March 5. 2024. 2:23

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Greece train crash: Death toll reaches 57 as recording shows stationmaster told driver ‘pass the red signal’

The death toll from a train crash in central Greece reached 57 on Thursday, emergency services said.

“At present the number of confirmed dead recovered is 57,” a police spokesperson said. A spokesperson for the fire brigade said the search mission at the crash site, in the Tempi valley in central Greece, was expected to wind down on Friday.

The stationmaster of Larissa city, who was charged on Thursday over the country’s worst train crash, assumes some responsibility for the disaster but other factors were also at play, his lawyer said.

On Tuesday evening, a passenger train with more than 350 people on board collided head-on with a freight train near the city of Larissa, some 380km north of the capital Athens. The trains were travelling in opposite directions on the same track.

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The 59-year-old stationmaster was arrested hours later. Greek railway unions have long complained of slipping safety standards which place both passengers and workers at risk.

The detainee, who according to Greek state media reports was assigned his role about a month ago, appeared before a prosecutor on Thursday morning. Felony charges were laid against him for disrupting transport and putting lives at risk, his lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis said outside the courthouse.

“He is literally devastated,” Mr Pantzartzidis told reporters. “Since the first moment, he has assumed responsibility proportionate to him ... he is not in a position to say anything else.”

Mr Pantzartzidis said that his client followed the existing procedure partially and he could have been “possibly more careful, which he accepts and takes responsibility for, but until there”. He added that “there has been convergent negligence by many other factors”.

Mr Pantzartzidis did not specify which factors he believed were at play in the accident or give details about what procedures his client had not followed. Authorities have not made public the name of the accused.

The man, who according to a police official had initially denied wrongdoing, attributing the incident to a technical failure, was expected to respond to the charges on Saturday.

A retired train driver instructor, Nikos Tsouridis, told state TV earlier on Thursday that the stationmaster was trained but inexperienced.

“They will pile everything on the stationmaster. He was trained, but inexperienced. They should never have assigned him to a central station like Larissa, and on his own.”

“He had completed his training, but he had been there [in that position] for a month.”

Greece’s railway is functional mainly because of the trained drivers and stationmasters, Mr Tsouridis said.

“The railroad only works today because of the drivers, because they are well trained, and staff,” he said. Mr Pantsartzidis did not say how long his client had been in the job in Larissa, one of the largest cities in Greece.

More than 30 people have been killed, and many more injured, after two trains collided head-on outside of Larissa, Greece. Video: Reuters

A recording of the communication between the train driver and the stationmaster which was published on Proto Thema website suggested the latter told the driver to continue past a red signal.

“Is Larissa listening?” the driver said referring to the stationmaster, according to the recording.

“It is listening ... pass the red signal at the exit until the entrance signal at Neoi Poroi [station],” the stationmaster responded.

But that order did not strike the driver as strange as the signalling system had been dysfunctional, Proto Thema reported.

Stationmasters are hired by OSE, the Greek railway infrastructure operator, while train drivers are hired by Hellenic Train, a subsidiary of Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane.

Earlier on Thursday, government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said “the stationmaster had confessed to negligence” and that the train crash was caused by a human error.

But Greece, he said, also needs to examine what could have been done over the years to prevent this crash.

Railway workers’ associations called strikes, halting national services and the subway in Athens, to protest against working conditions and what they described as a lack of modernisation of the Greek rail system.

Rescuers resumed a search on Thursday, combing through the buckled and crushed remains of carriages that derailed and then caught fire.

“It will be very difficult to find survivors, due to the temperatures that developed in the carriages,” rescuer Constantinos Imamidis told Reuters. “This is the hardest thing, instead of saving lives we have to dig out bodies.”

Many of the victims were thought to be university students returning home after a long holiday weekend.

In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched late Wednesday to protest over the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of Greece’s rail operator and riot police, and set rubbish bins on fire. No arrests or injuries were reported.

“We find ourselves in front of an unimaginable tragedy,” Greece’s president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, said in a statement. “We are mainly mourning young people.”

Late on Wednesday, Larissa’s chief coroner, Roubini Leondari, said 43 bodies had been brought to her for examination and would require DNA identification.

As condolences poured in from around the world, the questions mounted over the crash. “We have to ask why?” said Sotiris Raftopoulos, the president of the Panhellenic association of retired railway workers. “How could this tragedy happen?”

The two trains collided at 11.20pm on Tuesday outside the town of Tempe after the Thessaloniki-bound night train, which had set out from Athens, inexplicably switched lanes and diverged to the freight track.

The two trains then travelled for several kilometres along the same track before colliding at high speed. Witnesses at the scene described the front two carriages of the passenger train, where most of the student victims were seated, as being completely destroyed.

On impact the wagons exploded into flames, sending huge sheets of steel into the air. Survivors later spoke of being ejected from carriage windows; others described how they had to struggle through plumes of acrid smoke to free themselves after the train buckled. Many were subsequently caught on camera in the wreckage disoriented and dazed. – Agencies