After the Greek train accident, the station manager is on trial

The Greek station manager, who is accused of driving an overspeeding passenger train into the path of an oncoming freight train, was expected to appear in court on Sunday on manslaughter charges in the deadliest rail disaster in Greek history.

But when Greek officials described the crash as a tragic case of human error, public opinion turned against the government for years of neglect of safety – not a man other rail workers and protesters say is being made a scapegoat.

“They want to say it’s a man’s fault,” said Antonis Bompotis, 26, who was among hundreds of protesters who gathered on Friday in Larissa, a town near the crash site. “But it is a government of murderers.”

Outside the Larissa courthouse on Saturday, Vassilios Noulezas, a lawyer representing the family of a victim and two survivors, said he intends to bring several current and former government officials to justice.

“We don’t blame just one person,” Mr Noulezas said. “There shouldn’t have been just one person in control.”

The 59-year-old station manager, who has not been officially identified, has privately admitted to errors, according to excerpts of his statements to the authorities published in Greek news media. radio recordings published by a Greek news website show how a train driver is told to ignore a red light.

“Pass the red signal,” the station manager said to the driver, according to recordings late Tuesday evening.

The station boss was due in court on Saturday but Stefanos Pantzartzidis, his lawyer, said he had requested an extension because new elements had emerged in the case. It wasn’t immediately clear what those elements were. The station manager is now due to appear in court on Sunday morning, Mr Pantzartzidis said.

However, possible errors are only part of the story. Railway workers say the traffic lights have always been red because of years of technical failures. The workers only had to warn each other of oncoming trains via walkie-talkie.

“I would cross myself every time to avoid an accident,” said Theodor Leventis, who has been the train safety officer for 20 years. He took part in a vigil for the victims of the train in front of Larissa’s train station on Friday. “I was sure it would happen,” he added.

Mr Leventis, 65, retired two years ago after working on the same track where the accident happened. “You can’t say a man is in charge,” he said. “The only responsible person is the government.”

The Greek government was due to install an automated security system nearly three years ago, but was awarded extensions as part of a contentious contracting process. This system is intended to trigger an alarm and automatically stop locomotives in dangerous situations.

In the days following the crash, the Greek government did not explain why this system was so behind schedule. So are officials from the European Union, which has spent hundreds of millions of euros over the past decade improving a rail system that is in many ways the deadliest in Europe.

Rail unions have long warned of an impending disaster. Workers said their fears began to increase after the financial crisis that devastated Greece’s economy in 2010. The railroad’s staff has been cut drastically, and unions have said for years that their members have been overworked and seconded to key stations without proper training experience.

Giorgos Apostoleris, a former train station master, recalled being transferred to Larissa a few years earlier with an hour’s notice. He worried at the time about who would be held responsible if he made a mistake. Tragedy, he said Friday, is all but inevitable. “It even took too long for an accident to happen,” he said in an interview.

The Greek state media reported that the Larissa station master had only recently been transferred to this post after six months of training.

Railway workers warned the government last month in a letter that they did not want to wait for an impending accident “to see them cry crocodile tears” and that intervention was urgent.

“We tried strikes for years. We have informed every government about these problems, but we have not found any sympathetic ears,” said Νikolaos Tsikalakis, a railway counter and chairman of the staff union of the Greek national railway organization. “That’s how this tragic accident happened.”

Greece’s transport minister resigned shortly after the crash, acknowledging that efforts to improve the national railway safety system had been insufficient.

The two trains, carrying about 350 people, had raced towards each other for 12 minutes before colliding late Tuesday, according to the chairman of the Association of Railway Employees. At least 57 people have died.

When the Greeks laid bouquets of white roses on the tracks, they also cursed the government. At vigils, they lit candles and murmured that they “wouldn’t believe their lies anymore.” On a bus on the plain at the foot of Mount Olympus, alongside the trucks removing derelict wagons from the scene of the accident, some commuters shrugged their shoulders in fear.

“If they just blame one human error and don’t change the system,” said George Gkonelas, 53, a commuter, “it will happen again.”

Outside the courthouse, where the train manager is expected to appear on Sunday, protesters hung signs criticizing the government for ignoring years of warnings that a rail disaster was inevitable.

“It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a tragedy,” read a banner. “It was government negligence and an assassination.”

Chrysostom Trimmis, Niki Kitsantonis and Giannis Giannakopoulos contributed to the coverage. After the Greek train accident, the station manager is on trial

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