Anastasia Adamidi, a 24-year-old dentistry postgraduate student from Cyprus, was among the 57 people killed in Greece’s worst-ever train accident. She was heading to the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki to start her second semester on March 6, but her family held her funeral on that day instead. Adamidi was described by her fellow students as a brilliant young woman who was always doing something for someone with a smile on her face. Her department of prosthetic dentistry cancelled the day’s lessons in her memory. The train disaster has stirred Greeks to look for political culprits beyond the Larissa stationmaster who, according to leaked testimony, confessed to mistakenly sending the northbound passenger train up the southbound track.
Several opinion polls now show that the governing conservative New Democracy party has lost four points in advance of an election that must come by July, upending its expectations of a second term of single-party rule. New Democracy has now said it will make sure there are two stationmasters on every shift when rail services resume on March 22. Through a fast-track process that bypassed the normal state evaluation process through the Supreme Council for Personnel Selection, New Democracy hired 73 stationmasters, including the confessed culprit. This has been criticised by Christos Retsinas, a former head of safety for the Hellenic Railways Organisation’s subsidiary, Hellenic Train, which operates the rolling stock. He believes it would have been safer and just as fast to temporarily re-hire retired stationmasters.
There is also major political responsibility in Greece’s failure to install the full set of automated safety equipment mandated by EU law throughout the country. The route selection subsystem is only a part of that equipment, known as the European Train Control System (ETCS), which also includes train monitoring, automatic signalling, speed control and emergency braking mechanisms. Larissa was one of 16 stations where ETCS work remained to be done because successive governments had failed to fulfil a 2014 contract to install ETCS nationwide. Hellenic Train, which operated train 62, could only see its position on a GPS screen, but not its speed, direction or track. Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE), the state owner of rail infrastructure responsible for the track and stations, has a national traffic coordinator who also could not see what was going on.
The opposition Radical Left Coalition (Syriza), in power from 2015 to 2019, has deflected blame for the non-fulfilment of the ETCS contract to New Democracy, saying it left office with the contract 68 percent complete. New Democracy has denied that. Neither New Democracy nor Syriza has explained the details of why so much of the work had to be redone, why the contract had not been fulfilled by 2016, the original deadline, and why it was not fulfilled during New Democracy’s nearly four years in power. In any case, rail transport has seemed to be a vote-loser for both parties, as Syriza has not picked up any of the support New Democracy has lost.
Curiously, neither New Democracy nor Syriza has cast blame on Italian State Railways, which bought Hellenic Train in 2017 and axed jobs. That may have weakened safety in what is still a manually operated rail system. Hellenic Train did away with another safety valve: “There used to be an experienced train driver and an experienced train inspector who sat with the [national] traffic coordinator,” said Retsinas. “They were in contact with stationmasters and train drivers across the country. If any mistakes happened they were fixed within two or three minutes … Hellenic Train did away with that institution in late 2020.”
The government has said trains will observe reduced speed limits in areas without automated safety systems, and those systems will be working nationwide by October.