April 14. 2024. 6:22

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Greece’s lack of train investigation body ‘identified’, not addressed by EU

The European Commission has “identified” the lack of a permanent and independent railway accident investigation body in Greece since 2019 in violation of EU law, but no action was taken, and only in the aftermath of a train tragedy are the Greek authorities setting one up.

The train tragedy that cost the lives of 57 people has exposed several shortcomings in Greece’s railway sector and caused severe political shockwaves in the country.

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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.

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In addition to policy loopholes, particularly when it comes to trains’ safety, another issue has been identified: the lack of an independent railway body to investigate accidents.

The issue was made public by main opposition Syriza EU lawmakers (EU Left) after the conservative New Democracy government (EPP) – in absence of an established body, required under EU law – set up a temporary “special committee” consisting of people chosen by the government.

The “special committee” was strongly criticised by the opposition, which questioned its impartiality.

Commission admits Greek failure

Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission spokesperson said the executive has been aware of the situation since 2019.

“Greece completed its transposition of the Railway Safety Directive (EU) 2016/798 on 23 October 2019. In the course of the compliance check and following information received from the European Railways Agency, the absence of an operational investigation body in Greece was identified,” the spokesperson said.

The EU spokesperson added that in July 2021, the Greek authorities informed the Commission of their intention to establish a multi-modal investigating body to ensure the best use of experience and efficiency of the investigation processes.

“However, this process had not been finalised satisfactorily, which is why the Commission has been in touch with the Greek authorities on this question,” the official noted.

In the aftermath of the train tragedy, EU officials visited Athens and met with government representatives, including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Referring to that visit, the spokesperson said, “while awaiting the official notification, our understanding is that the legislative and administrative procedures to empower the National Investigative Body to function are almost completed and that recruitments are imminent”.

Commission does not admit its own failure

The EU spokesperson refused to comment on the government’s decision to set up an ad hoc investigation body and referred EURACTIV to article 22 of the relevant EU directive.

Article 22 states that each member state shall ensure that investigations of accidents are conducted by a permanent body, which shall comprise at least one investigator able to perform the function of investigator-in-charge in the event of an accident or incident.

“That body shall be independent in its organisation, legal structure and decision-making from any infrastructure manager, railway undertaking, charging body, allocation body and conformity assessment body and from any party whose interests could conflict with the tasks entrusted to the investigating body”.

EURACTIV also asked the Commission why no action has been taken – such as launching an infringement process – considering that Athens has been violating EU law for years.

“The Commission has various tools at its disposal to play its role in monitoring the application of EU law, of which infringement proceedings are just one,” the EU spokesperson said, insisting that the EU executive has been “in touch” with Greek authorities.

Rumours circulating in Brussels, though, suggest that it was recently recommended by the European Commission to launch an infringement process against Greece over the matter.

EU Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean, who belongs to the same EU political family (EPP) as Greece’s ruling party, allegedly blocked it.

EURACTIV was informed that the Commission, in principle, does not launch infringement processes against member states during a pre-election period. However, Greece has not officially announced an election date.

What’s happening in the rest of Europe

EURACTIV’s network confirmed that in all countries concerned, active railway investigation bodies have been in place for years, and they produce annual reports.

Germany and Slovenia established such bodies in 2017, Luxembourg in 2008 and Spain in 2007.

France’s Bureau d’enquête sur les accidents de transports terrestres (BEA-TT) was established in 2004, well before the EU regulation. EURACTIV France reports that at this stage, it is not entirely independent – as the directive requires – because it’s still under the relevant ministry.

There are similar concerns about Slovakia. A transport ministry source told EURACTIV Slovakia that “such an authority is the ministry itself. It is the investigating authority in respect of accidents and incidents occurring on railways, special railways and funiculars”.

Croatia set it up in 2013 before it acceded to the EU and harmonised accordingly with the 2016 directive.

In the case of Bulgaria, a criminal investigation led by the National Investigation Service immediately began after accidents similar to the Greek one occurred.

EURACTIV Bulgaria reported that investigating magistrates appoint technical expertise by independent experts, usually former employees of the state railway company or technical universities.