A Greek Tragedy

Nick Malkoutzis

6 mins - 2 de Marzo de 2023, 16:58

There is one question more than any other that is swirling in the mind of most Greeks as they contemplate the devastation of this week’s train crash, which left more than 40, mostly young, people dead: How did this happen?

It was the question being asked by students placing flowers at Thessaloniki train station, where their friends were due to arrive after celebrating the carnival weekend. It was what parents who lost their sons and daughters in the inferno caused by a passenger train travelling from Athens slamming into a freight train going in the opposite direction demanded to know. It is what any reasonable person in a developed country would wonder knowing that these two trains had been moving towards each other for more than 10 minutes, without either driver having an inkling of danger.

The more one peels away the layers of this incident to discover how such a collision could take place in 2023, the more sickening the answers.

Railway safety has been a longstanding issue in Greece. An investigation by the Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Reporting (MIIR) published in 2019 indicated that Greece ranked first in the EU with regards to the number of deaths from rail accidents in proportion to the kilometres travelled by trains. Between 2010 to 2018, there were 137 deaths and 97 serious injuries in Greece.

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This can be attributed to a number of factors, such as the mismanagement of public organisations that was symptomatic of the political short-termism that propelled Greece to its debt crisis in 2009. State entities, like the railway company TRAINOSE, were seen as a tool to serve the ends of political parties, not citizens, whether this was by running huge advertising budgets to help finance government-friendly media or by hiring unnecessary or unqualified personnel to win votes or pacify unionists. 

The onset of Greece’s economic crisis ended any hopes of the service being upgraded as successive Greek governments embarked on huge fiscal adjustment programmes to reign in huge deficits and repay the bailout loans provided by the EU and IMF. The transport network, along with other public services, like healthcare, atrophied as they were forced to operate on shrinking budgets, with personnel shortages and relying on makeshift fixes devised by increasingly despondent staff.

In 2017, TRAINOSE was privatised. The government, then led by the left-wing SYRIZA party, sold the company for 45 million euros to Italy’s state railway firm Ferrovie dello Stato. The transaction was a commitment under the privatisation programme that Greece had agreed with its European lenders and the International Monetary Fund, part of the terms of three bailouts the country received to help it overcome its debt crisis.

The privatisation of what is now known as Hellenic Train created the kind of problematic jumble that other European countries have wrestled with – railway operations in the hands of a private company, while infrastructure and maintenance of the rail network are the responsibility of others. In Greece’s case the latter tasks are handled by two state companies.

In this environment, where responsibility can be easily shifted from one company to another, it seems that little was done to address the train safety problem. The lack of appropriate telecommunications and signalling equipment and an automatic protection system connected to the European Train Control System (ETCS) were highlighted repeatedly over the past few years by independent media and unions.

Less than a month before this week’s collision, the Panhellenic Union of Train Personnel (DESK) issued a statement warning that a deadly crash was imminent. According to railway staff, train drivers communicate with station masters at each station they pass through to know if it is safe to proceed along the track.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the governing centre-right New Democracy party, said that the accident was mainly due to human error. The blame is being placed on the station master at Larissa, the last station the intercity passenger train passed through before colliding head-on with the freight train. 

Perhaps the fact that national elections are coming up in the next few weeks means it is politically expedient to provide a simple answer to the terrible question hanging over us. However, it is clear to anyone who does not want a neat, guilt-free explanation that the failings which caused this crash go much deeper than whether the station master turned a key so the two trains would not be on the same track.

The Tempi crash is the distillation of how Greece has failed its current generation of young people. Many of those who died before midnight on Tuesday were just children when Greece signed its first troika bailout in 2010. They didn’t have a chance to enjoy the stability and prosperity of the previous three decades, as Greeks profited from membership of the European Union and single currency. Instead, they grew up in a country wrecked by the avarice and myopia that this affluence brought. 

The lack of investment in infrastructure and public services, the unwillingness to reform public organisations and adopt best practices in the state and private sectors left this generation growing up in a country driven not by a vision for a better future but by a need to tick tasks off a list to get its next loan instalment from the troika. In this turmoil, young people’s happiness, development and security became side issues.

If we really want to find out how this train crash happened, the answer is scattered through our recent history, like the belongings of those travelling in the front carriages of Intercity 62 from Athens to Thessaloniki on Tuesday night. The truth is that we failed them. We had many chances to do much better. This is our tragedy.
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