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Only 30 km of the whole rail network in Greece has functioning train traffic lights. The installation of new European Train Control System has derailed in the country because of mismanagement – costing tens of millions of public funds and several fatalities.
“Warning, No Signal”. This is the phrase one could imagine seeing on a sign for the Greek railways’ signage and telecommunications system – a project which has been in the process of implementation for ten years already, but is not in place yet. It has cost millions of euros, and has done nothing to improve the conditions which leave trains in Greece prone to deadly accidents: 137 deaths and 97 serious injuries have been recorded between 2010 and 2018.
Analyzing all the available data and statistics about railway accidents in the EU, it turns out that Greece tops the chart for the number of deaths (relative to kilometres covered in 2018), and comes second in terms of serious injuries. Among the main categories of accidents are train derailments and pedestrians being hit by moving trains, with inadequate signage and inadequate rail traffic management being arguably the main cause.
The Greek Regulatory Authority for Railways (RAS) came to the same conclusion in its 2017 Special Report on “System Recording and Tracking of Incidents on the National Rail Network", which notes that serious railway accidents such as the 2017 accident in Adendro near Thessaloniki, which left 3 dead and 6 injured, “most likely would have been avoided if the telecommunication and signaling system had functioned”. This is a reference to the Automatic Train Protection System, which is connected to the new European Train Control System (ETCS). Greece had installed that system many years ago within the framework of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS).
In Greece, train signage and rail management are based almost exclusively on individual experience. Greece has never had advanced systems for it, and the conventional signage system does not work. According to Kostas Genidounias, train driver on the Athens-Thessaloniki route and president of the Panhellenic Union of Train Personnel, “the train signage system and electronic management are not functioning in Greece. There is no protection system against human error, such as ETCS, which intervenes when drivers are about to make a mistake. For example, the accident in Adendro took place because the train driver didn’t have the necessary signals; therefore, human error was not prevented. These systems are in trains all across Europe, only in Greece trains circulate based solely on experience”.
“Across 90 per cent of the network,” Genidounias continues, “drivers have no indication whether they are going down a side pass, no indication that they have to reduce speed at that location, everything becomes arbitrary even at speeds up to 160 km/h. The same goes for all train personnel: trainmasters, points-men and others work without electronic systems. You ask the train points-man, ‘Hey Kosta, have you turned the key’, and he’ll answer ‘yes I have’. But you can’t check if he has actually done it; you just have to trust the person telling you that they have done it”.
Later, Mr. Genidounia was more open and informal: “I’ll give you one more example to better understand the situation. A train today will leave Athens with telegrams, the same way train movement was organized in 1975. For example, yesterday I did the route from Athens to Larisa. I left Athens and continued until the Acharnes Railway Center: the trainmaster gave me permission to continue to Kiourka, then they gave me permission for Inoi, then for Tithorea, Lianokladi, Palaio Fasarlo, and finally Larisa. All this is done with a wireless at each station.”
“The problem is that throughout the whole route we go through side-passes with no indicators, no traffic lights. 80 per cent of the lights that actually exist are shut off, or red! Only the route between Athens Airport and Acharnes Railway Center has electronic management systems and traffic lights. With the suburban line reaching the airport, that system is pretty well maintained. At the moment, in total, only 30 km of the whole rail network has functioning train traffic lights. This isn’t just minimal: it’s less than the minimum. Over the past decade, Greece has seen the implementation of projects which have been due since the 1990s: the Kallidromo, the Othris tunnel, electromobility, Larisa Station in Athens, projects which have given trains in Greece some new-found energy. Even so, up until now, no security system is functioning”.
“Overall, the signage doesn’t function,” confirms Mr. Genidounia’s colleague Panagiotis Paraskeuopoulos, points-man at the Dekelias Station in Athens and president of the Panhellenic Federation of Railways. Talking about the new system, he stresses that “if it worked, the overall distance of the Athens-Thessaloniki route would be reduced from the four hours it is today to three and a half hours! With an electronic management system, the driver would always know exactly what he is doing. Even if he was reckless, it’d be impossible for him to make a mistake, because the system would show him a red light. It wouldn’t let him pass with a red light, like it does now. ‘Pass a red light at your own risk’: this is how train circulation is handled today. And when people work 28 days a month, with exhausting hours, a mistake is waiting to happen; statistical speaking, at some point you’ll make a mistake”.
At the moment, throughout the Greek railway network, the European Train Control System (ETCS) does not work at any point – not even at points where the equipment has been installed, such as some routes in the Athens region. Smaller installations also exist along the Platy-Thessaloniki and Inoi-Chalkida routes. Throughout the rest of the network, installation projects date back to 2007, when the first contracts for the introduction of ETCS on tracks and trains were signed. In other cases, such an introduction was integrated within future projects, with deadlines aligned with the general ERTMS deadline (2030), as it is the case for the ORIENT/EAST MED corridor which passes through Greece.
All railway sections with integrated but inoperative ETCS installations, current projects and future installations, are pinpointed on the interactive map below, which is based on data from ERGOSE (a subsidiary of the Hellenic Railways Organization responsible for railway construction projects).
The late and partial introduction of the European Train Control System in Greece is a painful story, reflecting, on the one hand, mismanagement by authorities and by both foreign and Greek contracting companies, and on the other hand, the general difficulties in implementing the European Rail Traffic Management System at the national level.
The first contract for the "Supply of ETCS Level 1 Train System with Related Services" to Greece was published in the 2006 Public Procurement Issue, as part of the National Strategic Reference Framework agreed by the government with the European Commission, which set out the investment priorities to be supported by the EU in 2007-2013. Almost €25 million of public budget were to be devoted to the installation of ETCS on Greek trains. The contract was signed by the Italian Ansaldo STS SpA (Ansaldo was then acquired by the Japanese giant Hitachi).
The project was finally completed in mid-2018, after repeated delays and extensions, and after two penalties were imposed because Ansaldo-Hitachi failed to meet its contractual obligations. 2014 marked the first reduction of the project, as an additional ETCS LEVEL 1 upgrade subsystem was removed and the period for implementation was extended. In 2016, due to Ansaldo's inability to meet deadlines, it was decided that the contractor should equip 26 fewer trains, delivering 88 trains instead of 114. In parallel, the contract’s value was to be reduced to €21.3 million. However, payments recorded on the database of the National Strategic Reference Framework’s projects show a reduction of only €1.1 million: was it decided to pay the contractor part of the amount for the 26 remaining trains (worth approximately €3 million)?
While most wagons were delivered, the same never happened for the installation of ETCS on the tracks of the main railway route of Greece, the Athens-Thessaloniki-Promachon route. Two separate contracts for horizontal signage with joint ventures are still in progress, leading to additional public spending.
The contract for the "Supply of ETCS Level 1 Line System with Related Services" was published during the same period as that for trains, and was also part of the National Strategic Reference Framework for 2007-2013, starting in 2007 with a budget of €3.8 million . The installation was undertaken by Terna SA, one of the largest construction companies in Greece, together with French colossus Thales, active in the fields of electronic defense and security systems, air navigation, space, and of course transport. The French state holds the largest stake in the company. In Greece – in addition to significant cooperation with the armed forces – the company has supplied the METRO Line 1 train and communication system, as well as a large part of the air traffic control systems. Thales has also undertaken the supply of signage and telecommunications systems to the new section of the Kiato-Rododafni (Aigio) line.
Despite this, the French group failed to stand up to its reputation with regard to the installation of ETCS. Supply of the equipment could not be completed within the original deadline: an additional €12.5 million were added to the budget, bringing the total to €16.3 million. However, the new delivery date of 2017 was missed again, and the project received a new extension . The project is still incomplete; according to the estimated track record on the database of the National Strategic Reference Framework’s projects, it is expected to be completed by the end of December 2020.
Contract n. 717/2014 was probably one the most remunerative horizontal signage-telecommunication projects in Europe. The purpose of this project was defined as "Rearrangement and upgrading of the signage system in localized sections of the Athens-Thessaloniki-Promachon route". The project was awarded to the consortium Tomi SA-Alstom Transport SA in March 2014, for a total bid of €41.3 million. The contract bears the signature of the current OSE Chairman, Konstantinos Spiliopoulos, who at the time was CEO of ERGOSE. Tomi is a subsidiary of Aktor (the largest Greek construction company), while Alstom, contributing as a provider of "special signage experience", is a French rolling stock manufacturer, whose registered trademark is the famous TGV high-speed train. The contract for this new signage system was tied to the ongoing contract awarded to Terna-Thales for the installation of ETCS on the same route.
The total budget rapidly increased: the Tomi-Alstom contract rose by €9.5 million and it came to incorporate the first supplementary contract as an additional sub-project, with an additional public expenditure of €12.5 million. As a result, while the project was to cost €41 million when it was awarded in 2014, it joined the National Strategic Reference Framework for 2014-2020 at an increased cost of €63 million: an increase in public expenditure by €22 million, more than 50 per cent of the original budget – which forced the Greek supervising authority for the co-financed European programs to blame ERGOSE for mismanagement, and seek a refund of €2.5 million.
How did this happen? The responsibilities are multifaceted and involve both OSE and ERGOSE, as well as the Tomi-Alstom consortium.
Bickering and problems had begun as early as 2013, when OSE and ERGOSE were drafting the project auction. The main issue was the age and heterogeneity of the equipment to be upgraded – a result of its installation being performed on multiple contracts and during different periods (from 15 to 30 years ago). Later on, disagreements arose between Tomi and Alstom over the choice of resetting materials, with the French company refusing to sign the project’s implementation studies. Thus, most of the project’s studies were signed by another Greek company and not by Alstom, which has the role of contractual borrower.
The consortium claimed that it was not possible to upgrade the existing equipment on the tracks, so it proposed to replace all the signage equipment marked for reset. OSE and ERGOSE disagreed with this proposal, as it was incompatible with the technical description included in the contract. However, at the end of 2016, after the two-year deadline had expired, ERGOSE under Christos Doukakis asked the Special Service for the Management of the National Strategic Reference Framework 2014-2020 approval for the conclusion of an additional €16 million contract for the replacement of all equipment marked for reset.
The supplementary contract was obstructed In February 2018 by the Court of Auditors, which attributed responsibility for improper auctioning to OSE and ERGOSE, judging that there were no "unforeseen circumstances” to justify additional funding. Four months later, however, another composition of the Court overturned this decision. The judges’ decision directly links the renewal of the signaling system to the effective operation of ETCS, calling "unforeseen" the adoption of EU Regulation 2016/919 on interoperability of the rail system. Following the green light, the first supplementary contract was added , with a completion deadline set to the end of December 2020. An amending act later reduced the overall length of the line to be upgraded from 519km to 402km, without however reducing the cost of the project. As of now, it results that the project has yet to be contracted.
The drama concludes with a report of the audit committee for the co-financed programs of the Ministry of Finance, calling on ERGOSE to return €2.5 million of EU funds for irregularity in the definition of the subject of the contract and for failing to meet contractual requirements.
Age-old mismanagement by state authorities and contractors, coupled with the technical difficulties involved in adapting the European Rail Traffic Management System to national railway networks, appear to have already cost tens of millions of euros in public funds. This only applies to the costs of horizontal signage projects, not to the signage costs associated with mixed electrification installations. Maladministration and missed deadlines have not only cost money, more importantly they have cost human lives. As long as modern safety systems remain inactive on the Greek railway network, Greece will hold a blood-soaked first place for European rail accident indicators and fail to keep pace with new developments. MIIR’s research confirms that the sign we imagined earlier for the Greek rail network will continue to flash for a long time to come: "Warning, No Signal".
Translation by:A. Aravadinos | VoxEurop