Graffiti–tagged, charred, and crumpled remains of steel carriages of Hellenic Train Intercity No. 62 and another freight train lay on the rails of the Athens-Thessaloniki railway on February 28th, 2023. The intensity of the flames and the gruesomeness of the carnage that awaited the families of the 57 victims epitomized the scale of the tragedy at hand.
This head-on collision was no freak accident. If Greek railway officials installed train control upgrades under their original schedule, the deaths of these 57 people and the injuries of hundreds more would have been almost impossible. The wreckage strewn across the Tempi right-of-way did not just reveal human devastation, but also the malaise that afflicted Greece’s railway system for decades preceding the crash.
Decades of Uphill Struggle
Two stakeholders control Greece’s mainline railway network. OSE, known in English as the Hellenic Railways Organization, owns and maintains Greece’s railway infrastructure. Before 2008, OSE also operated services along its infrastructure before spinning this division off into a separate company now known as Hellenic Train. Together, OSE and Hellenic Train form the backbone of intercity rail travel for both passengers and freight within Greece.
Long-term issues related to infrastructure and market conditions originating from decades ago continue to plague OSE and Hellenic Train’s operating conditions. As far back as 1990, transportation researchers identified core flaws that prevented Greek railways from providing adequate service: high average delay times that resulted from poor infrastructure maintenance and lack of modern traffic control, a general lack of competitiveness with private automobile travel in terms of travel time, and fares that failed to reflect operating costs.
Problems extended beyond operational issues that OSE could solve through adjusting internal policy and upgrading standards. Antiquated tracks limiting operating speed, over 2000 at-grade intersections that increased the risk of serious accidents, and right-of-way filled with steep slopes and tight curves that required large-scale reconstruction of the railway network. However, Greece’s unstable financial situation coupled with the declining share of passenger and freight transport that rail carried meant that investment never came.
Hellenic Train’s aforementioned spinoff from OSE tried to address the foundational problems afflicting Greece’s mainline railway operations, in conjunction with a myriad of other restructuring programs. Greece’s admission into the European Union brought new opportunities for reinvestment as part of a EU-wide initiative to establish universal standards for railway operations. The Greek government subdivided OSE into different subsidiaries that each handled specific areas, such as maintenance, land development, and construction. Greek politicians hoped these reforms, coupled with increased EU subsidies, could bring their country’s railway system out of jeopardy.
Neglected Maintenance and Stalled Upgrades
Despite these aspirations, Greece’s railway system did not see much improvement from the same problems that had afflicted their service and infrastructure decades before the fatal accident. Painful austerity measures implemented as a result of the Eurozone debt crisis meant that infrastructure development and maintenance faced deep cuts.
The upgrade plans that did get through were mired in delays. A continent-wide European Train Control System designed to prevent the exact kind of human error that occurred in this crash never got installed in time; the official in charge of implementing the system quit in 2022 to protest delays. Other countries in the EU that still haven’t installed the Control System have other automatic safety systems; France’s SNCF has automatic warnings at level crossings for drivers, while Germany’s national network has had an automatic train stop system called PZB 90 since the 1990s. Greece possesses no such equivalent. Some improvements in infrastructure did get installed, such as electronic monitoring and early warning systems that would have prevented the crash near Larissa. But these often remained inoperable due to negligence and lack of funding.
The condition and morale of OSE and Hellenic Train’s workforce reflected this chronic disinvestment. Workers participating in the national railway union had long protested about poor working conditions and warned about an accident they thought was waiting to happen. Signaling stations and critical hubs were chronically short-staffed. The stationmaster at the Larissa station who allowed InterCity no. 62 to run through signals only possessed a month’s worth of experience. Two other stationmasters, as well as their supervisor, left their posts early that day, contrary to regulations.
Together, this combination of negligence and disinvestment sent InterCity no. 62 straight onto a collision course at Tempi.
Igniting the Public Opinion Powder Keg
An outpouring of grief and anger at a scale not seen since the height of discontent over the Greek debt crisis followed the accident. Large-scale strikes followed in the days and weeks after the crash. Transit workers spearheaded protest efforts, supported by their peers working in other transportation systems such as Athens’ metro. The strike soon expanded into the general public-sector over the impacts of austerity measures nationwide. Rail service along the Athens-Thessaloniki trunk line that InterCity no. 62 traveled on did not resume until April 3, after a flurry of emergency maintenance and signal upgrades made by the Greek government to address public furor.
Implementing belated upgrades scheduled for years before may not reverse the mobilization of dormant political forces that occurred in the wake of the scandal. The Tempi crash reignited pent-up frustration over the lack of professional opportunities and investment in society, particularly among the young professional class whose ranks made up the majority of the casualties.
The current Greek political establishment seems ill-prepared to confront the paradigm shift. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy party expected a comfortable election victory in the upcoming general election scheduled for May this year. The crash and the government’s subsequent handling of its aftermath may complicate Mitsotakis’ hope for re-election.
Climbing Back from the Depths of Hell
Fixing Greece’s railway services requires a comprehensive planning effort and continuous infrastructure investment. The first step is to fix the root causes of the Tempi crash: poor rail infrastructure design, stalled upgrades, and neglected maintenance. OSE, Hellenic Train, and the politicians responsible for investing in railway services must correct mistakes that trace back decades. Installing positive train control (PTC) systems mandated by European Train Control System standards across the entire network would be a good start. The European Union should assist Greece in funding and implementation if EU authorities want to demonstrate the seriousness of their attempts to increase rail ridership.
Precedents exist for rapid implementation of PTC and other safety-related features, even in countries where passenger rail is an afterthought. The 2008 Chatsworth train crash in California, where a passenger train failed to stop at a signal and collided head-on with a freight train, spurred the United States Congress to pass laws regulating railways to make signaling upgrades. In the American case, the strong private freight rail lobby stalled debate on upgrades for decades, with little to no opposition due to most Americans not riding rail. But the Chatsworth crash managed to spur sufficient political will to install PTC on 57,500 miles of rail tracks in 12 years.
A government as cash-strapped as Greece’s will find difficulty justifying more investment into a mode of transportation facing a consistent decline in ridership. Average rail passenger-kilometers traveled in Greece declined from 1.38 billion in 2010 to 653 million in 2021. Though the most recent pre-pandemic year, 2019, had ridership in passenger-kilometers only around 10% lower than in 2010, the post-pandemic struggles faced by other public transportation systems worldwide in recovering their ridership points to a tall order for Hellenic Train and OSE to surmount.
Reinvesting in the Greek railway system may not make sense from a transportation planning standpoint. However, the need for Greece’s government to re-establish political legitimacy may supersede planning wisdom in this case. Outside of a general obligation to maintain safety for a still-significant amount of ridership, Greek authorities have a stake in proving that they can fulfill their obligations and avoid gross negligence like the sort that caused the deaths of 57 people in Tempi. The widespread nature of the post-Tempi protests shows that large portions of the Greek citizenry have lost faith in their governmental system. Proving that they can fix the decades-long problems plaguing its railways may become the only way to convince a skeptical public that reform is possible, and that Greece’s bureaucracy can achieve the level of competency demanded by the people they serve. Greek politicians, confronted with a watershed opportunity created by tragedy, need to use this moment of consensus to push for fundamental change to its bureaucratic culture and railway infrastructure. Otherwise, as Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ electoral struggles show, Greece may relapse into the popular disillusionment that plagued the country during the darkest days of austerity.
Featured Image Source: Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters