The pictures of incinerated carriages strewn across the tracks following a head-on train crash outside Tempi, in central Greece, will have shocked everyone who has seen them. In Greece, that shock is turning to anger. Rail unions have made clear that, thanks to enforced cuts and privatisation, such a disaster was always “an accident waiting to happen”.
The crash happened on the mainline between Greece’s two biggest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. A passenger train travelling at around 150 km/h ended up on the same track as a freight train heading south. Colliding at this speed, the front carriages immediately burst into flames. As a result, the exact number of dead, many of whom were university students heading north after a holiday weekend, as well as the train crew, is still unknown. It could be as many as 50.
Conservative Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited the site of the crash and promised to set up an enquiry to “find out the causes of the tragedy”. Mitsotakis also made clear that he has already decided what the outcome should be in advance, telling the press that this had been a tragic accident caused by “human error”. The stationmaster in nearby Larissa has been arrested and charged with manslaughter.
The leaked accounts of the stationmaster telling the driver to go through a red light, and the train ending up on the wrong track might indeed sound like it was just “human error”. But not when, as the rail union has made clear, the facts are that the rail signaling on the line is usually out of order, that the train was running late and had already switched tracks earlier in its journey to avoid an electrical fault.
A train drivers’ union leader explained angrily on Greek TV that “nothing works, everything is done manually”. Without working systems, station staff have been left with the responsibility of themselves having to give the all-clear to each train to proceed from one station to the next at 15 different points on the Athens-Thessaloniki mainline.
Any real enquiry – and the unions and bereaved families should conduct their own public enquiry to counter any political cover-up – will easily reveal that the employers and privatising politicians were well aware of the scandalous state of rail infrastructure.
Rail unions have been warning about the risk of a major accident for years. Just this January the DESK union asked, after an earlier incident, “What else needs to happen for the government and the employer to finally accept their responsibilities? Should we first mourn the dead and then take measures to protect human life? How much does human life cost for those in power?” Sadly, their question has been answered by the death toll at Tempi.
The Transport Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, visibly shaken on visiting the crash site, admitted, when he resigned soon after, that Greek rail infrastructure was “not fit for the 21st century”. After all, the whole point of safety systems is that, at some point, human error is inevitable. Greek trains should be operating with the protection of the European
Train Control System (ETCS) which automatically intervenes to prevent collisions when required. But why aren’t they? Because, under capitalism, profit comes before lives.
Rail industry sources report that multi-million euro contracts were signed years ago with Italian and French firms to fit the ETCS and associated signalling systems. But the work still has not been completed. And it is in the interests of those more powerful European economies that the wholesale privatisation of the Greek railways was imposed, following the capitulation of the SYRIZA-led government to the demands of big business following the debt crisis of 2015. So the trains that crashed at Tempi, operated by the newly rebranded ‘Hellenic Train’ group, are actually part of Trenitalia, the Italian firm that also own part of the privatised ‘Avanti’ train company in Britain.
As both British and Greek rail workers and train passengers know to their cost, rail privatisation has proved to be just a way to turn state subsidies into private profits. Greek railways were sold-off at ‘bargain basement’ prices but with a contract that guarantees that the Greek state will continue to provide €50 million plus VAT per year to the company. Jobs have been cut while safety has been ignored. And now the disaster at Tempi has added the cost of lost lives, as well.
Many Greek workers and youth will demand that the blame for this disaster is put where it belongs – with the privateers and profiteers, not individual rail workers. They need a genuinely independent inquiry, involving rail unions and the broader workers’ movement, survivors of the crash, rail commuters, and the wider community, and that the railways be taken back under public ownership, without compensation for wealthy investors.
The Greek working class will be taking in the lessons of the capitulation of the SYRIZA led government that led to this disastrous privatisation, in the first place. That means the need to go further and organise for a socialist Greece, where all of the major banks and companies are in the hands of the Greek working-class, with the economy rationally planned democratically, for the benefit of all, and as part of a struggle for a socialist Europe.