Sunday, June 2, 2024

Greece’s Downfall: The Fatal Train Crash


The deadliest rail crash in Greece’s history occurred on March 1, 2023, when a passenger train travelling from Athens to Thessaloniki collided head-on with a cargo train carrying shipping containers. The accident took place outside the town of Larissa, in the municipality of Tempi. The passenger train was carrying 342 travellers and 10 crew members, while the cargo train had only two crew members. The collision caused the derailing carriages to burst into flames, with temperatures in one carriage rising to 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370 degrees Fahrenheit) after it caught fire. As of Thursday evening, the death toll was 57.

Many of the victims were university students returning home after a long holiday weekend. A number of bodies were charred beyond recognition, and some passengers were being identified from body parts. Relatives of the victims went to a hospital in Larissa where they were asked to give DNA samples to be checked against those retrieved from the crash site. More than 15 people were discharged after receiving treatment, while 57 remained hospitalised late on Wednesday, including six in intensive care. More than 200 people who were unharmed or suffered minor injuries were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130km (80 miles) to the north.

Authorities are still investigating the circumstances that led to the crash. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it happened “mainly due to a tragic human error” but did not elaborate. Police have arrested the Larissa station master, who is responsible for rail traffic on that stretch of the tracks. He was due to appear before a prosecutor on Thursday to be formally charged. Investigators were trying to determine why both trains were on the same track “for many kilometres”.

Industry experts say systems that signal whether a track is already occupied by setting off a red light or that automatically operate a switch to divert a train onto another track are not properly maintained. “Red lights malfunction very often or they turn on for no reason, and the culture in the Greek rail system is that drivers and station masters have learned to ignore them,” said Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Larissa.

Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he was taking responsibility for the state’s longstanding failures to fix a railway system that, he said, “was not fit for the 21st century”. Train unionists say the safety shortcomings of the Athens-Thessaloniki railway line, the main one in the country, had been known for years.

Rescuers resumed a search on Thursday for survivors. A total of seven charred bodies were recovered from the passenger train’s third wagon, which served as a restaurant. Authorities have declared three days of national mourning.

Railway workers nationwide walked off the job on Thursday, saying successive governments had ignored repeated demands to improve safety standards. In Athens, people marched late on Wednesday to protest against the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of Greece’s rail operator and riot police and set dumpsters on fire. No arrests or injuries were reported.

Some survivors described the moment when the crash took place. “There was panic … The fire was immediate. As we were turning over, we were being burned; the fire was right and left,” Stergios Minenis, a 28-year-old who jumped to safety, told Reuters. “Windows were being smashed, and people were screaming … One of the windows caved in from the impact of iron from the other train,” another passenger, who escaped from the fifth carriage, told Skai TV.

Flags flew at half-staff outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels while world leaders expressed their condolences. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pope Francis were among those to condole. Greece sold railway operator TRAINOSE under its international bailout programme in 2017 to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, expecting hundreds of millions of euros to be invested in rail infrastructure in the coming years.

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