The Hellas Sprinter locomotive seen in Athens Central Station | Photo: NikolasSkevis1 | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original The Hellas Sprinter locomotive seen in Athens Central Station | Photo: NikolasSkevis1 | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original

Kevin Ovenden looks at the political context behind the recent rail tragedy

Grief and anger are still coursing through Greece this weekend following Tuesday’s rail disaster, the worst in the country’s history.

The death toll as of Friday stood at 57. Most are students who were returning to university in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, following a bank holiday weekend with their parents marking the beginning of Lent.

It is a national tragedy that is especially felt among young people and families who have a son or daughter studying far from home.

Rail workers held a national two-day strike on Thursday and Friday in solidarity with the victims’ families and to demand both swift answers and a clear, quick timetable for the implementation of long overdue safety measures.

The transport minister had to resign. The “Tory” prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, member of the right-wing New Democracy party, promised a committee of experts to “find the answers.”

But most people see that as a delaying tactic to get the other side of a general election that had been expected for April or May. In any case the big answer is known to the whole society.

There were big protest gatherings across the country on Thursday and Friday, with a huge march in Athens despite torrential rain.

Widespread slogans were: “This was not an accident, this was a crime“ and simply “Murderers.” They are heard not only at the protests but in everyday conversations and countless vigils.

On Thursday, outside the hospital in Larissa where many of the victims were brought, a woman called Katerina, whose brother was missing, shouted to television cameras: “Murderers! Murderers! I will leave tomorrow with a coffin!”

Another woman, whose husband and five-year-old son were on the train, was asked by a journalist if she had given a DNA sample to be used to identify victims’ remains. “To identify what, ashes?” she replied. Firefighters say the carriages were turned into blowtorches in the head-on collision.

Katerina’s rage was directed at the rail bosses, the government and the political system: “All those people who are up there, they’re useless, useless. Some MPs are coming out and offering condolences, so what? Will it bring our children back?”

The authorities were quick to arrest and charge with negligent manslaughter the station master nearest to the crash at Tempe. But everyone in Greece knows that this was a disaster waiting to happen after warnings about safety have been ignored for decades — the latest only three months ago.

Vassilis Zavogiannis represents workers of privatised Hellenic Train SA on the board of the company that operates passenger and freight trains. He told Kathimerini newspaper that the already inadequate safety system had been “disarmed.”

“The fundamental problem on this particular line, between Athens and Thessaloniki, is that the automatic operation and signalling systems – that is the basic safety measures that protect trains from accidents – do not work,” he said.

“Essentially, on a line that is critical for the country, safety and protection relies in the year 2023 entirely on the human factor. Our trains operate like they did 30 years ago. To put it metaphorically, it’s like having a pothole in front of our house: we know where it is and we avoid it, but at some point we will fall into it. That’s what happened here.”

The Troika of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund demanded the privatisation of the Greek railway in 2013 as one of thousands of conditions applied to the austerity bailouts.

As in Britain 20 years earlier it had already been broken up into different units. The promise in both cases was that it would bring modernisation and investment after decades of neglect.

The trains were sold to the Italian national railway company Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (FSI) in 2017 with the track and infrastructure remaining with the state Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE).

But the chronic underinvestment in the years prior to privatisation and breakup was not reversed in either the rolling stock or the infrastructure.

FSI got the rolling stock operation for just £40 million. The contract remains secret, like so much of the firesale selloffs of the austerity years. Even a conservative minister has dubbed it “colonial.” The Greek state has to subsidise the operator to the tune of £44 million a year.

In return FSI promised state of the art trains. What it delivered was Swiss ETR 470 trains that were already being described 24 years ago as “Pannezuge,” breakdown trains. The Swiss rail company sent them to scrap. FSI bought some up and put them on the Greek network.

It has been a similar story with infrastructure where public private partnership schemes and a labyrinth of subcontracting have failed to deliver.

Although a new branch line was built to Aigio in western Greece, there was a derailment just months after it opened in 2020.

The cause was the points set in the wrong direction. Even on this recently inaugurated line, there are no automatic traffic control lights and the movement of the trains is done blindly. The train driver is given a verbal or written order by a certified employee that the line is “clear“ and they can proceed.

The derailment was a reminder that safety systems, which have been paid for and installed on parts of the network for over 15 years, either worked for a few years and then were abandoned or never worked at all. Those include the ETCS (European Train Control System) which makes it possible to transmit information to the driver but also to check compliance with the permitted speed. Remote control light signalling systems, which were installed around 2003, worked until 2008 and then stopped.

In 2019 OSE was ordered by the European Commission to return £2.1 million due to problems in the signalling and telecommand project of the Athens-Thessaloniki line.

Rail workers have been sounding the alarm repeatedly over the years. They have struck to save safety critical jobs only to be vilified in the media and by successive governments – something that will be familiar to any reader in Britain.

This week the president of the Greek train drivers’ union Kostas Genidounias said, “Signalling and automatic control systems have not been working for years. Nothing works. Everything is done manually.“

Yet the Rail Regulation Authority in its latest annual report did not devote a single word to safety or the absence of vital signalling and protection equipment.

Even where partially or temporarily installed, the systems have been looted several times as they have been left to rot. It is common to have tunnels even in suburban Athens that are not lit as cables and lighting have been stolen.

After a crash five years ago outside Thessaloniki that claimed the lives of three people (driver, guard and a passenger) the president of the train drivers’ union told journalists that out of the approximately 1,000 kilometres of railway on that line, the traffic lights only worked on about 30.

So when Mitsotakis talks solemnly of determining responsibilities for this disaster, popular Greece already has a good idea of where those lie. That is why this is a dangerous moment for Mitsotakis, who is already embroiled in a scandal surrounding tapping the phones of political opponents.

Additionally, he was quick to exploit politically the fire disaster near Athens in 2018 that claimed the lives of 104 people under the then Syriza government. It is hard for him to plead with people not to politicise this tragedy.

A problem also for the Syriza opposition. Rail privatisation was agreed before it came to office but the sell-off happened on its watch. Unlike in 2015, it is not offering a radical break with neoliberalism and austerity but instead a kind of “clean hands government“ to replace the tarnished premier who was lauded by European centrists as a great liberal moderniser.

The situation is volatile and comes after some recovery over the last year of trade union and social movement mobilisation. The coming general election was widely expected to squeeze the radical and anti-capitalist left. But it may be that the anger and agitation against the entire political class over this thoroughly avoidable disaster opens new space for the Communist Party and others who insist upon a radical break from capitalist failure.

In any case, that is the feeling not only of the protests but among millions of ordinary people in Greece this weekend. And they are not waiting for elections to make those feelings known.

There is the immense pain of this tragedy, deep human solidarity with the families and certain knowledge that this did not need to happen. With each detail of this story comes further illustration of the pillaging and humiliation of the country by both the domestic plutocrats and the supposedly modernising and efficient European institutions constantly chiding the Balkans for our “backwardness.”

Powerful sentiments to fuel a dynamic movement for justice and for change. And that’s the least the victims of Tempe deserve.

Originally published in Morning Star.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.