Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologized Sunday for any responsibility the Greek government may have for the deadliest train crash in the country’s history, while a station master facing charges gave his account of the events leading up to the tragedy.
At least 57 people were killed when a passenger train and a freight train collided late Tuesday north of Athens. The stationmaster is accused of mistakenly guiding the two trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track, causing the head-on collision.
In an initial statement on Wednesday, Mitsotakis said the crash was caused by “tragic human error”. Opposition parties attacked the remark, accusing the prime minister of trying to cover up the role of the state and of making the inexperienced stationmaster in the city of Larissa a scapegoat.
“I owe everyone, and especially the relatives of the victims, a big apology, personally and on behalf of all those who ruled the country for many years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook. “In 2023 it is unthinkable that two trains are moving in different directions on the same track and no one notices. We can’t, we don’t want to and we shouldn’t hide behind human error.”
Greek media reports that the automated signaling system in the area of the crash was not working, resulting in the station master’s error.
The prime minister promised a swift investigation into the crash and said the new Greek transport minister would publish a plan to improve safety. Once a new parliament is formed, a commission will also be formed to investigate decades of mismanagement of the country’s rail system, Mitsotakis said.
He was expected to announce an election date on Friday, but postponed the announcement after the train disaster.
Greece’s railways have long suffered from years of mismanagement, including lavish spending on projects that were eventually abandoned or significantly delayed, Greek media have said in several reports. With state-owned railway company Hellenic Railways billions of euros in debt, maintenance work has been put on hold, according to reports.
Retired head of the railway union, Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos, told the Kathimerini newspaper that the signaling system in the area monitored by the Larisa station master malfunctioned six years ago and was never repaired.
The station master appeared before a prosecutor and an investigator in Larissa on Sunday to answer charges that include various counts of manslaughter and bodily harm, as well as disrupting transportation.
Police and prosecutors have not identified him under Greek law. However, EL.AS., also known as OSE, revealed the name of the station master on Saturday, with a statement suspending the inspector of the company that appointed him. The station master has also been suspended.
Greek media reported that the stationmaster, a former porter at the railway company, was transferred to an office in the Education Ministry in 2011 when Greece’s creditors demanded cuts in the number of civil servants. The 59-year-old was transferred back to the rail company in mid-2022 and began a 5-month course to train as a stationmaster.
Upon completion of the course, he was assigned to Larissa on January 23, according to his own Facebook post. However, he spent the next month rotating between other stations before returning to Larissa in late February, days before the February 28 clash, Greek media reported.
On Sunday, railway unions organized a protest rally in central Athens that was attended by around 12,000 people according to authorities.
Five people were arrested and seven police officers were injured when a group of more than 200 masked, black-clad people began hurling marbles, stones, bottles and bombs at officers, according to the Athens Police Department.
Police at the scene responded with “limited use of necessary, appropriate means” — namely tear gas and stun grenades — and chased suspects down a central city boulevard.
In Thessaloniki, around 3,000 people took part in two protest rallies. The largest, organized by left-wing activists, marched towards a government building. No incidents were reported at that event.
At the other, organized by Communist Party members at the White Tower, the city’s signature monument, there was a brief clash with police when protesters tried to place a banner at the monument.
“The Communist Party today organized a symbolic protest in front of the White Tower to denounce the crime in Tempe, because it is a premeditated crime, a crime committed by the company and the bourgeois state that supports these companies,” said communist Yannis Delis. congressman, he told The Associated Press.
Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece