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Greek station master due in court over rail disaster

The stationmaster involved in Greece’s worst-ever train disaster is due to appear in court on Saturday after massive protests broke out over the crash that killed at least 57 people.

Thousands of protesters have demonstrated across the country since Tuesday’s collision between a passenger train and a freight train, with public anger rising over the government’s failure to manage the rail network.

The 59-year-old station master in Larissa, central Greece, has admitted responsibility for the accident, in which the two trains ran on the same track for miles.

The train was carrying many students returning from a holiday weekend and the dead included at least nine young people studying at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, while another 26 were injured.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is seeking re-election this spring, blames the disaster on “tragic human error”.

But protests blaming government mismanagement continued on Friday in the capital Athens and several major cities across Greece, with more planned for the weekend.

“What happened was not an accident, it was a crime,” 23-year-old Sophia Hatzopoulou, a philosophy student in Thessaloniki who was visibly angry, told AFP news agency. “We can’t see all this happening and remain indifferent.”

She added that she and her classmates “knew people who were killed or injured”.

“It’s like a part of us has been lost.”

The stationmaster is due to appear in court on charges of negligent homicide. He faces life in prison if found guilty, but his lawyer has argued there were other factors involved.

“My client has accepted his share of responsibility,” lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis said on Thursday. “But we shouldn’t focus on a tree when there’s a forest behind it.”

The country’s public broadcaster ERT reported that the stationmaster had been appointed to the post just 40 days earlier – and after just three months of training.

Thousands gathered on Friday outside the headquarters of operators Hellenic Train in Athens – which took over network operations in 2017 – to protest the decades-long failure to improve the safety of the rail network, despite close calls in recent years.

Hundreds of people held a minute’s silence outside the Greek parliament in tribute to the victims of the disaster.

During the rally in Syntagma Square, adjacent to parliament, officers fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who threw stones and Molotov cocktails, an AFP reporter said. About 3,000 people came to the demonstration.

A similar number demonstrated in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, where police on Thursday had reported clashes with protesters throwing rocks and petrol bombs.

Demonstrations also took place in other Greek cities on Friday: about 700 protesters showed up in Larissa, the town closest to the site of the disaster, while 500 protesters demonstrated in the university town of Patras in the southwestern Peloponnese, police said .

Roubini Leontari, the chief coroner of Larissa General Hospital, told ERT on Thursday that more than 10 people are still missing, including two Cypriots.

Greek rail services were paralyzed on Thursday by striking workers who claimed mismanagement of the network by successive governments contributed to the deadly clash.

The strike lasted until Friday and will continue for another 48 hours.

A woman is holding a sign that reads "Call me when you arrive" during a protest in the port city of Thessaloniki, northern Greece
A woman holds a sign reading “Call me when you arrive” during a protest in the port city of Thessaloniki, northern Greece (Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo)

Railway unions say safety problems on the Athens-Thessaloniki railway line have been known for years.

Legal sources suggested that investigators were considering criminal charges against members of Hellenic Train’s management.

Police seized audio files and other items during a raid at Larissa train station in central Greece, where the crash took place, a judicial source said.

For decades, Greece’s 2,552km rail network has been plagued by mismanagement, poor maintenance and obsolete equipment.

After the country’s transport minister resigned on Wednesday in the wake of the crash, his replacement, Giorgos Gerapetritis, promised a “full review of the political system and the state”.

Safety systems on the line are still not fully automated, five years after Greek state rail operator TrainOSE was privatized and sold to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane to become Hellenic Train.