Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Wednesday said a “tragic human error” was likely responsible for a train collision that has left at least 38 dead in the country’s worst rail tragedy.
Two carriages were crushed and a third engulfed in fire when a passenger train and a freight train late Tuesday collided near the central city of Larissa, on a route plagued by years of safety warnings.
The fire department had earlier increased the death toll to 38, adding that 57 people were still hospitalised, six of them in intensive care, while several were missing.
“Everything shows that the drama was, sadly, mainly due to a tragic human error,” Mitsotakis — who is seeking re-election this year — said in a televised address.
He said it was a “terrible train accident without precedent” in Greece which would be “fully” investigated.
Greece’s transport minister submitted his resignation just hours after the accident.
“When something so tragic happens, we cannot continue as if nothing had happened,” Kostas Karamanlis said in a public statement after an emotional visit to the site.
On Wednesday evening, police in the capital Athens fired tear gas at protesters throwing rocks at the offices of the railway’s operating company, Hellenic Train.
The accident left a tangled mess of metal and shattered glass in a field.
Carriages travelling in opposite directions on the same track smashed into one another some 220 miles north of the capital Athens, at speeds some media reports put at up to 160 km (100 miles) an hour, reducing the passenger train into a mangled mass of steel.
Government spokesman Yiannis Economou said the two trains were left running on the same track for “several kilometres”.
But train unionists said the station master was likely a scapegoat as the safety shortcomings of the Athens-Thessaloniki railway line had been known for years.
In an open letter in February, train staff said track safety systems were incomplete and poorly maintained.
OSE, the country’s state-owned operator for rail infrastructure, did not respond to calls requesting comment nor did it issue a statement.
Parts of Greece’s rail services were privatised in 2017 under a multi-billion euro bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Hellenic Train, a unit of Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato which acquired passenger and freight operations, said it was working with authorities on the investigation.
Labour unions said the collision had highlighted some chronic deficiencies: lack of staff and resources, broken lights and a patchwork of modern and outdated facilities.
“It’s still very early but more than two factors are needed for an accident like this to happen,” said Nikos Tsikalakis, head of the workers union’ at the Greek railway infrastructure operator OSE, in an apparent reference to human error and a technical fault.
Tsikalakis said that about 750 workers were currently employed, down from at least 2,100 people that were initially expected to be employed for the railway system to operate effectively, according to a state-approved game plan.
Another unionist, Yiannis Ditsas, said only part of the signalling system from Athens to Thessaloniki was complete, with the rest handled manually.
“We had reported it, have done for at least the past 25 years,” Ditsas told state TV.