Tens of thousands of people marched throughout Greece on Wednesday—amid a nationwide walkout organized by labor unions and student associations—to demand accountability and reforms in the wake of the country's deadliest train disaster, which has been attributed to austerity imposed from abroad.
The February 28 crash that killed 57 people and injured another 72 has sparked public outrage over the deteriorating quality of the rail network. As Reutersreported, "Striking workers say years of neglect, underinvestment, and understaffing—a legacy of Greece's decade-long debt crisis—are to blame."
"Greece sold its state-owned railway operator, now called Hellenic Train, to Italy's state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 during its debt crisis," the news outlet noted. "The sale was a term in the country's bailout agreements with the European Union and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund."
More than 40,000 workers and students hit the streets of Athens, where they chanted "murderers!" and "we are all in the same carriage." Demonstrators in Greece's capital and largest city also waved signs reading, It's not an accident, it's a crime" and, "It could have been any of us on that train."
Another 20,000-plus people rallied in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city. Meanwhile, near the scene of the train collision in Larrisa, protesters declared, "No to profits over our lives!"
The demonstrations coincided with a daylong strike called by trade unionists. Greece's largest public sector union participated in the work stoppage, disrupting a wide range of transit services, while a teachers' union made clear that "it's not the time to fall silent."
Rail workers, for their part, "have staged rolling, 24-hour strikes since Thursday, bringing the network to a halt," Reuters reported. "The workers say their demands for improvement in safety protocols have gone unheard for years."
Police have responded to protests held across Greece since the disaster occurred with violent repression.
Many of the roughly 350 passengers aboard an intercity train that collided with a freight train while traveling on the same track—including 12 victims—were university students returning to Thessaloniki from Athens.
The stationmaster was arrested hours after the crash and is facing felony charges for disrupting transport and endangering lives.
"You feel angry because the government did nothing for all of those kids," 19-year-old Nikomathi Vathi told Reuters. "The public transport is a mess."
The main rail workers' union has vowed to "impose safe railways so that no one will ever experience the tragic accident at Tempi ever again," adding that "we have an obligation toward our fellow humans and our colleagues who were lost in the tragic accident."
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis this week accused the Greek government of trying to "cover-up the real causes of our railway tragedy... by bypassing parliamentary scrutiny and appointing arbitrarily its own three-member investigative committee—on which, remarkably, they included a gentleman who oversaw the botched privatization of our railways—not to mention the prime minister's pronouncement that the cause was human error."
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of Greece's conservative government who is up for re-election this year, orginally blamed the crash on human error before apologizing Sunday and "acknowledging that decades of neglect could have contributed to the disaster," Al Jazeera reported.
Hours after the collision, former Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned. Mitsotakis appointed one of his closest allies, George Gerapetritis, to replace him.
At a Wednesday morning press conference, Gerapetritis said that he understands why people are angry, apologized for the crash and promised to identify its causes, and announced that rail services are being suspended until at least the end of March while the government conducts a safety review.
"No train will set off again if we have not secured safety at the maximum possible level," said Gerapetritis. Greece's new transport minister said the government plans to invest in upgrading infrastructure and hiring more staff.
According to Al Jazeera correspondent John Psaropoulos, the press conference raised "more questions than answers" and is likely to make "the families of the victims even angrier."
As the news outlet reported:
“First of all, we've learned that some of the automated systems that should have been in place throughout the Greek network, were in fact operational on the night of the accident in Larissa station," said Psaropoulos.
He explained that an automated optimal route selection for the train would have been possible, but was not used.
"Secondly, it also doesn't answer why two additional station masters who should have been on duty until 11:00 pm took off at 10:00 pm without permission. Thirdly, it does not answer why the train was about 15 minutes late in leaving," he added, explaining how all these things contributed to the collision.
"It suggests enormous problems in the operation and training of personnel," said Psaropoulos.
E.U. Railway Agency executive director Josef Doppelbauer toldEuronews on Wednesday that his organization repeatedly warned Greek authorities of the need to shore up rail safety prior to the deadly crash.
Despite years of warnings from regulators and the provision of funding to modernize the country's railways, Doppelbauer said, Greek officials failed to fully implement an automated rail traffic management system and other recommended changes. If they had, he added, the disaster likely would have been averted.
European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to provide technical support. Gerapetritis was set to meet with Doppelbauer and other transportation experts from the bloc later on Wednesday.
Varoufakis, who served as Greece's finance minister in 2015 when the "troika"—the EC, the European Central Bank, and the IMF—rammed through a devastating "structural adjustment" program, balked at Leyen's offer, arguing that she helped bring about the crisis in the first place.
The EC was part of the unelected troika that "railroaded the Greek government into the botched privatization that caused the tragedy," he noted. "Keep your assistance dear Ursula. We have had enough."
Last week, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), which was co-founded by Varoufakis, argued that "the E.U. has blood on its hands."
The deadly collision "has further brought the negligence and corruption of the Greek government under scrutiny, and rightly so," the group said. "However, the role of the European Union in the tragedy cannot go unmentioned either, as it was the E.U. and its institutions who forced Greece to sell off public utilities for a pittance to private—and in the case of the railways, bankrupt and incompetent—companies."
Erik Edman, spokesperson of the European Realistic Disobedience Front (MeRA25), a left-wing Greek political party founded by Varoufakis, denounced the E.U.'s posturing after it lowered its flags to half-mast on Friday in a symbolic tribute to the victims of the crash.
"The architects of the permanent impoverishment of the Greek state and the disastrous privatization of its public property are lowering their flags today," said Edman. "The EC were the brains behind the haphazard privatization that forced the Greek state to sell the entirety of its national railways to the bankrupt (!) Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane for—I kid you not—a measly 45 million euros."
"They view demonstrations, such as those by Greek rail workers, as backward unionists opposing the efficiency of privatization," Edman continued. "People who had been warning of an inevitable accident as a result of underinvestment. Their colleagues had been injured in past years, and now."
"They constantly praise the corrupt government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a 'success story,'" he added. "So, they should either stand by the policies they've been supporting and keep the flags up, or take them down and put them away in shame. Anything else is hypocrisy of the worst kind."