On 28 February, an InterCity train from Athens to Thessaloniki collided with a freight train. Fifty-seven people were killed and there were dozens injured. For many Greeks, this biggest train crash in Greek history and one of the most tragic in Europe in the last decade could have been avoided, had safety, and not savings, been the priority on track in their country.
The immediate cause of the disaster was that a passenger train was diverted onto the wrong track, occupied by another train coming from the opposite direction. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the head of the right-wing government of Greece, focused on this ‘human error’ that led to the tragedy when addressing people afterwards. The manager of the Larissa railway station is likely to hear criminal charges for endangering people’s lives and disrupting the public transport.
However, railway workers and fellow trade unionists feel that there are many more responsible, and Mitsotakis should be, in fact, named among them.
As the unionists point out, the Greek railway has long been underfunded, with no funds even for essential infrastructure repairs. Safety systems that are in use in other European countries have not even appeared in Greece.
– Τhe Greek state, and in particularly, the governments that implemented harsh privatisations, left the country’s main train route operating for years without the necessary electronic signalling systems, without the necessary personnel (almost half the staff that was needed) that would have prevented the deadly collision
– Angelina Giannopoulou, left-wing Greek activist commented after the crash.
Less than two weeks before the tragedy, on 15 February 2023, the European Commission sued Greece to the European Court of Justice for violating European policy on rail passenger safety. Even earlier, the railway labour unions were vocal about the deteriorating state of the railway infrastructure, the lack of operable equipment and the shortage of workers. They even staged regular walkouts, hoping to bring someone responsible’s attention to the problem. But this, apparently, never happened – instead, the workers were instructed that protest action for this reason was illegal.
On 2 and 3 March, demonstrations were held in major Greek cities by people who think that the system has, again, deceived them all. Demonstrations took place in Thessaloniki, in Larissa and, above all, in the capital.
In front of the Greek parliament in Syntagma square, 12,000 people demonstrated.
Some protesters set fire to rubbish bins and threw Molotov cocktails at police officers. Then the police sprayed tear gas and used flashbang grenades to disperse the gathering. However, the protest continued in a more chaotic form, no longer in front of the parliament, but in the adjacent streets. – We will not forget this crime – the protesters managed to shout before they were forced to disperse. Another three thousand protesters assembled in Thessaloniki.
The railway trade unions once again reiterated their demands for transport safety. On 8 March, buses, trains and trolleybuses stood still in Athens for 24 hours, just like ferries, boats and long-distance train all over the country – due to strikes organized in protest and solidarity by workers operating all possible transport means. And the protesters who were back to the Syntagma square did not cry over a tragedy, but accused the government of having committed a crime of negligence against its own people.
What the Prime Minister has to say then? He admitted that if the warning system that the workers had demanded to be installed had been put into operation, an accident like the one on 28 February would have been virtually impossible. Nevertheless, it seems that the government would like mainly to blame the Larissa statiomaster and the former transport minister for the tragedy… and then go on.
When Mitsotakis has announced that he will ask the European Commission for guidance on how to improve rail safety, it did not sound serious at all. Why asking? First, the European policies on rail safety, as well as the experience of countries who care more about this kind of transport, are not secrets. Who wants to learn from experience (and invest in safety), can just start doing it. And secondly, the voice of trade unionists should be authoritative enough on this issue. It was railway workers who highlighted problems with staff and non-functioning or outdated equipment. At that time, the European institutions focused solely on debt collection, with complete disregard for how cuts might affect the Greek society and public services in Greece.
TrainOSE railway lines, whose train crashed on 28 February, renamed Hellenic Train in 2022, were privatised and sold to Italian state railways just on the wave of the rapid sell-off of Greek assets in 2016. Renovations and repair works concerning the infrastructure, which remained the state’s property, were frequently rescheduled due to lack of funds. In the end, many of them were rescheduled for never. A tragedy was a matter of time – and if nothing changes, it might be not the only one.