Released audio suggests Greek train driver told to ignore red light

Workers went on strike Thursday saying the rail system is outdated, underfunded and dangerous. University students protested before the headquarters of private operator Hellenic Train in Athens

Accident in Greece
The wreckage of the trains lie on the rail lines, after Tuesday's rail crash the country's deadliest on record.Giannis Papanikos (AP)

Family members awaited the results of DNA testing to identify victims of a train crash that killed nearly 60 people in Greece, as workers went on strike Thursday saying the rail system is outdated, underfunded and dangerous.

Railway workers’ associations called strikes, halting national rail services and the subway in Athens to protest working conditions and what they described as a dangerous failure to modernize the rail system. A second 24-hour strike was called for Friday. Also on Friday, university students chanted slogans during a protest as they headed to the headquarters of private operator Hellenic Train in Athens.

Two separate protests in central Athens were held by left-wing groups, with one resulting in clashes between stone-throwing youths and riot police. Protests were also held in Thessaloniki and Larissa.

University students chant slogans during a protest as they head to the headquarters of private operator Hellenic Train, in Athens on Friday.
University students chant slogans during a protest as they head to the headquarters of private operator Hellenic Train, in Athens on Friday. Petros Giannakouris (AP)

The station master of Greece’s Larissa city, who was charged on Thursday over the country’s worst train crash, assumes some responsibility for the disaster but other factors were also at play, his lawyer said.

On Tuesday evening, a passenger train with more than 350 people on board collided head-on with a freight train near the city of Larissa, some 220 miles north of the capital Athens. The trains were travelling in opposite directions on the same track.

The 59-year old station master was arrested hours later. Greek railway unions have long complained of slipping safety standards which place both passengers and workers at risk.

“Pass the red signal”

A recording of the communication between the train driver and the station master which was published on the news website Proto Thema suggested the latter told the driver to continue past a red signal.

"Is Larissa listening?" the driver said referring to the station master, according to the recording.

"It is listening... pass the red signal at the exit until the entrance signal at Neoi Poroi (station)," the station master responded.

But that order did not strike the driver as strange as the signalling system had been dysfunctional, Proto Thema reported.

Station masters are hired by OSE, the Greek railway infrastructure operator, while train drivers are hired by Hellenic Train, a subsidiary of Italy's Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane.

Earlier on Thursday, government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said "the station master had confessed to negligence" and that the train crash was caused by a human error.

The detainee, who according to Greek state media reports was assigned his role about a month ago, appeared before a prosecutor on Thursday morning. Felony charges were laid against him for disrupting transport and putting lives at risk, his lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis said outside the courthouse.

"He is literally devastated," Pantzartzidis told reporters. "Since the first moment, he has assumed responsibility proportionate to him ... he is not in a position to say anything else."

Pantzartzidis said that his client followed the existing procedure partially and he could have been "possibly more careful, which he accepts and takes responsibility for, but until there". He added that "there has been convergent negligence by many other factors".

Pantzartzidis did not specify which factors he believed were at play in the accident or give details about what procedures his client had not followed. Authorities have not made public the name of the accused.

The man, who according to a police official had initially denied wrongdoing, attributing the incident to a technical failure, was expected to respond to the charges on Saturday.

A retired train driver instructor, Nikos Tsouridis, told state TV earlier on Thursday that the station master was trained but inexperienced.

"They will pile everything on the station master. He was trained, but inexperienced. They should never have assigned him to a central station like Larissa, and on his own."

"He had completed his training, but he had been there (in that position) for a month."

Greece's railway is functional mainly because of the trained drivers and station masters, Tsouridis said.

"The railroad only works today because of the drivers, because they are well trained, and staff," he said. Pantsartzidis did not say how long his client had been in the job in Larissa, one of the largest cities in Greece.

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