Anger in Greece over poor rail safety rose on Thursday as the death toll in one of the country’s worst train crashes in years hit 57.
Protesters took to the streets after the frontal collision between a passenger train carrying more than 350 people and a freight train on Tuesday evening at Tempi, near the town of Larissa.
Protesters clashed with police in the capital Athens, the country’s transport minister resigned in the wake of the tragedy and a union of railway workers went on strike, accusing the government of “lack of respect” in the sector.
Another 48 people remain in hospital following the crash, which left overturned cars and scorched debris in its wake. Six of the injured treated are in critical condition due to head injuries and severe burns, state broadcaster ERT reported on Thursday.
After a station manager in Larissa was arrested in connection with the collision, Greek authorities also released vivid dispatch audio recordings on Thursday that show one of the train drivers being instructed to ignore a red light.
“Go through the red light exit to the Neon Poron light entrance,” the station master said.
“Vasilis, am I ready to go? the train driver responds, to which the conductor says “Come on, come on.”
In a second conversation, the station master is heard ordering an employee to keep one of the trains on the same track.
“Should I shoot it now? asks the employee.
“No, no, because 1564 is on this route,” said the station master.
The station master was charged with mass negligent death and negligent grievous bodily harm. When arrested, he blamed the collision on a technical fault, although he later admitted he “made a mistake”.
Protesters gathered again on Thursday evening outside the Athens headquarters of the Greek railway company Hellenic Train in a demonstration organized by student and worker unions.
The police were already present in front of the seat of the Hellenic train before the arrival of the demonstrators. The protest was peaceful, following unrest on Wednesday in which protesters clashed with police.
Most of the passengers involved in the crash were young, a local hospital told ERT. The accident occurred shortly after a public holiday weekend.
Search and rescue operations will continue Thursday and Friday at the crash site, according to firefighters.
Meanwhile, relatives of the missing persons are still awaiting news of their loved ones as the identification process continues at Larissa General Hospital.
Speaking to Greek media earlier, Dimitris Bournazis, who is trying to get news from his father and brother, said no one has given him any information. Bournazis said he was trying to contact the company to find out where his relatives were on the train at the time of the crash. He said he called the Hellenic Train offices three times but no one called him back.
“The Prime Minister and the Minister of Health came here yesterday. For what? To do what? To explain what? Where are they today? Bournazis told Greek TV channel SKAI, adding that “nobody gave us any information, nobody knows how many people were actually inside.”
“We can’t blame a single person for this because of a mistake. Where is everyone now? They are all waiting for the election to speak up,” he said.
Speaking to ERT, passenger Andreas Alikaniotis, who was in the second car when the crash happened, described the moments after the crash.
“What we did was break the glass, which was already cracked, and throw the luggage outside the car, so we could land somewhere soft,” he told ERT. , describing how he helped a dozen people escape.
“We jumped 3 to 4 meters”, he added, “first the most seriously injured and then us with lighter injuries”
Alikaniotis added that he remembered luring two or three girls and helping them jump out of the window. “It was panic,” he added.
Greece has a poor rail passenger safety record compared to other countries in Europe, recording the highest rail fatality rate per million train-kilometres from 2018 to 2020 among 28 countries on the continent, according to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways.
At an extraordinary meeting, the Greek Federation of Railway Workers unanimously decided to launch the 24-hour strike on Thursday to denounce poor working conditions and chronic understaffing.
He accused the federal government of “disrespecting” the railroads for causing the accident, saying that “more permanent staff, better training and mainly the implementation of modern safety systems are definitely thrown at the bin”.
Separately, another 24-hour strike was announced by Greek metro workers, who said in a statement: “There are no words to describe such a tragedy.”
Greek Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis said the rail system the government had inherited was “not up to 21st century standards” as he left office on Wednesday.
In a televised address after visiting the crash site, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the collision was “mainly” due to “tragic human error”.
He said the Transport Minister’s decision to resign was honorable and added that the leaders of the Hellenic Railway Organization and its subsidiary ERGOSE had also submitted their resignations.
Condolences are pouring in from around the world, as a three-day period of mourning is underway in Greece.
Britain’s King Charles said in a statement that he and his wife Camilla, Queen Consort, were “very shocked and deeply saddened by the news of the terrible accident”.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “My heart goes out to the families of the victims of the terrible accident that happened last night near Larissa. France is at the side of the Greeks.