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Greek Train Disaster: Remote Signaling Systems Collapsed Years Ago

Train Disaster in Greece
The train disaster in central Greece has claimed the lives of at least 57 people. Credit: AMNA

The neglect of the remote signaling systems on the Greek railway network is one of the major causes of the train disaster in Greece which claimed the lives of at least 57 people.

Although the station master at Larissa seems to have made fatal decisions on the night of the accident, the whole railway system is archaic. Remote surveillance and signaling systems, which control train traffic and guide drivers, had not been functioning properly for years.

Larissa station had a local signaling system that tracked trains for a distance of about 5 km (3 miles), government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou admitted on Monday. That meant station masters had to communicate with each other and drivers by radio to cover gaps, and signals were operated manually.

Railway unions have blamed years of underinvestment and understaffing – a legacy of Greece’s decade-long debt crisis.

Since 2015 remote control had “significantly degraded” on Greek trains

According to the OSE, the Greek national railway company which owns, maintains and operates all railway infrastructure, since 2015 remote control had “significantly degraded” after a fire in the Litochoro area, north of Larissa. Since then “it practically ceased to function,” OSE said in an announcement on Monday.

It added that a second fire that broke out in the area of Zahari, Larissa in July 2019 destroyed cables and equipment. “Remote surveillance and signaling systems went completely out of order and were abolished.”

OSE says that the remote surveillance and signaling systems were only in place for a distance of approximately 5 kilometers after and 3 kilometers before the Larissa Station.

This implies that if the prescribed safety protocols had been followed by the stationmaster, there would have been room for “correction”, as the local control panel allows the trains to be monitored for a safe distance.

OSE, whose management resigned after the crash, admits that for at least eight years trains on the busiest railway link between Athens and Thessaloniki were “blind.” Their journeys up and down the country were conducted in such a way that human error could result in a tragedy similar to the one that occurred on the night of February 28.

Experts say remote systems started collapsing after 2011

Other experts claim that the remote surveillance and signaling systems Greece spent millions to acquire between 2007 and 2010 were not working properly long before 2015.

OSE did have remote surveillance in place from 2007 until 2010 at the section where the accident happened, Yiannis Kollatos, a former station master with the company who set up and operated the technology in Larissa, told Reuters.

But in the years after 2010, that system gradually degraded, with underfunding and workforce cuts leading to faulty maintenance of the equipment, the railway source said.

Panagiotis Terezakis, a management consultant to OSE, concurred. “After 2011 this system started gradually to collapse. It was not maintained, to the point where the telecommanding system collapsed almost in its entirety,” he told Reuters.

Terezakis and the government said cable theft along the network was common. “If part of the system is cut and I don’t have the staff to fix it, the next parts of the system start tripping as well,” Terezakis said.

The opposition says remote systems were in place until 2019

Opposition party SYRIZA says that the system was working until the 2019 fire, and that the conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which took office in 2019, ignored the pleas of unions to fix the damage.

SYRIZA lawmaker Yiannis Ragousis, who visited the Larissa train station and was briefed by officials, claimed that prior to 2019 there was a remote control system that “enabled the Larissa station to ‘see’ a very long distance of about 110 kilometers.”

He added that “at that time remote control had problems due to various incidents of theft along the route. But there was remote control in operation. “Larissa station was not ‘blind’ “, he asserted.

At the same time, the lawmaker referred to the existence of a remote control station master until 2019:

“During the entire 24 hours of every day, we had two station masters. A conventional station master and a second, alongside the first station master, the remote control station master. This stopped, as we were informed, in July 2019.”

The Greek government admits that the crash took place at a section where remote surveillance and signaling systems had not yet been set up.

Systems that could have prevented such a crash have been installed on 70% of the Athens-Thessaloniki line.

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