As emergency workers continued Thursday to wade through the charred wagons, many Greeks were already turning their attention to the causes of the disaster and to a rail system that had long been in a state of dismay.
At least 43 dead from train collision in Greece
Although the crash had elements of human error – with a station manager arrested for negligence – various officials, as well as a railway union, also linked the incident to a wider set of rail infrastructure problems plaguing a country still bearing the bruises of its past decade economic crisis.
Greece’s transport minister, who resigned soon after the crash, said the country’s rail system was “not fit for the 21st century”. A national federation of railway workers went on strike on Thursday, citing unmet needs for “recruitment of permanent staff, better training and, above all, modern safety technology”. Those proposals, the union said, always ended up “in the dustbin”.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said an independent commission would investigate the causes of the accident and its remit would include looking into “multi-year delays” in rail projects.
Some of the initial audits focus on the deficient technological safety features of Greece’s railway lines. Kathimerini, a major Greek newspaper, reported that an electronic signaling system – a common safety feature across Europe – had been installed but was not working, either due to 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 so-called “train protection systems” were “widely regarded as one of the most effective rail safety measures to reduce the risk of collisions between trains”. In countries like Italy and Germany, almost all tracks have such a system. Greece was the only European Union country, the report said, that was completely without such a safeguard.
The president of the Greek Drivers Association, Konstantinos Genidounias, told state-run ERT that “nothing is working”, including a central monitoring system.
“The traffic lights don’t work and neither does the traffic control system,” he said. “If these were working, the drivers would see the red light and the trains would have stopped safely, 500 to 1,000 meters apart.”
“We’ve asked. Complained. Nothing works.”
“It all comes down to the human factor” as a result, he said. “We’re in the manual.”
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 celebrating the tumultuous carnival holiday, finally held after a three-year pandemic layoff.
Greece’s infrastructure issues predate the financial crisis, when the country required bailout loans from international and European creditors. But the problems intensified during that period alongside harsh austerity measures. Consulting firm PwC, in its report on Greece’s infrastructure, said that between 2009 and 2019, Greece ranked lowest among EU countries in the percentage of GDP spent on infrastructure, “undermining” its quality.
Greece was also forced to sell assets as a way to recapitalize its banks, resulting in a wave of privatizations. Greece in 2017 sold its railway company to Italy’s state-owned railways Ferrovie dello Stato for 45 million euros ($48 million).