Coming up short, again

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We wake up once more asking ourselves: “How did this happen?” And again we hear of tragic shortages and oversights. As the head of the union of drivers at Hellenic Train SA, Kostas Genidounias, lamented on Wednesday: “Nothing works; everything is done manually. Even the light signals don’t work. If they did, the drivers would have seen the red signals and stopped in time.”

In other words, train drivers in Greece are going in blind and relying on information that is transmitted verbally. “The information is relayed from one stationmaster to the other over the radio. The stationmaster in Athens will say, ‘Proceed to Menidi’ then, ‘Proceed to Oinoi.’ This happens 15 times between Athens and Thessaloniki,” Genidounias told state broadcaster ERT.

Everything, therefore, is left to chance. “The train was idle, running late and I heard the driver talking to the ticket master and saying, ‘Let’s just go and whatever happens, happens.’ That’s exactly what I heard over the radio,” one of the passengers who survived the deadly crash stated.

“At first they told us there’d be a delay of 20 minutes, then an hour. They said there was some confusion on the lines. I heard two employees on the train saying, ‘Where’s the supervisor?’ A minute later, it was ‘bang,’” said another passenger.

In another statement, the representative for the company’s workers on the board of Hellenic Train told Kathimerini that it took 45 minutes to identify the exact location of the train that crashed. What has come after the “bang” – and the dozens of dead and injured – is typical of the Greek response to such tragedies. The judicial authorities have sprung into action and everyone is making statements of sadness and vows to shed light on every aspect of the disaster. Once the shock wears off, we’ll brace ourselves for the usual blame game about the blatant failures in the railway system’s safety mechanism. “The responsible parties must be held to account,” one side will say as the other responds, “How dare you talk when you did nothing while in government.”

There is one small detail about the whole affair, however, that says it all: “At the time of the crash, there were roughly 350 passengers aboard the train,” Hellenic Train said in its initial announcement. “Roughly” is the detail. The culture of not keeping count is prevalent, even on trains. But at least the criminal code has changed so that crimes affecting public transportation and resulting in death are treated like a serious felony and can be punishable with up to 10 years or even life in prison. That ought to do the trick…

Published in 3.3.2023