As rescuers continued to search the charred front carriages on Thursday, many Greeks were already turning their attention to the causes of the disaster and to a rail system that had long been in a worrying state.
Train collision in Greece kills at least 43
While the crash contained elements of human error – with a station manager arrested for negligence – several officials, as well as a railway union, also linked the incident to a wider set of rail infrastructure problems plaguing a country still reeling from the bruises of the past decade. years wear. financial crisis.
Greece’s transport minister, who resigned immediately after the crash, said the country’s rail system “doesn’t fit the 21st century”.
A national federation of railway workers held a day-long strike on Thursday, citing unmet needs for “hiring permanent staff, better training and, most importantly, modern safety technology”. Those proposals, the union said, had always ended up “in the trash.”
The crash is likely to take on a political dimension as Greece – currently led by a centre-right government – poises to hold national elections in the coming months. One of the leftist Greek newspapers ran a headline on Thursday: “It’s not a mistake, it’s a crime.”
The passenger train, with about 350 people on board, was traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, when it collided with the freight train. Many on board were young people who had celebrated the raucous carnival holiday, finally held after three years of pandemic interruptions. At an evening briefing Thursday, officials said 48 people remain hospitalized, with six in intensive care.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said an independent panel would investigate the causes of the accident, including looking at the “perpetual delays” of rail projects.
Vigils and protests were held in Athens and Thessaloniki on Wednesday. In Athens, protesters threw stones at the offices of the railway company before being dispersed by riot police.
Some of the first studies focus on the technological safety features of Greece’s railway lines. The Kathimerini newspaper, a major Greek daily, reported that an electronic signaling system – a common security feature across Europe – had been installed but was not functioning, either due to damage or sabotage, and efforts to repair the system were long delayed.
In a report last year on rail safety, the European Union said so-called “train protection systems” are widely regarded as one of the most effective rail safety measures for reducing the risk of collisions between trains. In countries such as Italy and Germany, almost all tracks have such a system. Greece was the only country in the European Union, the report said, that had no such guarantee at all.
Last year, Christos Katsioulis, the chairman of a committee responsible for work under the European Train Control System, resigned for “unfinished maintenance of the rail network”.
He also warned of potential safety issues in his resignation letter, saying that trains will run “at 200 km/h without any indication of the condition of the tracks, not even a break”.
Konstantinos Genidounias, the president of the Association of Greek Train Drivers, told state broadcaster ERT that “nothing is working”, including a central monitoring system.
“The light signals are not working and neither is the traffic control system,” he said. “If these worked, the drivers would see the red light and the trains would have stopped safely, 500 to 1,000 meters apart.”
“We have asked. complained. Nothing works.”
“Everything depends on the human factor” as a result, he said. “We insist on manual.”
Greece’s infrastructure problems predate the financial crisis, when the country needed bailout loans from international and European creditors. But the problems increased during that period, along with harsh austerity measures. The consulting firm PwC said in a report on Greece’s infrastructure that between 2009 and 2019, Greece had the lowest among EU countries in the percentage of its GDP spent on infrastructure, which “undermined” its quality.
Greece was also forced to sell assets as a way to recapitalize its banks, resulting in a wave of privatizations. Greece sold its railway company to Italian state railway Ferrovie dello Stato in 2017 for 45 million euros ($48 million).
Before the pandemic, which caused a dramatic drop in travel worldwide, Greece was one of the few European countries to experience a decline in train use.
Would you give up airplanes for these trains? Europe promotes travel that is climate-friendly.
But Greece, no longer bound by austerity measures, has recently tried to increase its investment in infrastructure. It inaugurated a fleet of higher-speed trains last year that reduced the journey between Athens and Thessaloniki from six hours to four.
The Greek clash comes as the United States is in the midst of a political firestorm over a rail derailment in eastern Palestine, Ohio, that resulted not in fatalities but released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil.
An initial federal accident report found that before the derailment, two detectors designed to detect overheated bearings failed to go off because the temperature had not yet crossed a threshold set by the railroad. As the train continued to move, a third detector activated the warning, but it was too late to give the crew enough time to stop before the bearing failed and the train derailed.