Public life in Greece came to an almost complete standstill on Thursday. Planes were grounded, ships remained docked, public transport was not running, and schools were closed. The reason was a nationwide strike by the largest unions to protest the deadliest train accident ever in Greece, which killed 57 people last month. At the same time, peaceful demonstrations took place in Athens and other cities, to which riot police responded with tear gas, batons and sound bombs.
The strike is the latest in a series of anti-government protests since last month’s deadly collision between a passenger train with more than 350 people on board and a freight train near the town of Larissa in the central Greek region of Tempi. The demonstrators accuse the government of ignoring repeated warnings from unions about inadequate security measures. “It wasn’t human error, it was crime,” read a banner protesters carried outside the parliament building in Athens. “Our dead, your gains,” said another.
The Conservative government acknowledges that the rail sector is flawed due to years of neglect and a lack of investment – a legacy of the debt crisis in 2007 and 2008. But Prime Minister Mitsotakis initially attributes the collision mainly to human error.
A 59-year-old station master from Larissa, charged with a wrong switch that caused trains to run on the same track, has been charged with negligent homicide. He could face ten years in prison if convicted. Three other railway workers have been arrested.
But the arrests have not lessened public anger. Many Greeks are convinced that the accident could have been prevented if the authorities had taken proper precautions. Instead, revelations of staff shortages and a flawed signaling system have exposed the poor state of the rail network. This sparks a wave of outrage that has put Mitsotakis on the defensive. Last week, 65,000 Greeks took to the streets in protest against the government, including 40,000 in Athens.
We don’t want their money, said the father of a deceased passenger. “This was mass murder. I refuse to accept the excuses of murderers”
In response to popular anger, Mitsotakis felt compelled to apologize to the families of the victims of the accident. “As prime minister, I owe it to everyone, but especially to the families of the victims, to ask for forgiveness,” Mitsotakis wrote on March 5 in a message on his Facebook page addressed to the nation ahead of a memorial service in Athens . “In the Greece of 2023, two trains traveling in different directions cannot be on the same track without anyone noticing.”
The train accident is a lot more politically damaging to Mitsotakis than the wiretapping scandal in which his government has been embroiled since last year. Before the accident, it was expected that he would call elections for April 9. But since then, support for the right-wing governing New Democracy party has fallen by 4 percentage points in the polls, cutting its lead over the main opposition party SYRIZA in half. Therefore, Mitsotakis felt compelled to buy time and change his plans. The elections are now expected to take place on May 21.
Mitsotakis has pledged to improve the ailing rail sector with support from the European Union. Greek train company Hellenic Train, which was taken over by the Italian state rail company in 2017, said on Wednesday that the families of the dead and injured would each receive between €5,000 and €42,000 to cover their “immediate needs”. The company emphasized that it does not accept responsibility for the accident. The father of a deceased passenger declined the offer. “We don’t want their money,” Pavlos Aslanidis told Greek channel Alpha TV. “This was mass murder. I refuse to accept the excuses of murderers.”