about 20 miles south of the crash site, without giving a reason. Greek news media reported that the station manager had directed the freight train onto the same track as the passenger train, but authorities declined to confirm or deny those reports.
From 2018 to 2020, Greece had the highest railway fatality rate among 28 European countries per million train kilometers, according to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways.
In 2019, the European Data Journalism Network, a group of media organizations, reported that from 2010 to 2018, 137 people died and 97 were seriously injured in railway accidents in Greece, with an average of more than 15 deaths and 11 serious injuries per year, The Times added.
The media network attributed the problems to unsafe level crossings, poor infrastructure and traffic management systems, and understaffed companies, Greek trains long having a poor track record for meeting schedules, covered in graffiti and being unreliable.
The crash was Greece’s most deadly in memory, surpassing a 1968 collision involving two passenger trains near Corinth, about 40 miles west of Athens, which left 34 people dead, the paper noted.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)