Strikers in the city of Xanthi in Greece (Picture: Workers’ Solidarity)

Public sector workers struck across Greece on Wednesday, blaming the government for the deaths of 57 people in a train crash last week. The strike pointed the finger at privatisation and profiteering for the safety failures that led to two trains crashing head-on near the town of Tempe.

It was a direct, angry rejection of the government’s attempts to blame simple “human error” for the atrocity.  It came after a week of growing protests, and a continuous strike by rail workers, that eventually forced prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis into a grudging, self-serving apology.

Announcing the strike, public sector union Adedy said its aim was to “demand together with all workers and the people that the politics of privatisation be put to an end. And that the real responsibilities for the murderous crime of Tempe be given.”

The union had initially planned a four-hour stoppage for International Women’s Day. But on Monday it announced—after riot police attacked a large demonstration in Athens that weekend—that it would convert the stoppage to a full day’s strike.

Public transport workers—including on bus, metro and ferry services—also struck on the day, joining the rail workers who have now struck for more than a week. And tens of thousands of people joined strike rallies in the centres of Athens and Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki.

Outrage at last week’s train crash has become a major crisis for Greece’s Tory-type New Democracy government. The wake of the crash revealed that privatisation and cost-cutting had left Greece’s rail network without a functioning automatic signalling system.

Instead, workers—some of them with other jobs to perform—had to direct trains and keep track of where they were manually. An automatic system would have been able to detect and halt dangerous situations immediately.

Instead, the two trains—a freight train and a passenger service—hurtled towards each other on the same piece of track for 12 minutes without anyone noticing.

The government and rail authorities initially tried to pin the blame on the stationmaster at the nearby city of Larissa, who has been arrested and charged with negligent homicide.

But daily, angry and growing demonstrations refused to let the government dodge the blame. Riot police attacked marches in Athens with teargas, and tried to smash up a rally outside the Greek parliament on Sunday.

But that same day Mitsotakis took to Facebook to apologise and backtrack. “As prime minister I owe everyone, but above all to the relatives of the victims, a huge APOLOGY, both personally and in the name of all who governed the country over the years,” he wrote.

“We can’t, won’t and shouldn’t hide behind human error,” he added. But he went on to claim that, had his plans for rail reforms happened faster, the crash would not have happened.

Yet the New Democracy party, and previous governments, have all pushed through privatisations and cuts that made the crash more likely. Workers marching on Sunday linked the failings on the rail network to privatisation in their own industries.

School bus driver Antonis Skouris told Workers Solidarity, Socialist Workers’ Greek sister newspaper, “Something similar to Tempe can happen to student transport. Most schools, especially kindergartens, should not normally be in use, they are poorly maintained and in poor condition.

“Workers from other industries who have neither the experience nor the training work as drivers. Our contracts are of limited duration. Every year there is dismissal and rehiring. 

“The reduced hours we work are split and our wages below the poverty line. This forces us to look for a second job as well. Exploitation by employers has escaped. They pay us with vouchers, on holidays or during bad weather when the schools don’t work they force us to take leave.”

And Georgia, a nurse, said, “We are now beginning to understand on a massive scale what privatization means. Hospitals are severely understaffed and any solutions are temporary. 

“There are staff who came and then resigned because they could not work under these unacceptable working conditions, overtime, night, exterminating shifts. We cannot provide the services we want with the minimal means we have. And that’s why we count losses.”

A legacy of privatisation 

Sotiris Kampagianis writes in Workers’ Solidarity on the history of privatisation that led to last week’s crash:

On May 13, 2017, a train running the Thessaloniki-Athens route derailed, ran off course and landed on a house. The train driver and three other people were pulled dead from the wreckage. Ten passengers were injured while two occupants of the house escaped at the last moment by jumping from the balcony. 

The investigations of rail network Trainose and the Ministry of Transport had no difficulty in discovering the causes of the accident—excessive speed. Human error, that is.

The workers disagreed with the conclusion of the investigation. The accident happened while the train was moving on a siding—due to the unfinished works. “If the works were completed and there was a station master at Adendros, the train would continue on the main line, without detours. 

“If, despite all this, he continued at an increased speed, the safety system could automatically cut him off. Except this doesn’t work. The station master could remind him. Except he doesn’t exist. The supervisor could have helped him. Except that he has to sell tickets too. The traffic lights could have alerted him. But these… don’t work.”

Six years later history repeats itself, not with a farce but with a second, even greater tragedy. Again the causes are covered up. They blame the station master who forgot to turn the key, or his colleague who was perhaps not at his post. Human error. But the—expensive—paid automatic system kept not working. The lights don’t work either.

The point of security systems is to protect people from human error. In industry, special “safety curtains” automatically stop machines working even if they are violated by a finger. Special systems constantly monitor the proper functioning of the safety systems. At the slightest suspicion of a malfunction, the machines stop.

The point of the “automatic systems” installed in the Greek railways was to enrich the contractors who installed them. The safety of passengers and staff was of secondary importance. 

The first electrical signalling systems were installed on the OSE lines in the 1980s. Problems have existed since then but even the right wing newspaper Kathimerini is forced to admit that “until 2010, a remote-controlled signalling system was installed and operating in most of the railway network.” 

If this system, even rudimentary and antiquated by today’s standards, still existed, the accident in Tempe would probably have been avoided.

But it doesn’t exist anymore. Three main causes came together for its dissolution. The first was privatisation. The first rails were installed in Greece in the second half of the 19th century. The railway was at that time of great importance, not only economically, for the development of trade and industry, but also militarily – for the rapid movement of troops to war.

A hundred years later, from the mid-1990s, OSE began to break up into smaller companies. In 2013 Trainose, the main subsidiary of the old unified OSE, was transferred to Taiped, the privatization memorandum fund. 

In 2017 it was sold to the Italian Ferrovie Dello Stato Italiane. The goal of the new company was to utilize the profitable Athens-Thessaloniki route. Almost all other lines were abandoned or closed, and the company concentrated on speed—with the main aim of competing with the airplane. New trains—second-hand—that could reach speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour were installed. 

The fact that the safety system was not designed for such speeds was completely irrelevant to the company. The fact that the system had stopped working for five years was equally unimportant. What did it matter anyway? 

The website of Hellenic Rail—as Trainose was renamed—pictured a state-of-the-art control centre reminiscent of Nasa (now taken down). And ticket sales were going well. 

The second reason was the dirty interests of the contractors who took it upon themselves every now and then to resurrect or upgrade the security systems. Contracts for these systems are literally “gold” for contractors. 

Anyone who manages to set up their own system also ensures its maintenance for decades—at astronomical prices since no one else is technically able to maintain them. There used to be two major international companies that claimed these contracts—Bombardier and Alstom. From 1995 to 2001, Kathimerini writes, these two companies signed 15 different contracts with OSE and its subsidiaries, from which they pocketed 250 million Euros. 

Despite the malfunctions brought about by this division—with the systems of one company being incompatible with the other—the system worked rudimentarily. That was until it was abandoned to its fate and dissolved in the first years of the austerity memorandums demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in return for bailouts loans.

All the efforts made by OSE since then to put the old system back into operation or to install the most modern European systems have so far stumbled on the hesitancy of the contractors. In 2014 a joint venture between TOMI SA, a subsidiary of AKTOR SA and Alstom was commissioned, for 41 million, to revive the old system, “within two years”. 

Alstom, however, despite the agreement, essentially refused to maintain the systems that Bombardier had installed in southern Greece. 

The project only got off the ground when the company Ergose agreed to pay another 13.3 million euros to the consortium. Today, nine years later, most of the network still does not even have traffic lights.

The third reason is the “entanglement” between the companies and the government. New Democracy is the party of the ruling class, it is the party of businesses, the party of contractors. 

The outcry may have forced Mitsotakis to take back his initial statements about “human error.” But the only person who has been jailed so far is the station master. 

The cynicism with which the government deals with the pain of the people who lost their loved ones in Tempe was shown by the appointment to the Committee of Experts that will—supposedly—investigate the causes of the accident of Thanasis Zeliaskopoulos. 

He is the former president and CEO of Trainose and current chairman of the Board of Directors of Taiped. They put the wolf to watch over the sheep, as the old saying goes.

Zeliaskopoulos was forced to resign after the uproar caused by the news. And the presidents of OSE and Ergose resigned. They are deeply wrong if they think that a couple of fake tears and a feigned apology will make us forget. We don’t forget.

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