Protesters in Athens, Greece (Picture: εργατική αλληλεγγύη/Facebook)

Hundreds of people protested in Athens and Thessaloniki, in Greece, on Wednesday after an horrific train crash killed at least 43 people. The crash came against a backdrop of years of privatisation and safety cuts.

A passenger service and a freight train travelling between Athens and Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki crashed head on late on Tuesday. Yiannis Ditsas, the head of the rail workers’ union, said the trains had raced towards each other for 12 minutes before colliding.

The exact details of what happened to cause the crash are still unclear—but circumstances paint a picture of serious safety and signalling failures. It is thought that trains going both ways on that section of the line had been diverted onto a single track after an overhead cable was cut.

Some reports say the passenger train was delayed at a station in the city of Larissa for some 20 minutes amid confusion among rail staff about when it should depart. The station master at Larissa is said to have instructed the passenger train to proceed along the same track as the freight train. He has since been arrested.

But Kostas Genidounias, president of the train drivers association, said the collision wouldn’t have happened if the railway had automatic signalling. He told the ERT news channel that these systems hadn’t been working for years.

“We have been complaining for the last few years that the electronic systems do not work and everything is done manually on the Athens-Thessaloniki line,” he said. “Nothing is working. Everything is done with a human factor, manually, manually.

“Not even the indicators, the traffic lights, or traffic control work. If these worked, the train drivers would see the red signal and the trains would stop within 500 metres of each other.

“We’ve said it repeatedly. This would not happen if the safety systems were working. The information is given by the stationmaster via radio.”

The crash has the potential to become a major scandal for the Tory-type New Democracy government, which faces a general election in April. In a grim coincidence, it came just hours before prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due to visit a remote control signalling centre near Thessaloniki.

Genidounias had posted in response on social media, “K. Mitsotakis will be at the remote control and signalling centre of the railway network of northern Greece tomorrow. Can someone tell us where the signalling and remote control in northern Greece is and where it works?”

The government’s transport minister Kostas Karamanlis has already resigned, apologising for the state of the rail network. “It’s a fact that we inherited the Greek railway in a state that is not fitting for the 21st century,” he said.

“In those three and a half years we made every effort to improve this reality. Unfortunately, those efforts were not adequate to avert such a tragedy.”

In fact, the New Democracy government’s cuts and privatisation policies made the railways more dangerous. In a statement on Wednesday, the radical left coalition Antarsya said the government had subsidised private rail firms as they cut staff and ignored safety warnings.

And Nikos Nikos Kioutsoukis, secretary of the GSEE union, said promised GPS satellite tracking systems, had gone uninstalled for years, even decades. “Modern GPS systems have not been installed yet, they do not work,” he said. “Some have been bought long ago, since 2000.”

Greece’s previous government, led by the once-radical left Syriza, sold the network for 45 million euros in 2017. It did this at the demand of the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which insisted on swingeing austerity and privatisation measures in return for a bailout loan.

New Democracy, and the Labour-type Pasok party supported the selloff. Both of them in previous governments had also overseen cuts and reforms designed to prime the network for privatisation.

Antarsya said the crash amounted to a “premeditated crime by the wretched New Democracy government and the previous Syriza-Anel government.”

It added, “Prioritizing balance sheets over human lives, profits over safety, they placed it in the hands of capital, which exploited a public good—transport—without conditions or limits. Their responsibility is self-evident.”

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