Train accident in Greece: Fury at the elite for the young victims of the railway tragedy

  • By Giorgos Christides
  • In Thessaloniki

image source, George Christides

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Dimitra Kapetaniou, 24, was a post-graduate student and like many victims studying at university.

The last time I saw Dimitra Kapetaniou was when my four-year-old labrador spotted her, pulled me towards her and jumped on her for a big hug. She lived across the street with her parents and their dog, Freddie, and graduated last June with a degree in preschool education.

He was one of the 57 confirmed victims in Greece’s worst rail disaster and like many of them he was a student.

This tragedy shook Greece. Many of the lives lost were young and it sparked a national outpouring of grief and outrage mainly directed against the country’s ruling classes. Not for the first time, Greeks feel betrayed by their politicians.

Dimitra had boarded the train in Volos on the coast after finishing his graduate class, and was in one of the front cars of the passenger train carrying about 350 people from Athens to Thessaloniki.

A short time later, the train was mistakenly diverted onto the same track as an oncoming freight train. The two trains collided head-on, at speeds approaching 160 km/h. Dimitra’s death was confirmed by matching his DNA with his mother, Christina.

The direct cause of this disaster may be human error. But it would have been avoided if Greece had not grossly neglected such a core part of its critical infrastructure. The rail network has suffered years of underinvestment and neglect, and Greece’s protracted debt crisis is only part of the story.

image source, Getty Images

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Dozens of passengers were injured in the crash and the survivors were eventually taken to Thessaloniki

Dimitra was very popular in my neighborhood in Thessaloniki. A slender young woman with long, curly hair always had a huge smile. He had worked as a dog-sitter during his studies and my dog, Roman, had spent countless days at his house, often on his bed.

He was one of three people who died in the crash right from this small neighborhood. A fourth victim was seriously injured but survived.

Kelly Porfyridou, 23, was a theology student who died with her boyfriend Nikitas Karatheodorou, also 23. He was a firefighter who his colleagues said was on his way to visit his parents in Thessaloniki. Their joint funeral took place in my suburb a few days ago.

When I walk my dog, go to the bakery, the butcher or the kiosk, the conversation invariably turns to the train and often ends in tears. No one can reach this disaster and you can feel the anger at the Greek political system and decades of political failures.

I had planned to take this train myself and would have been in the first carriage, which exploded immediately after the collision, with the internal temperature reaching 1,300C. But I changed my plans a little earlier and flew home by plane instead.

Across Greece there have been mass demonstrations, the largest this government has faced since coming to power in July 2019.

Athens and Thessaloniki saw tens of thousands of people on the streets. From Evros in the north, to Crete in the south, the Greeks are united in grief and anger.

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Thousands of people returned to the streets in Thessaloniki

“This crime will not be forgotten, we will become the voice of all the dead”; “This was not an accident, it was murder,” read some of the posters.

The government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis is in damage control mode, and this has only fueled public anger. He promised to investigate the incident. The transport minister has resigned. The prime minister, after initially blaming the disaster mostly on human error, has now apologized and told a cabinet meeting: “I take responsibility.”

Train travel was suspended until security was restored. New funds are promised for upgrading the infrastructure and hiring staff. The station manager who mistakenly diverted the two trains onto the same track has been jailed pending trial.

But for many Greeks this is too little too late. According to the first poll, 87% say there are other causes besides human error, and guilt should be assigned. Every day new revelations about the sordid state of Greece’s train network cause more horror, anger and distrust of the political class.

A class that neglected the rail system, privatized operations, spent millions on safety systems only to let them rot and lost vital EU funding. Greeks are angry that billions are being spent on new fighter jets while critical infrastructure has been left underfunded and understaffed.

“They don’t care about us. They don’t care about our lives,” said an old retired manager in my neighborhood named Giorgos, who knows two of the young victims well: “What do I do? Who vote.? No one is worth hardly”.

This rage against the system is already having a profound influence on the Greek political landscape. Mr Mitsotakis was almost certain to call a snap election for April, before his term ends in July. The train wreck changed his plans.

The elections will be postponed with a reaction that could cost the center-right New Democracy party dearly at the polls. His early lead over the main opposition party has shrunk, while several fringe and protest parties have gained ground.

image source, Map of the Greek Prime Minister

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Greek transport minister Kostas Karamanlis (L) resigned after visiting the scene with the prime minister (second from right)

The rail disaster hit the prime minister hard, says Aristides Hatzis, professor of legal theory at the University of Athens, because it undermines one of his main selling points. Mr. Mitsotakis has always presented himself as a competent manager and a liberal technocrat, one to overhaul Greece and lead the country to modernization.

His government regularly celebrated his success in modernizing some of the public sector operations in Greece. But bringing the tax system online is understandably overshadowed by voters’ realization that their rail network is a veritable death trap.

For Professor Hatzis, the biggest danger that Greece is now facing is in people losing faith in the political system: “Such a collapse of legitimacy has historically worked in favor of the extreme right.”

The political fallout means little to the families who have lost loved ones. Dimitra’s funeral was a quiet affair here the other day. When I saw his mother, I asked if there was anything we could do. She replied, “I just want my daughter back.”

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