Dozens of people were killed and dozens injured after two trains collided head-on in central Greece, with rescue workers searching for survivors after raising questions about the country’s poor track record on railway safety.
At least 36 people were killed when a passenger train carrying more than 350 people collided with a freight train shortly before midnight on Tuesday in Tempi, near the city of Larissa. The Greek Fire Service said 66 people were injured and were being treated in hospital, with six in intensive care.
The country’s transport minister resigned on Wednesday, saying the railway system the government inherited was “not up to 21st century standards”.
State-owned public broadcaster ERT reported on Wednesday that the two trains involved in the accident were traveling on the same track for several kilometers before the accident. According to ERT, the passenger train changed track and switched to the freight track before the head-on collision with the freight train.
Rescue efforts are underway, focusing on the first carriages of the passenger train, the Greek Fire Service said. The death toll is expected to rise.
The traveler describes the aftermath of a terrible train collision
Images from ERT showed thick smoke billowing from the overturned vehicles and a long line of rescue vehicles near them.
Most of the passengers involved in the accident were youths, the head of the intensive care unit (ICU) at a local hospital where the injured were receiving treatment, ERT said on Wednesday.
Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said the process of identifying the victims had also begun.
The fatal accident raised questions about the integrity of the railway infrastructure in Greece.
Compared to other countries in Europe, Greece has the weakest record on rail passenger safety, with the highest railway fatality rate per million train kilometers from 2018 to 2020 among 28 countries on the continent, according to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways.
It is true that we have a Greek railway system that is not up to the standards of the 21st century, said Greek Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who resigned from his post on Wednesday, adding that over the past three and a half years the government has “made every effort to improve this reality.”
“Unfortunately, our efforts were not enough to prevent such a terrible incident. It is very difficult for us and for me personally.
“I am resigning as Minister of Transport and Infrastructure. I consider it my responsibility to do that as a minimal tribute to the memory of those who died so unjustly.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who visited the site on Wednesday, vowed to find out what caused the conflict.
“What we as a country are going through today is very difficult. We are talking about an unspeakable tragedy,” Mitsotakis told reporters.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find out the reasons for this tragedy and do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Greek police told CNN they arrested the station manager of a train station in Larissa on Wednesday as part of a preliminary investigation. A 59-year-old man has been detained in the city and is expected to appear before a prosecutor, Greek police spokeswoman Constantia Dimoglito said on Wednesday.
As photographs emerged showing the devastation of the crash, passengers scrambled to escape the wreckage of the collision.
“I walked forward and saw the worst part of the collision. The whole train was bent 90 degrees, over the cliff and half hanging in the air and the whole thing was on fire,” a passenger told Sky TV on behalf of CNN affiliate CNN Greece.
“There was panic … the fire happened immediately, when we turned around we were burned, the fire was right and left,” said Stergios Menenis, 28, according to Reuters.
“Just now I heard a noise… the (train) car started spinning, before ending up sideways when we were able to get out,” another male passenger told Greek public broadcaster ERT.
“It was 10 seconds with the fire and couldn’t see much from the smoke,” said a second passenger.
The passenger train travels from the capital Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, known for its festivals and vibrant cultural life. The clash followed a nationwide festival over the weekend, which ended with a public holiday on Monday.
194 passengers were taken to Thessaloniki safely and 20 were transferred by bus to Larissa, Greek Fire Service spokesman Vassilis Tradgiannis said earlier.
At least 150 firefighters, including special rescue units with 17 vehicles and 30 ambulances, were involved in the rescue operation, Tradgiogiannis added.
Hellenic Rail, the Greek railway company, said in a press release, “There was a head-on collision between two trains: a freight train and train IC 62 leaving Athens for Thessaloniki.”
Hellenic Train, the main Greek railway company, was acquired by Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 and is now fully controlled by Trenitalia. The company operates both passenger and freight services. The main line with daily connections is Athens-Thessaloniki.
Condolences poured in from around the world as Greek government officials declared a three-day period of mourning beginning Wednesday at half-mast.