Station manager faces court, but Greeks see a scapegoat for official neglect
By Emma Bubola
The Greek station manager accused of putting a speeding passenger train into the path of an oncoming freight train was expected in court Sunday to face manslaughter charges in the deadliest rail disaster in Greek history.
But as Greek officials described the crash as a tragic case of human error, public opinion was galvanizing against the government for years of safety neglect — not against a man who fellow rail workers and protesters say is being scapegoated.
“They want to say it’s one man’s fault,” said Antonis Bompotis, 26, who was among hundreds of protesters who gathered Friday in Larissa, a city near the crash site. “But it’s a government of murderers.”
Outside the Larissa courthouse Saturday, Vassilios Noulezas, a lawyer who represents a victim’s family as well as two survivors, said he intended to bring to court several current and former government officials.
“We are not blaming only one person,” Noulezas said. “There should not have been only one person in control.”
The 59-year-old station manager, who has not been officially identified, has privately acknowledged mistakes, according to excerpts from his statements to authorities and which have been published in the Greek news media. Radio recordings published by a Greek news website show a train driver being told to ignore a red light.
“Pass the red signal,” the station manager told the driver late Tuesday, according to the recordings.
The station manager had been due in court Saturday, but Stefanos Pantzartzidis, his lawyer, said he had requested an extension because new elements had emerged in the case. It was not immediately clear what those elements were. The station manager is now scheduled to appear in court Sunday morning, Pantzartzidis said.
Potential mistakes, though, are only part of the story. Rail workers say the traffic lights were always red because of years of technical failures. Workers were left to warn one another of oncoming trains by walkie-talkie.
“I’d cross myself every time for a crash not to happen,” said Theodor Leventis, a train-safety supervisor of 20 years. He attended a vigil for the train’s victims in front of Larissa’s train station Friday. “I was sure it would happen,” he added.
Leventis, 65, retired two years ago after working on the same route where the crash had occurred. “They can’t say a man is responsible,” he said. “The only one responsible is the government.”
The Greek government was supposed to have installed an automated safety system nearly three years ago, but it received extensions amid a contentious contracting process. That system is intended to sound alarms and automatically stop locomotives in dangerous situations. In the days after the crash, the Greek government has not explained why that system was so behind schedule. Neither have officials with the European Union, which spent hundreds of millions of euros over the past decade to improve a rail system that, by multiple measures, is the deadliest in Europe.
Railway unions have long warned of looming disaster. Workers said their fears started to mount after the financial crisis that devastated Greece’s economy in 2010. Railway staffing was sharply cut, and unions have said for years that their members were overworked and assigned to important stations without proper training experience.
Giorgos Apostoleris, a former station master, recalled being transferred a few years ago to Larissa on an hour’s notice. He worried then about who would be held responsible if he made a mistake. Tragedy, he said Friday, was all but inevitable. “It even took too long for an accident to happen,” he said in an interview.
Greek state news media reported that the Larissa station master had only recently been assigned to the post after six months of training.
As recently as last month, rail workers warned the government in a letter that they did not want to wait for a coming accident “to see them cry crocodile tears,” and that intervention was urgent.
“We have tried strikes for years. We have told every government about these issues, but we have not found open ears,” said Νikolaos Tsikalakis, a railroad switchman and the president of the staff union of the Greek national railroad organization. “So we came to this tragic accident.”
Greece’s transportation minister resigned shortly after the crash, acknowledging that efforts to improve the nation’s rail-safety system had been insufficient.
The two trains, carrying about 350 people, had raced toward each other for 12 minutes before colliding late Tuesday, according to the head of the federation of railway employees. At least 57 people have died.
As Greeks laid bouquets of white roses on the rail tracks, they also cursed the government. At vigils, they lit candles and murmured that they did not “believe their lies” anymore. On a bus on the plain at the foot of Mount Olympus, by the trucks that removed broken off carriages from the site of the crash, some commuters shrugged in fear.
“If they only blame a human mistake and don’t change the system,” said George Gkonelas, 53, a commuter, “it’s going to happen again.”
Outside the courthouse where the train manager is expected to appear Sunday, protesters hung signs criticizing the government for ignoring years of warnings that a rail disaster was inevitable.
“Wasn’t an accident, wasn’t a tragedy,” one banner read. “It was state negligence and an assassination.”