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Greece Announces Urgent Safety Upgrades After Rail Disaster

Rail network Greece
The rail network in Greece suffers from chronic underinvestment. Credit: OSE

Greece announced on Wednesday urgent safety upgrades to the rail network following the train disaster last week at Tempi that claimed the lives of at least 57 people.

“No train will set off again, if we have not secured safety at the maximum possible level”, the minister for Transport-Infrastructure, George Gerapetritis, told a news conference, apologizing for Greece’s deadliest rail crash on record.

He vowed to step up the implementation of a contract for the automatic operation and signaling of the railway network. He added that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has contacted the head of French train maker and manufacturing group Alstom over the issue.

Gerapetritis also said that Greece will resume passenger train operations after introducing emergency safety upgrades, including the placement of two stationmasters at all stations. He added that rail services may have to be cut down as a result.

“Suffering must be followed by catharsis,” he underlined.

The responsibility that belongs to the government has been admitted, Gerapetritis said, and added: “I must again apologize on behalf of the government and myself, personally, to the families of the victims, to all Greek citizens, for not being able to prevent this tragic accident. The apology is completely sincere, not feigned, and does not attempt to deflect any real responsibility.”

Gerapetritis, who became minister following the resignation of Kostas Karamanlis on March 1 over the disaster made it clear the government has no intention of interfering in either the judicial investigation or in the administrative investigation being conducted by a group of experts.

Rail network in Greece suffers from underinvestment

Passenger and freight services on the route linking Athens and the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the busiest across a 2,500-km (1,550 mile) rail network, have been disrupted since the train collision on February 28.

Rail workers have held rolling 24-hour strikes over the crash since Thursday, bringing the network to a halt. They have blamed years of neglect, underinvestment and understaffing which led to creaking rail infrastructure and deficient safety systems.

Rail unions and industry sources have pointed to a remote surveillance and signaling system, which controls train traffic and guide drivers, saying it had not been functioning properly for years.

Although the station master at Larissa seems to have made fatal decisions on the night of the accident, the whole railway system is archaic.

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.

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.”

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