Anger in Greece over railway system “not fit for 21st century” as death toll rises after horror crash

Mick the Ram

Mar 3, 2023

The number of dead from the tragic train crash in Greece has risen to 57, with at least ten more people still unaccounted for and feared to have lost their lives too. Eleni Zaggelidou, one of ten coroners working on the on-going investigation, said that figure was the total so far of intact bodies from which they had been able to take DNA.

Rescue workers were still searching up to Friday morning (3 March) amongst the burned and buckled carriages, but any hope of finding anyone else alive has pretty much diminished.

Feelings in the country are of anger aimed at the government and train company. On Wednesday night (1 March), rioters clashed with police outside the headquarters of Hellenic Train in Athens, who are the company responsible for maintaining the Greek railway network, which one resigning minister described as being “unfit for the 21st century.

The following day rail workers held a one-day strike over the disaster, placing the blame firmly at the hands of the government accusing them of years of neglect. Train drivers say there have been long-running problems with the electronic systems that are supposed to warn them of danger ahead.

On the same day thousands of people protested in Athens and Thessaloniki, demanding answers, as many in Greece see the crash as an accident that had been waiting to happen.

Front two carriages almost completely destroyed

The accident happened shortly before midnight on Tuesday 28 February, when a passenger service carrying some 350 people from Athens to Thessalonika, crashed into a freight train, both travelling at speed, near the central city of Larissa, in what is the country’s worst rail disaster.

The incident occurred as the passenger train emerged from a tunnel in the municipality of Tempi and ran head first into the freight train on the same track, causing its front four carriages to derail and the leading two to burst into flames, leaving them almost completely destroyed.

More than 150 firefighters attended the scene which was described as absolute devastation. Fire brigade spokesperson Vassilis Varthakogiannis remarked that inside of the first carriage, temperatures are likely to have reached 1,300C which had made identifying victims almost impossible. He said that most of the recovered casualties had been from the third carriage.

Arrested station master “devastated”

The 59-year-old station master at Larissa, who as yet has not been named, has been charged with manslaughter by negligence and has admitted to having a share of responsibility. His lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis said: “He is literally devastated and since the first moment, he has assumed responsibility proportionate to him.”

He went on to say however, that he should not be made to shoulder all of the blame as others need to be made accountable too.

Rail system “not fit for 21st century”

Shortly afterwards Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned over the crash, as a “sign of respect” for those who tragically have been killed. He said he would take responsibility for the authorities’ “long standing failures” to fix a railway system that was “not fit for the 21st Century.”

This was after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suggested that “tragic human error” was the cause, a comment that brought about widespread anger across the country, and seen as an attempt to deflect blame away from the government years of neglect.

Austerity used as an excuse

Zoe Rapti, Greece’s deputy minister of health, visited the injured in hospital and tried to explain that Greece’s desperate austerity measures which began just over ten years ago, and taken in exchange for a financial rescue by the EU and International Monetary Fund, had severely restricted their ability to invest in the network. “Of course, things should have been done during these years but, as you remember, Greece faced a big economic crisis for more than 10 years, which means that many things went back,” was her observation.

Government’s brief statement

Government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou attended a news conference and made a statement: “We are all devastated by this tragic incident, the loss and trauma this caused, the physical and mental trauma of survivors, and the angst of this country is huge, and its difficult to manage, particularly now.”

Members of public point the finger

A silent vigil was held in the city of Larissa to honour the victims, after which one demonstrator remarked that the disaster had been coming for a long time. Nikos Savva, a medical student from Cyprus said: “The rail network looked problematic, with worn down, badly paid staff” he continued to say that he did not feel that the station master arrested should have to pay the price for what he called “a whole ailing system”.

One deeply distressed woman directed her rage at the government and the rail company. Only giving her name as Katerina, she said she was searching for her missing brother, who was a passenger on the train. She continually screamed: “Murderers!”

Active and retired staff blame old systems

The union which represents workers from Greece’s Hellenic Train, the company responsible for maintaining Greece’s railways, laid the blame firmly at the hands of successive government who he said had shown “disrespect” towards Greek railways for years which has led to this “tragic result”.

Nikos Tsikalakis said that more than one factor was needed for such an incident to happen, and the complete picture of circumstances was not yet known, but referenced a lack of workers in the rail network, pointing out there was a requirement for more than 2,000 employees nationally, but currently they were functioning with only 750. The retired train driver trainer, said human error did not fully explain what happened. “The station master made a mistake, he acknowledged it, but surely there should be a safety mechanism to fall back on?”

Train drivers’ association president Kostas Genidounias pointed out that there has been long-running problems with the electronic systems that are supposed to warn them of danger ahead, but he said “nothing works”. He explained that everything happens manually throughout the Athens-Thessaloniki network. “Neither the indicators, nor the traffic lights, nor the electronic traffic control work.”

Figures don’t look good

According to latest data available from the EU, Greece had the highest rate of rail-related deaths relative to train kilometres travelled in the years between 2018 to 2021 and ranked second highest out of all European Union countries in 2021.

However, the figures showed that the majority of rail accidents and fatalities in the country in the five years leading up to 2021 were as a result of accidents such as pedestrians being hit by trains. Indeed, only two deaths from accidents involving the collision of trains had occurred in the recorded period.

Sale to the Italians

Greece sold railway operator TRAINOSE under its international bailout programme in 2017 to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane. It is the responsibility of the Italians for passenger and freight, but infrastructure remained the responsibility of the Greeks.


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