ATHENS — Before a passenger and freight train collided explosively Tuesday — resulting in Greece’s deadliest-ever rail crash, killing at least 43 — the two trains had been on the same tracks for 12 minutes, according to new accounts given to Greek media.
Neither technology nor man intervened to avert a disaster.
As emergency workers continued Thursday to pick through the charred forward-most carriages, many Greeks were already turning their focus to the causes of the disaster, and to a rail system that had long been in worrisome shape.
Though the crash had elements of human error — with a station manager arrested for negligence — various officials, as well as a rail union, also connected the incident to a broader set of rail infrastructure problems plaguing a country that still bears the bruises of last decade’s financial crisis.
Greece’s transport minister, who resigned immediately after the crash, said that the country’s rail system “doesn’t befit the 21st century.” A national federation of railway employees on Thursday held a daylong strike, citing unmet needs for “hiring permanent personnel, better training and, above all, modern safety technology.” Those proposals, the union said, had always ended up “in the trash can.”
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said an independent panel would investigate the causes of the accident and its purview would include looking at the “perennial delays” of rail projects.
Some of the initial scrutiny centers on the lacking technological safety features of Greece’s rail lines. The Kathimerini newspaper, a major Greek daily, reported that an electronic signaling system — a common safety feature across Europe — had been installed but was not functioning, either because of damage or sabotage, and that efforts to restore the system were long-delayed.
In a report last year on rail safety, the European Union said that so-called “train protection systems” are “widely considered one of the most effective railway safety measures for reducing the risk of collisions between trains.” In countries like Italy and Germany, nearly all tracks have such a system in place. Greece was the only European Union country, the report said, that was entirely without such a safeguard.
Konstantinos Genidounias, the president of the Association of Greek Train Drivers, told state broadcaster ERT that “nothing works,” including a central monitoring system.
“The light signals don’t work nor does 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 from each other.”
“We have asked. Complained. Nothing works.”
“Everything is dependent on the human factor” as a result, he said. “We are on manual.”
The passenger train, with roughly 350 people on board, had been making the trip from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, when it collided with the freight train. Many on board were young people who’d been celebrating the raucous carnival holiday, held at last after three years of pandemic interruptions.
Greece’s infrastructure issues predate its financial crisis, when the country required bailout loans from international and European creditors. But the problems intensified during that period in tandem with harsh austerity measures. The consulting firm PwC, in a report on Greece’s infrastructure, said that between 2009 to 2019, Greece ranked lowest among E.U. countries in the percentage of its GDP spent on infrastructure, “undermining” its quality.
Greece was also forced to sell off assets as a way to recapitalize its banks, resulting in a wave of privatizations. Greece in 2017 sold its rail company to Italy’s state railways Ferrovie dello Stato for 45 million euros ($48 million).