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FutureStarrRail Safety Upgrade in Greece Stalled for Years
A tragic train crash outside a tunnel in central Greece has raised fresh concerns about the safety of Greece's rail system. The collision claimed 57 lives and injured more than 48.
Last year, a former safety supervisor resigned after warning of infrastructure upgrades pending since 2016 which were incomplete and train speeds of up to 200 kilometres (124 miles) an hour were unsafe.
On Tuesday morning, Greece's state-owned railway operator, OSE, resigned due to a deadly train crash that claimed at least 46 lives. This event prompted the resignation of Greece's transport minister and infuriated rail unions who say safety upgrades in Greece have been put off for years.
On December 28th, 2013, just after midnight on a busy train between Larissa and Thessaloniki, an accident took place that official figures describe as the country's worst railway disaster in decades. Dozens died and many more were injured in what has been described by witnesses as an "outrageous loss of life".
In the wake of the crash, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attributed human error and declared it an "unthinkable tragedy." But rail union members and protesters rejected his assessment, blaming a lack of technology on board, poor maintenance standards and staff shortages for what transpired.
A representative for the state-owned OSE railway revealed that a 70 mile section of track running along the Athens-Thessaloniki main line between Larissa and a town near Thessaloniki did not have the same rail safety systems in place as other sections. He further mentioned that there were no traffic lights or live tracking of trains' locations along this section of track.
He noted that the rail operator had been unable to implement signalling and safety systems due to budget restrictions for years, but now government funding had been secured. A former safety supervisor who resigned last year said infrastructure upgrades were incomplete, allowing trains to travel at speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour without any information about track conditions.
One of the most tragic aspects of the crash was that a first carriage was struck by the other train and completely destroyed, leaving passengers trapped inside with broken windows and no way out. As rescuers searched through the debris, one survivor told Skai TV he had been trapped for several minutes before being freed.
On Wednesday night, thousands of people gathered in Athens to protest, throwing stones and demanding that the government accept responsibility for the accident. Additional demonstrations are expected across Thessaloniki and Larissa on Thursday as well.
On Tuesday morning, a tragic crash aboard a passenger train traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki killed 36 people and injured many more. This tragic event underscores Greece's dismal track record when it comes to railway safety in Europe; this has been the country's deadliest rail disaster since at least 1960s when Italian state ownership began building the country's railways.
Rail union members claim the accident, which occurred near Larissa on a main line connecting Athens and Thessaloniki, was due to long-running issues with track safety systems. Many of these components - such as signage and live tracking of trains - had been installed years ago but are still not fully functional.
Some rail workers told ERT that persistent issues with their systems had prevented them from recognizing dangerous situations. Furthermore, many passengers on board appeared ill or disoriented.
OSE has been under immense pressure to improve its rail safety for years, yet the company has failed to address it. A former employee who resigned last year warned that infrastructure upgrades were incomplete and trains could travel at speeds of up to 200 km/h without detection.
In 2017, Greece's railway operator TRAINOSE was sold to an Italian firm as part of the country's international bailout program. That deal envisaged hundreds of millions of euros being invested into upgrading the country's railway system over the following few years.
Greek rail staff are demanding their government upgrade track safety systems before more tragic incidents like this occur. They claim the existing systems were inadequately designed and should have been updated years ago.
Greece's government, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ruling party, has been slow to act. They have yet to announce a plan for improving the railway system that has been neglected for decades despite having an allocated budget that prioritizes its improvement.
Greek officials' unwillingness to address the system's issues has created tension within the railway community, impacting employees, passengers and commuters alike. Several rail unions have condemned these conditions and demanded an urgent overhaul of rail infrastructure.
Greece is working hard to repair its crumbling railways and expedite people and cargo movement across the country faster than ever before, but that has not always been enough. According to a report from the European Union, Greece has one of Europe's highest railway fatality rates per mile traveled in recent years.
On Tuesday morning, a head-on train crash that claimed at least 76 lives was the deadliest train crash in Greece's history. It illustrated systemic issues beyond any individual mistakes that might have caused it. Furthermore, it demonstrated how little power the European Union has to demand improvements from member countries' rail systems even as it pours money into them.
Rail union officials and safety experts have long written letters to the Greek government, warning of impending problems in an outdated rail network that hasn't been upgraded in decades. They cited tight budgets, supply chain issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic, bureaucratic delays and contract disputes as all impeding efforts towards improving Greece's rail network.
Records show that OSE, Greece's state-controlled operator of trains, has been slow to implement an automated system designed to avoid head-on collisions. This would have given station managers the capacity to communicate with trains and monitor their whereabouts at all times.
CNN was informed by an OSE representative that they had planned to install the Emergency Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) along a 70-mile stretch of rail between Larissa, where the tragic crash occurred, and Thessaloniki, near Athens. Had those safety features been in place, OSE believes the accident could have been avoided.
CNN was informed of previous incidents on that stretch of track where two trains were supposed to be running separately but ended up running on the same track in opposite directions. Unfortunately, there was no live tracking or signage present that would have alerted drivers that they had entered an incorrect track, according to the spokesman.
Recently, OSE's Board of Directors unanimously decided to resign in light of Greece's rail system crash which claimed dozens of lives and raised questions about its safety. While government claims the incident was caused by "human error," railway employees are raising alarm over what they perceive as an unfair delay in upgrading rail safety measures, as reported by Reuters.
Wednesday afternoon, the Transport Ministry reported 57 deaths and 85 injuries caused by an impact between a train carrying 350 passengers and a freight train. It was the highest death toll on Greek rails since at least the 1960s and one of Europe's deadliest railway accidents this year.
On Tuesday evening, the OSE railway operator was engaged in a control exercise when two trains collided head-on on the same track near Larissa. According to an OSE spokesman, the accident occurred just before midnight.
He reported that two trains were running on the same track in opposite directions, with the passenger train straddling it, and that some controls weren't functioning properly at Larissa station. In past incidents on this same track, accidents have been avoided at the last moment.
On Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accepted the resignations of several senior executives at OSE and its subsidiary ERGOSE as rail workers held protests over the crash. "Pain has turned into anger for dozens of dead and wounded colleagues and fellow citizens," read a statement from Greek Railway Workers Union on Thursday.
Tsipras' New Democracy party is bracing for elections in July, where it may lose seats but still holds on as Parliament's majority. While he and his coalition have repeatedly called for increased safety on the rail line, their demands have gone ignored as the country retreats from massive creditor-mandated budget cuts.
In 2017, Greece's former state railway operator TRAINOSE was sold to Italy's Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane as part of a government initiative to restructure its debt-ridden rail system. While privatisation was expected to bring hundreds of millions of euros in investment, workers and other stakeholders have voiced opposition over the deal which left 800 employees running the country's network - less than half the European average of 2,650 employees.