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When Trains Collide

By Fred A. Reed



The Gods who according to ancient Greek myth reside on Mount Olympus would have surely turned their heads aside and wept in shame.

Far below, in the Vale of Tempe, a narrow steep-walled canyon through which pass the highway link and the railway main line between Athens and Salonica, lay the smouldering wreckage of the northbound express passenger train that collided with a southbound freight at midnight on March 1 2023.


The Gods of Olympus that night were helpless onlookers. Not so helpless and by no means mere onlookers was the Greek state, which many Greeks now accuse of criminal negligence in the deaths of the some sixty crash victims.


Over the more than fifty years that I regularly visited Greece, I often travelled by train from Athens to Salonica, or the reverse. Well do I remember Tempe, its dramatic cliffs and the river that runs through it. Often I made the same journey by car. Whether by train or car, the moment that Mount Olympus came into view never failed to remind me of the scandals and plots and shifting hierarchies of the gods, the hijinks of the demigods, the randy misbehaviour of Zeus.


But now all that lies, a heap of twisted and charred metal at the foot of Olympus, is the wreckage of two trains, and a spreading stain of deceit and of dissimulation, all of which should be seen not as an accident, but as an act of political betrayal for which the guilty will most likely never be punished. Heads may roll, but not theirs. Jail sentences will be meted out, but not for them. Dismissals will be carried out, but not their dismissals. As predictable as it will be shocking, the guilty will escape with a mild reprimand. A fall guy will be found.


In fact, he may have already been found: the unfortunate station master at Larissa who, it turns out, was left alone for the crucial 20 minutes during which he did—or did not—switch the southbound freight to the same track as the northbound express. Up until 2019, the entire line was controlled by a remote signalling system. Then, due to poorly explained breakdowns, the system ceased to function.


In that, it resembled upkeep of the railway’s rolling stock. Graffiti disfigured the cars extracted from the wreckage.


But the story behind the crash begins in 2015, if not before. Facing economic crisis in the wake of the subprime depression of 2008, the government of George Papandreou, son of Andreas but a pale shadow of his father, arranged a loan from British banks that—O surprise!—favoured the banks.


Fast forward several years: it became clear that Greece could not repay the loans, concluded at maximally unfavourable terms and conditions. The country, which had joined ‘Europe’ at the turn of the century, faced an existential crisis. Europe insisted the creditors be paid and set up a mechanism to discipline the deadbeat Greeks until they forked over principal and huge amounts of interest.


Although Greece was ‘officially’ a part of ‘Europe’, the birthplace of democracy that had only recently dismissed its German royal family, it was in fact a kept nation, run by local kleptocrats and placeholders masquerading as governments. Instead of farming the fertile Greek earth, Greeks farmed the EU for agricultural subsidies.


But the possibility of a default meant wider trouble. Possible contagion. The EU stepped in and set up a “Eurogroup” to impose the measures Greece must apply. A delegation of the Troika, made up of the unelected European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, visited Athens and did not like what it saw. So much, in fact, did the Troika dislike what it saw that it imposed a draconian Memorandum.

Who would pay, you ask? Foolish question. Not the banks that were exposed by bad loans, and certainly not the European central bankers who forced the Memorandum down Greece’s throat.


So, to avoid bankruptcy—and worse, the spread of economic instability throughout the Eurozone—the Troika handed Greece a series of recommendations. It came as no surprise that the first of them was large-scale privatisation of all of Greece’s public sector. Including its railways.


A buyer was found: Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato, the state-owned company that owns the Italian rail network via an entity called Trenitalia, a semi-private spinoff that operates Greece’s actual trains through an entity called Hellenic Train.


That’s all perfectly clear, I’m sure. Thus, by the miraculous prestidigitation of privatisation, Greece’s entire railway network was bought by the Italian state railways! (Has a word of condolence been uttered by this ultimate owner after the crash? None that I could detect.)


The ‘socialist’ Syriza Party, led by the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, governed Greece at the time; Tsipras’ Finance Minister was the equally charismatic Yannis Varoufakis. Throughout Greece anger and resentment against the Memorandum were seething, as the country’s situation became critical. For the first time in memory, I witnessed Greeks raiding dumpsters and garbage bins; read stories of middle-aged children forced to move back into their aged parents’ already cramped apartments. Heard stories of social dereliction.


The year was 2015. The ruling coalition called a referendum that called on the citizens to reject the latest austerity program. Prime Minister Tsipras strode though the streets of Athens to speak at a rally in Constitution Square, as people chanted his name.


63 percent of voters voted ‘no’, giving the government the power—so people thought—to negotiate a new arrangement or, if all else failed, dump the Euro and leave the EU, long the position of the Greek Communist Party that described them as ‘the same old syndicate.’


Tsipras and Varoufakis travelled to Brussels with the ‘no’ vote in their pocket. It would be, they thought, a powerful bargaining chip.


It was there that they encountered the Adults in the Room:[1] those seemingly nameless and faceless Eurocrats, the German, French and Dutch officials whose only task was to bring Greece to heel. Varoufakis presented logical arguments, fact-based analysis. The Eurocrats looked on, uncomprehending, as if to say ‘who are these upstarts?’


Never had they had the slightest intention of listening. Their incomprehension was feigned, their arrogance absolute. The outcome, already decided.


Greece’s prime minister and his minister of finance returned to Athens. Instead of calling the nation to resistance, they bowed to the dictates of Brussels.


It was at that precise moment that the countdown to the tragedy at Tempe began.



[1] Title of the 2019 film by Costa-Gavras

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By far the best explanation I have read for this "accident." Thank you.

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There’s a place in hell reserved for the appropriately named Hellenic Train and their American counterparts who rattle through the poorest parts of town, exposing those who live “on the other side of the tracks” to killer toxins on top of those imposed by the U.S. caste system. Good piece, Fred.

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