Following the worst train disaster in Greece that claimed the lives of 57 people, tens of thousands of Greeks have taken to the streets to demand accountability. Labour unions and student associations organised the demonstrations on Wednesday, while strikes halted ferries to the islands and public transportation services in Athens. More than 20,000 people joined rallies in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, where clashes broke out when several dozen youths challenged a police cordon. Twelve students from the city’s university were among the dead in last week’s head-on crash between two trains. Police fired tear gas in the southern city of Patras, where a municipal band earlier played music from a funeral march while leading the demonstration. In the central city of Larissa, near the scene of the train collision, students holding black balloons chanted “No to profits over our lives!”
The February 28 crash has stirred public outrage over the crumbling state of the Greek rail network, and striking workers say years of neglect, underinvestment and understaffing – a legacy of Greece’s decade-long debt crisis – are to blame. Many of the estimated 350 people on board an intercity passenger train that collided head-on with a freight train while travelling on the same track were university students heading to the northern city of Thessaloniki from Athens after a long public holiday weekend. The disaster has sparked protests across Greece with more than 10,000 people rallying in Athens on Sunday, releasing hundreds of black balloons into the sky.
Rail workers have staged rolling, 24-hour strikes since Thursday, bringing the network to a halt. They say their demands for the improvement of safety protocols have gone unheard for years. ADEDY, the umbrella union representing hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, has also called for a 24-hour walkout.
“We will impose safe railways so that no one will ever experience the tragic accident at Tempi ever again,” the main railway workers’ union said in a statement. “We have an obligation towards our fellow humans and our colleagues who were lost in the tragic accident.”
Other transport workers went on strike in solidarity, disrupting metro, tram and bus services in the capital, Athens. Ships also remained docked at ports as seamen participated in the labour action.
Reporting from Athens, Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos said that a press conference by officials on Wednesday morning had raised “more questions than answers” and will likely make “the families of the victims even angrier”. “First of all, we’ve learned that some of the automated systems that should have been in place throughout the Greek network, were in fact operational on the night of the accident in Larissa station,” said Psaropoulos. He explained that an automated optimal route selection for the train would have been possible, but was not used.
“Secondly, it also doesn’t answer why two additional station masters who should have been on duty until 11pm took off at 10pm without permission. Thirdly, it does not answer why the train was about 15 minutes late in leaving,” he added, explaining how all these things contributed to the collision.
“It suggests enormous problems in the operation and training of personnel,” said Psaropoulos.
Greece sold its state-owned railway operator, now called Hellenic Train, under its international bailout programme in 2017 to Italy’s state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane.
The government has blamed human error for the crash. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces an election this year, apologised on Sunday, acknowledging decades of neglect could have contributed to the disaster. Hours after the crash, his transport minister resigned. Mitsotakis handed the portfolio to one of his closest aides, state minister George Gerapetritis.
On Wednesday, Gerapetritis was expected to meet transport experts from the European Commission, which has promised support.