March 4. 2024. 7:23

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REVEALED: Greece, EU lost in Babel of train safety deals


The EU and Greece have been trying to put in place modern safety systems and improve Greek railways’ cross-border interoperability to connect with the rest of Europe for more than twenty years.

But a series of delays, grey contracts and zero accountability have exposed both Greece’s insufficient investment planning as well as the EU’s lax monitoring mechanisms and the train tragedy that cost the lives of 57 people has opened Pandora’s Box.

According to a document seen by EURACTIV, for years, the European Commission has been pressuring Greek authorities and raising concerns about two projects key to tackling Greek railway safety, but they were never implemented.

An EU source told EURACTIV that a hearing is planned as part of an ongoing process related to the problematic execution of works on railway signalling and communication between 2000 and 2013.

In that period, governments of conservative New Democracy and Greek socialists (Pasok) ruled the country.

The first project related to the installation of the European Train Control System (ETCS) for the period 2000-2006, and the other, the upgrade of the signalling system on trains and remote control, which was supposed to be finalised in the period 2007-2013.

Both projects’ objective was to upgrade train safety with digital technologies to avoid “human error” as Greek railways are still operated manually.

In a letter sent by the Commission to the Greek government in June 2021, the EU executive explicitly says the two projects have been co-financed by the EU but not implemented.

The Commission called on the government to provide clarification otherwise, it warned that it would ask for “financial correction” by declaring not eligible EU funds worth almost €18 million.

In several letters seen by EURACTIV, the Greek government disagreed with the proposed “financial corrections” describing them as “non-proportional” and “unjust” toward the government’s efforts to finalise the projects and considering the amounts of national resources invested in the projects.

It seems the European Commission services were not convinced, and they asked for a hearing to explain the situation and the significant delays.

The ‘717’ contract

Meanwhile, a new contract was signed in 2014 for the upgrade of the signalling system on Greek trains and remote control.

The “717” contract, under a New Democracy government (EPP), was supposed to finalise the project within two years, by 2016.

It was assigned to TOMI, a joint venture between Aktor group and French multinational Alstom.

But the contract had many technical ambiguities and loopholes.

Critics in Athens suggest that this is a well-known trick used in Greece to get a contractor to take over and then make upwards price adjustments to exploit the ambiguities.

Greek press reported that during the implementation period, the projects’ partners clashed, resulting in a deadlock and raising eyebrows in Brussels.

However, a part of the project taken over solely by French Alstom in northern Greece was delivered.

The deadlock continued and when the leftist Syriza government (EU Left) came in power, for the first time in Greek politics, the case was taken to the court of auditors.

The court ruled in 2018 that a supplementary contract should be signed raising the costs by €13.3 million while the initial amount was €42 million. Syriza claims that it delivered a contract without any legal hurdles and the project was 70% complete.

While the supplementary contract was ready in 2018, the current New Democracy government signed it in 2021, three years after the court decision.

It is still unclear why there was such a delay to sign the supplementary contract. EURACTIV reached out to representatives but did not receive an answer by the time of publication. The story will be updated with the government’s position once received.

Commission admits project’s delay

An EU source said the specific project is still under execution with deadline end of 2023 and no hearing is foreseen.

The same source acknowledged, though, that the implementation of this project is delayed in relation to the initial time schedule of the contract.

In accordance with the shared management and subsidiarity principles, decisions related to contract management lay exclusively with the member states which need to ensure conformity with the EU public procurement acquis.

However, delays do not automatically disqualify expenditure from EU co-financing. In fact, the expenditure relating to this project is eligible until 31 December 2023 which is the end date of expenditure for the EU co-funded projects implemented under the programming period 2014-2020.

But the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has not wasted time.

An EPPO spokesperson told EURACTIV earlier this month that the EU prosecutor has already launched an investigation into the contract “looking exclusively into possible damages to the financial interests in the EU”.

EU prosecutor investigates contract related to Greek train tragedy

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) recently launched an investigation over a contract about the upgrade of Greek trains’ signaling system and remote control, which if it was functional, a tragedy killing more than 50 people could have been avoided.

Under pressure for Recovery Fund

The pressure mounted on the Greek government to speed things up as the project became part of the reforms needed to receive money from the Recovery Fund.

EURACTIV was informed that as part of the second payment request under the plan, the Greek government passed a law in October to provide additional resources for the OSE (owner of the infrastructure) and ERGOSE (construction manager) and to improve the focus and coordination of the two companies by clarifying their respective responsibilities and improving their governance.

The second tranche of the Recovery Fund was scheduled for May 2022 but only took place in October 2022.

EURACTIV was informed that delays in reforms related to trains and the main intercity public transport bus service in Greece (KTEL) were the reasons behind the deadlock in the second payment from the Recovery Fund.

In May 2022, the development ministry met with the relevant stakeholders, including the independent Railway Regulatory Authority (RAS).

A source that took part in the meeting told EURACTIV that the ministry asked RAS to approve the project. To do so, RAS requested the necessary documents, and another meeting was scheduled for 20 June.

At that meeting, RAS clarified that the “Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI)” concerned the on-board part of the remote-control system, i.e. in the wagon – provided in the EU directive should be respected.

The source said the ministry and ERGOSE pointed out that the safety protocol was different than the one when the contracts were signed.

EURACTIV was informed that the ministry then requested the Commission to deviate from TSI safety protocol.

An EU source confirmed to EURACTIV that Greece, in total, submitted two requests for derogations to deviate from the TSI.

The first request has been closed as Greece withdrew its request on 16 February, a couple of days before the deadly train crash.

The EU source said the second request is still under assessment by the Commission but emphasised that the authorities and beneficiaries are bound to respect the EU legislation.

Government ignored workers’ warnings

On the day of the accident, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a visit to the Railway Remote Control Centre of northern Greece, raising questions about the reasons behind this move, considering that the centre did not even exist.

The president of the train drivers’ association Kostas Genidounias told EURACTIV that “it remains a question mark what the PM’s visit was about”.

“No remote-control centre existed for the Larisa-Thessaloniki line […] we never understood what project he would inaugurate”, Genidounias said.

He added that from September 2021 to October 2022, his association had sent three legal notices to the government warning them about the lack of safety in trains.

“The government replied that we are spreading lies and fake news”, he noted.

Greek ministers mocked railway workers’ warning about train tragedy

Greek railway workers had warned for years the Greek government about the increased possibility of a train accident. But these warnings were denounced as “groundless” by ministers who even replied ironically, according to new videos published on social media.

A risky ‘exchange’

Meanwhile, in 2019 the Greek government signed an MoU with TrainOSE, a private railway company which currently operates passenger and freight trains on OSE lines.

According to the MoU, TrainOSE would invest €750 million in new wagons and digital upgrades of the network. In exchange, the government was responsible for completing safety systems for the company to increase itineraries.

In late 2020, TrainOSE sent the government a draft contract in line with the MoU deal, but the government postponed the signature due to the pandemic.

It seems that further talks took place in the meantime, and in the summer of 2022, the government brought to the Greek House the contract, which reduced the company’s necessary investments to €150 million and the government got rid of its responsibility to complete safety systems’ upgrade.

The Syriza opposition described the final deal as a “criminal exchange”.

EURACTIV contacted the government on Sunday to get a comment on the Greek prime minister’s scheduled visit to the inexistent remote-control centre and why the deal with TrainOSE was significantly downgraded.

The story will be updated once the Greek government’s replies are available.

Meanwhile, new Transport Minister Giorgos Gerapetritis announced last week that the new plan is to have all safety systems in place by mid-September.

(Sarantis Michalopoulos – Edited by Alice Taylor | EURACTIV.com)