Lianokladi Station, a morning in mid-December 2013. The train driver has just turned on the engine of Intercity train 53, which is carrying 120 passengers, and is about to complete the rest of the route from Thessaloniki to Athens. Shortly after 10.30 am, the train passes the station of Asopos, where right afterwards it is expected to make a sharp turn left before the railway bridge of Papadia. Then, the driver suddenly sees two large animals standing on the tracks only a few meters ahead of him and tries in vain to immobilize the train. The train collides with one of the animals, which makes one of the cars derail. As a result, a passenger and the driver himself get slightly injured.
This accident is only one of the hundreds that are affecting the Greek railway system every year. Unfortunately, not all of them are bloodless like this one. Despite sporadic media coverage, particularly when there is a major accident such as the derailment near the Adendro village (Thessaloniki region) in May 2017 where three people were killed and six heavily injured, there has been no comprehensive examination of Greek railway accidents.
This raises many questions, especially considering that research carried out by MIIR on the available European and Greek data shows that railway accidents are extremely frequent in Greece, leading to 137 deaths and 97 people being severely injured between 2010 and 2018. Greece has consistently found itself amongst the most dangerous countries in the European Union when it comes to the railways.
A bloody first
MIIR relied on data from the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) and the safety reports of the Greek Regulatory Authority for Railways (RAS), which developed a recording and monitoring system for rail events according to the EU Regulation 1077/2012 in order to draw conclusions about the railway network’s safety. This database is used to gather data from the analysis upheld by the Event and Accident Research Committee of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) after each railway accident. The information collected is considered fully valid and reliable.
According to the most recent data (2018), Greece ranks first in the EU with regards to the number of deaths from rail accidents in proportion to the kilometers travelled by trains in the country during that year. This is considered an effective safety indicator, as it gives a representative picture of mortality levels that allows for comparisons between countries. Suicides are not included, because they constitute a separate category.
Moreover, Greece takes second place among EU countries when it comes to the number of injuries caused by rail accidents in proportion to the kilometers that trains have travelled in 2018.
In 2018, the number of deaths and injuries has increased to an alarming degree. According to the latest Annual Safety Report by the Regulatory Authority for Railways, this is mainly due to immigrants , who “constitute the main problem of Greek railways” since “they do not know the language, cannot understand the warning signs and thus do not follow the safety rules” and, in their attempt to reach the borders, they “move along railway tracks or find refuge in railway facilities, which leads to many accidents”.
Although the problem is undoubtedly real and needs to be addressed, especially since a large part of the network’s rails remain exposed, the data analysis shows that stating that the immigrant flow towards Greece constitutes the main railway issue is – at least – an overly simplified interpretation of the matter at hand. Greece finds itself consistently in the top positions of risk rates, taking for instance the second place in terms of deaths per train kilometres in 2012 and remaining in the top positions in the following years – when the migration flow was not as high as nowadays.
We raised this issue with the chairwoman of the Regulatory Authority for Railways (RAS) Ioanna Tsiaparikou, who argued that “in 2018 the highest death toll is indeed due to the immigration problem, since 9 out of 17 deaths happen to be immigrants. This is an important variable regarding the accidents, but not the main one.” According to her, “the vast number of level crossings is probably the most crucial factor behind railway accidents, especially when one takes into account the length of the network. This is where most deaths are recorded; not in fatal accidents caused by derailments or train collisions.”
Level crossings made of wood and soil
Level crossings are one of the most prominent problems of the Greek railways. Their number is considerable high, which makes them a recurring element in reports concerning accidents. The problem is more pronounced in urban areas, as residents intervene arbitrarily and create improvised crossings, according to the special report “Event Recording and Monitoring System in the National Rail Network” by RAS (November 2018). This point is seconded by OSE driver and chairman of the Panhellenic Association of Traction Employees, Kostas Genidounias, who suggested that “there are dangerous level crossing in provincial areas, where farmers, mayors or representatives of the local government drop dirt and flatten it out to create a level crossing in the middle of nowhere because someone needs to cross over to get to their fields.”
“The most striking example, though, is in Gazi, Athens. – Genidounias continues – In an area that runs on 25kV because there are bars and cafes, there are three level crossings for pedestrians across a line where trains pass every 10 minutes. Two of the crossings were created by the municipality, whereas the other one by the local residents. The first crossing, at the exit of the Kerameikos metro station, is a wooden structure that allows – often inebriated – pedestrians to cross the railway tracks. After 30 meters, there is a second pedestrian crossing. It is surrounded by bars and cafes, so a wooden ramp was placed there to allow easy access. It’s completely terrifying for drivers to go through this part of the route after 8-9 pm and, unfortunately, there have been a lot of accidents at both points. The third one is located right before the nearby Rosiniol bridge, where local residents have cut through the barbed wire with disastrous results. It is unacceptable that there have been no attempts to replace these crossings with an overpass, a proper pedestrian crossing. We raised this issue with OSE but without much luck – the cafes are still winning this battle. As a result, many pedestrians have lost their lives here over the last few years.”
According to the data from ERA’s “Railway Safety in the EU – Safety Overview 2017 ”, there are 31 unprotected (“passive”) level crossings per 100 km of railway in Greece, whereas the EU average is 23. When it comes to crossings with an active warning system, which could be either a guard room or an electronic barrier, these numbers move to 34 for Greece and to 26 for the EU. Overall, Greece had 1,263 level crossings in 2018, out of which 45 per cent were passive. The small decrease shown in the chart below is because level crossings that have been temporarily suspended are no longer taken into account.
In addition, Greece comes second in the EU when in terms of serious injuries incurred at level crossings in proportion to the kilometers travelled.
Greece also holds the sad lead in the death toll from rail accidents that have happened at level crossings in proportion to the kilometers travelled by trains among the EU countries.
Between 2014 and 2018, 22 people lost their lives in railway accidents at level crossings, while 19 were injured.
Speaking on behalf of RAS, its chairwoman Ioanna Tsiaparikou suggested that there is a need to “introduce a committee that will streamline the existence of level crossings in order to reduce their numbers as much as possible. They would also need to fence the railway lines to stop pedestrians from crossing them. For example, the newly launched high-speed lines are fenced-in with no level crossings and thus expected to contribute significantly towards the solution of this problem. Educating the population to be careful at level crossings is another important prevention measure and that is why we have already taken action. With the permission of the Ministry of Education and in cooperation with the OSE, we have kicked off a program that educates primary and high school students about safety when it comes to crossings, electrification systems and railways. More than 10,000 children have taken part in this program”.
We reached out to Konstantinos Spiliopoulos, the current chairman of OSE, to inquire about more specific information. He responded that he was hard-pressed for time due to his excessive workload and avoided making any comments.
Pedestrian accidents and derailments
However, level crossings are not the only hazard in the Greek railway network. According to RAS data, the most common cause of accidents and deaths within the Greek railway network are pedestrian collisions, a phenomenon that has increased significantly in recent years. Accidents at level crossings rank second, whereas the third most frequent cause are derailments. The primary cause for derailments is the poor state of the infrastructure as well as traffic mismanagement. Both derive from the non-functioning of the signaling and automatization system.
These accidents have taken a heavy toll. From 2010 to 2018, there have been 137 deaths and 97 serious injuries in railway incidents in Greece. Every year from 2010 to 2018, an average of more than 15 people lost their lives and more than 11 got seriously injured.
The underlying causes for the accidents
What are the accident causes that consistently make Greece one of the first countries in the EU in terms of railway deaths and injuries? Between 2015 and 2017, 13 accidents were caused by infrastructure issues such as rails and switches, 7 by rolling stock issues affecting the wheels and/or braking systems, 24 by rail traffic management problems, 5 by natural causes and in 97 cases the cause was “internal”, i.e. incidents involving drivers, pedestrians, vandalism and other categories.
The failure to complete basic infrastructure work aggravates the situation
The sole provider of passenger and freight rail services in Greece is TrainOSE, which was state-owned until 2017, when it was acquired by the Italian railway company Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (FSI) for €45 million. According to their website, TrainOSE carried a total of 15.6 million passengers in 2016, of which 10.1 million made use of suburban lines and 5.5 million of the national network. They also carried an estimated 1.1. million tons of freight.
The CEO of TrainOSE Philippos Tsalidis pointed out that “the state of the rail network is perhaps the main constraint when it comes to ensuring the smooth operation of railway transport services offered by TrainOSE. And this is caused mainly by the non-completion of basic infrastructure works, such as the telecommand and signaling system.” As far as the derailments are concerned, in 2017 RAS argued that TrainOSE needs to put a stop to the phenomenon of trains exceeding speed limits. When we asked Tsalidis regarding the initiatives that TrainOSE is taking to reduce the number of accidents, he replied that for the Italian company “safety is at the core of its operations, taking into account all the standards and regulations designated by the relevant institutions”.
Light rail traffic acts as a safety net
Given that the Greek railway network is not particularly dense, one might wonder how many accidents would take place if train services were as frequent as in other European countries. According to train driver K. Genidounias, “there are 7 trains in total traveling between Athens and Thessaloniki, i.e. no frequent traffic that could increase the risk of accidents”. He points out that “one train departs at 5 pm and the other at 7 pm. In other words, traffic is fairly light, and this allows for fewer accidents to happen”.
These claims are supported by data. In terms of passenger-kilometers, the unit of measurement representing the transport of one passenger over one kilometer, Greece ranked 22nd in the EU in 2018. Overall, passenger-kilometers have also steadily decreased from 1,930 million in 2007 to 1,104 million in 2018. This downward movement in the use of the Greek railway is further highlighted by the cumulative number of train-kilometers, i.e. the distance travelled by trains of all types, which dropped from 19,905 million in 2007 to 11,009 million in 2018. It is worth noting that, according to ELSTAT data and the latest RAS report, the total length of railway lines that are in use in 2018 decreased by 264 km since 1938, going from to 2,557 km in 1938 down to 2,293 km in 2018.
Employees working beyond their capacities
Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos, shunter at the Dhekelia railway station and chairman of the Panhellenic Federation of Railways, seems to be in agreement with his colleague and chairman of the Panhellenic Association of Traction Employees Mr. Genidounias. He claims that “maintenance is equally important to accident prevention, because the €15-17 million that OSE receives annually barely suffice to carry out maintenance works. Throughout the financial crisis it has been confined to superficial repairs. Proper funding which would allow for proper maintenance is required”.
Paraskevopoulos focuses on the severe shortages in railway staff, which essentially increases the likelihood of human error. “Mistakes in operating technology”, he says, “can also lead to accidents. It’s always possible. Machines break down, pieces of equipment are lost. We are human and thus prone to mistakes. I am not saying this as an excuse, but Greek railways are facing an acute shortage of staff. As a result, people, especially drivers, are often forced to work too many days per month and considerably more hours than what is prescribed by labor law. To give you an example, there is a schedule for working hours which covers the area from Livadia (a town in central Greece) to Piraeus and from Kiato (in the Peloponnese) to Athens Airport and which would normally require 75 shunters to run properly. This would assume breaks for rest and annual leaves. Right now, there 47 employees, myself included, who are working to cover the workload for 75. Breaks are rare. And in 2012 our number will go down to 27. Even if we were to break into three pieces each, there is no way that we can meet all necessary requirements without reinforcements”.
Deaths by electric shock in parked carriages
The very large and consistent number of underage casualties is shocking. They are caused mainly by electric shocks from the overhead lines at stationary vehicles within railway facilities. Nine minors have lost their lives since 2010; seven between 2014 and 2017, as they were electrocuted by contact lines after climbing on parked vehicles which was left unattended outside the designated area.
It is worth noting that these deaths of minors have not been included in the annual safety reports by RAS, as the trains were not in motion and the deaths are not considered “railway accidents”. OSE responded, albeit with a delay, to these accidents that showcase the poor organization of Greek railways, by putting up warning signs about high voltage at train stations, especially where there have been carriages parked for longer periods under contact lines, and by launching, in cooperation with RAS, an educational program for schools that aims at the prevention of railway accidents (especially in the prefecture of Larissa). At the same time, GAIOCE, the property management company for the railway network and rolling stock of OSE, proceeded with gradually moving these carriages in safer areas.
However, the problem cannot be resolved so easily, because over the last few decades OSE has accumulated vast quantities of so-called useless railway rolling stock that needs to be “retired”, but which has been piled up in different railway facilities throughout Greece. We asked GAIOSE representatives about the safekeeping of the railway rolling stock and they replied that “the parked cars are protected, as they are surrounded by a fence and so on. If someone climbs over this fence, which is often the case, we’re talking about a different situation”.
An ongoing problem
Greece consistently scores very poorly in railway safety, staying well behind the European average. The high injury and death rates as well as the absolute number of dead and injured people – despite the extravagant amounts of money spent on railway safety and the small, ever-shrinking size of its network – clearly indicate that this is not a temporary but a structural issue. This calls for decisive and innovative interventions.
“We’re moving towards a modernization of the network, which should lead to effective solutions”, suggests Tsiaparikou. “Infrastructure issues will be resolved thanks to the new modern lines on the Patras-Athens-Thessaloniki-Idomeni axis, which include fewer to no crossings and the fencing-in of most of the line. At the same time, we would need to speed up contractor work and fully implement the modern signaling and telecommand system, the European Railway Traffic Management System, which will improve safety conditions. To put it simply, when there is centralized management, one can remotely stop a train at any time and prevent overspeed. Greece is facing a plethora of problems, mainly because everything is done manually and there are no automated systems.”
Until these problems are resolved, one thing’s for certain: Greek citizens, tourists and immigrants are going to continue to pay through the nose for one of the most dangerous railway networks in Europe.