Greek Train Calamity Is an EU Tragedy, Too

Political crisis looms in wake of a wreck that left 57 dead.

AP/Aggelos Barai
People observe a minute of silence during a protest outside the Greek parliament at Athens March 5, 2023. AP/Aggelos Barai

It took just one week and a terrible, hydra-headed train disaster to transform Greece’s national mood to painfully bleak from unusually bright. Economic indicators were looking up, but now Greek stock prices are tumbling; the famous tourism season that was stirring back to life after a winter recess now looks less sure, and the whiff of a spirited spring election season has given way to growing public revulsion of politicians across the board.

Optimism was flung into an abrupt nosedive by the collision last Tuesday night of a passenger train speeding north of Athens with a freight train barreling down from the opposite direction, instantly killing dozens of university students on their way home after celebrating the first Greek Orthodox carnival without pandemic restrictions in three years. 

The explosion on the railroad tracks halfway between Athens and what Greeks affectionately call the “second capital,” Thessaloniki, quickly rippled across the small country, where due to strong family ties and a relatively small population a calamity that happens in one region is often keenly felt in another. It unleashed a torrent of pent-up anger and frustration with years of bureaucratic lethargy and compromised safety. Over the weekend, demonstrators, many of them young, swarmed Syntagma Square in front of the Hellenic Parliament, releasing hundreds of black balloons into the sky above Athens. Some clashed with riot police.

On Sunday, the 59-year-old station manager who was in charge of signaling at the city of Larissa in central Greece was charged with negligent homicide and jailed pending trial. Yet it is difficult to overestimate how little that did to assuage the pervasive gloom. As just one example, rail service remains on hiatus nationwide as public sector workers stage rolling strikes. On top of that, it is not clear whether anybody has enough faith in a transportation system that came up so devastatingly and lethally short to hop back aboard a Greek train. 

Prime Minister Mitsotakis alluded to that in an unusually frank — for a politician, anyway — Facebook post on Sunday in which he walked back his initial characterization of the crash as being the result of “tragic human error.” Prosecutors will have an easy time proving that the fatal error was made by the inexperienced station, aided in part by his own seven-hour pre-detention testimony. Yet Mr. Mitsotakis’s description touched a raw nerve and riled opposition parties nonetheless. That is because Greeks know that the railways have been in a neglected state for years. 

“I owe everyone, and especially the victims’ relatives, a big apology, both personal and on behalf of all who governed the country for many years,” Mr. Mitsotakis wrote, adding that “in 2023, it is inconceivable that two trains move in different directions on the same track and no one notices.” He emphasized that “we cannot, will not, and must not hide behind human error.”

The most glaring system shortcomings have to do with signaling. The Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported that since March 2022 train drivers had been warning of the dangers to workers and passengers “due to an unprecedented lack of maintenance on the network,” and, worse, though it had been installed, the radio communication system on the trains was not even working.

So, shortly before midnight on February 28, the automated signaling system in the area of the crash was not functioning at all, and that opened the chasm from which the station master’s mistake sprang. That station masters often communicate with each other and with conductors via two-way radios and that switches are still operated manually underline the state of function of the railway network. 

Yet it isn’t just Greek bureaucracy and alleged corruption at work. It is also a classic case of too many cooks in the Euro-kitchen. As convoluted as it may sound, Hellenic Train is the private railway company owned by Trenitalia, the Italian national railway company, which owns the trains that operate along Greek railways. The high-speed White Arrow trains like the one involved in last week’s accident were manufactured in northern Italy by a French multinational corporation, Alstom. 

This adds up to an alphabet soup of characters in an avoidable tragedy, even if it is understood that the manufacturer is not responsible for railway network safety. Although few Greeks have yet to say it publicly, Brussels also shares in the blame. That is because without membership in the European Union, it is likely, despite what some distinguished economists like Paul Krugman might say, that Greece could have avoided the debt crisis that blew up in 2009 and 2010 and that sent the Greek economy into freefall. 

In the years running up to 2017 Greek government debt ballooned and both the IMF and European Central Bank imposed harsh austerity measures on Greece. For all intents and purposes, the ECB meant Germany. When Mr. Mitsotakis’s center-right New Democracy party came to power in 2019, it was partly on the promise of putting Greece’s humiliating bailouts and tortured fiscal gymnastics behind it and bringing the country up to speed — a high-speed rail link between Athens and Thessaloniki included. 

The problem is that enthusiasm for economic renewal did not obviate years of ECB-imposed asset-stripping and underinvestment in essential infrastructure projects. It was during the crisis years, for example, that Greece sold the controlling interest in its largest commercial port, Piraeus, to Communist China. One of the less-publicized dictates meted out by Brussels and Berlin to Athens was to trim the public workforce. 

That may or may not have worked out, because according to some Greek media reports, without all those arbitrary cuts there likely would have been a second station master on duty last week to spot and correct the alleged mistake of the one now sitting in jail. 

That individual’s lawyer, Stephanos Pantzartzidis, told reporters that “in a hellish timespan of about 20 minutes,” the station master was in charge of rail security for all of central Greece, and said that low staffing levels on the night of the accident would also be the subject of criminal investigation.

Yet don’t expect Brussels to come to the rescue now in anything other than name. “Rail safety is paramount,” the tea-loving European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, intoned this week. But that is a platitude: Although the EU agency for railways has warned about safety gaps in the Greek railway system since 2014, as Ms. von der Leyen well knows there are no enforcement mechanisms in place. 

Incidentally, it is not just intercity train service that has come under the microscope. Greek media have reported that even the modern airport train that links Athens International Airport with downtown Athens could have hidden safety issues pertaining to signaling. That line serves hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists each year. As of Tuesday there was no suburban railway service to and from the airport, though this was due to the labor strikes.

In the meantime, national elections that have been scheduled for April 9 may not be happening this spring at all. Greek fury won’t be lessened by well-meaning Facebook posts. Mr. Mitsotakis’s transport minister, Kostas Karamanlis, has already resigned. With reference to a crisis meeting on Monday, a government representative, Giannis Oikonomou, told the Skai TV station, “Anyone who hinted to the prime minister these days that we need to see what we do about the elections was kicked out of the meeting.”

The political fallout will come soon enough, but right now the country is still reeling from the human toll of Greece’s worst train disaster. On Tuesday, a visibly distraught Mr. Mitsotakis attended the funeral of Spyros Voulgaris, the 35-year-old driver of the freight train that collided with the ill-fated Intercity 62 passenger train in a dark patch of Greek countryside that, even with the wreckage now mostly cleared, resembles a combat zone.

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