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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Greece will make trains safer, transport minister vows

Workers remove parts of the wrecked train carriages at the site of a crash near Larissa, Greece, March 3, 2023.

By Niki Kitsantonis

As thousands of workers went on strike earlier this week to protest the train crash in Greece last week that killed at least 57 people, the country’s new transport minister turned toward the future, saying railway safety would be improved in the coming weeks and service would resume.

“We will significantly improve the level of safety,” the minister, Giorgos Gerapetritis, told reporters at a news conference in Athens, although he conceded that perennial inadequacies in infrastructure had contributed to the crash and that Greece’s railway network was, until recently, “chronically obsolete.”

Contracts signed over the past decade by successive governments aimed at installing an electronic signaling and remote surveillance system had failed to deliver, he said, noting that only 70% of the work had been done.

“If we had a fully functioning remote management system in the country, the tragedy most likely would not have happened,” he said. The remainder of the work will be done this year, he said, adding that European rail experts were in Athens to provide guidance. His comments were the most detailed by a prominent official on the state of the country’s railways and plans for the system since the crash.

Service on the route on which the crash happened has been suspended since the crash. Gerapetritis said steps would be taken to restore travel, possibly by the end of the month, adding that service would resume only if “absolute” safety is secured. He said that in the future, there would be two station masters at every stop and a reduced number of trains. Additional workers will be hired to offset a significant reduction in staffing on the railways over the past 15 years, and training will be improved, he added.

A 59-year-old station manager has been charged with manslaughter through neglect in connection with the train collision. He is accused of putting a passenger train carrying more than 350 people and a freight train on the same line, leading to the Feb. 28 crash.

After initially blaming the crash — Greece’s worst on record — on a “tragic human error,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is up for election, revised his stance Sunday and asked for the Greek people’s forgiveness for the chronic failings of the Greek state.

On Wednesday, Gerapetritis also apologized for the authorities’ failure to avert the tragedy. “I am in shock,” he said. “I understand the collective pain that this disaster has caused to society,” he continued, adding that the anger unleashed by the crash was “very reasonable.”

Across town, there was proof that outrage over the crash had not subsided, as thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Athens, the capital, holding banners saying, “We will never forget the crime!” “Our lives matter!” and, “Let anger lead to overthrow now!” Similar rallies were held in other major cities, including Thessaloniki and Larissa, the city in central Greece closest to the site of the crash.

Civil servants, including teachers, nurses and bus drivers, joined railway staff members, who have been holding rolling strikes for a week, to protest the years of neglect and understaffing that they say had made the crash all but inevitable. The civil servants union, Adedy, called for an end to “policies of privatization” which were adopted during Greece’s post-2009 decadelong financial crisis and led to staff cuts.

The rally in Athens was one of the biggest in recent years, drawing some 40,000 people, according to police estimates. The march was marred by violence, with police firing tear gas after a group of around 50 hooded youths broke away from the demonstration and pelted officers with firebombs and stones.

Many of the demonstrators were young people, including college students, who accounted for a large proportion of the train crash victims. The students joined the marchers, many chanting, “Murderers!” Others carried banners with red handprints, one reading, “Our tears have run dry and turned into anger.” Scuffles also broke out between protesters and police in Thessaloniki and Patra, in western Greece.

Greece’s failure to upgrade its railway system to European standards — despite receiving millions of euros in subsidies — had come under scrutiny well before the crash. A contract signed in 2014 for the automatic operation and signaling of the railway network is the subject of an inquiry by the European prosecutor’s office.

That investigation comes amid an inquiry begun two weeks before the crash by the European Commission into Greece’s failure to comply with EU rules on rail transport.

Even if an electronic signaling and surveillance system had been completed, it would have had to have been accompanied by another system allowing for emergency braking, among other features, Gerapetritis said, referring to the European Train Control System.

According to the government’s spokesperson, Giannis Oikonomou, Mitsotakis plans to request additional EU funding for modernizing the country’s railways.

Mitsotakis ordered the creation of a cross-party committee of experts last week to examine the causes of the tragedy, which is also being investigated by the Supreme Court’s prosecutor, Isidoros Doyiakos, along with the systemic failings of the Greek rail system and delays in the completion of a technological upgrade of infrastructure.

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