Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Athens and cities across Greece to demand accountability after the deaths of 57 people last week in the country’s worst rail disaster.
Trade unions and student associations staged the demonstrations on Wednesday, as strikes halted ferries to the islands and public transport in Athens, where at least 40,000 people took to the streets.
Protesters marching towards the parliament in the center of the capital waved placards reading: “It’s not an accident, it’s a crime” and “It could have been any of us on that train”. Others chanted “Murderers!” and “We’re all in the same carriage.”
Violence briefly erupted when a group of protesters clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas at the crowd. Protesters threw petrol bombs in front of parliament and set fire to a van and rubbish bins.
More than 20,000 people took part in rallies in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, where clashes erupted as several dozen youths challenged a police cordon. Twelve students from the city’s university were among those killed in last week’s head-on collision between two trains.
Police fired tear gas in the southern city of Patras, where a municipal band previously played music from a funeral march as they led the demonstration.
In the central town of Larissa, near the scene of the train collision, students chanted “No to profit over our lives!” with black balloons!
The February 28 crash has sparked public outcry over the crumbling state of Greece’s rail network, with striking workers saying they have been neglected for years, underinvestment and underemployment – a legacy of Greece’s decade-long debt crisis – were to blame.
Many of the estimated 350 people on board an intercity passenger train that collided head-on with a freight train while traveling on the same track were university students heading from Athens to the northern city of Thessaloniki after a long weekend of celebrations.
The disaster has sparked protests across Greece, with more than 10,000 people gathering in Athens on Sunday and releasing hundreds of black balloons.
Railway workers have staged 24-hour strikes since Thursday, bringing the network to a standstill. They say their demands for improving safety protocols have gone unheard for years.
ADEDY, the umbrella union representing hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, has also called for a 24-hour strike.
“We will enforce safe railways so that no one ever again experiences the tragic accident at Tempi,” the main railway workers’ union said in a statement.
“We have an obligation to our fellow human beings and our colleagues who were lost in the tragic accident.”
Other transport workers went on strike in solidarity and disrupted metro, tram and bus services in the capital Athens. Ships also remained docked in ports while seamen participated in the labor action.
Reporting from Athens, Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos said a press conference held by officials on Wednesday morning had raised “more questions than answers” and “is likely to make the families of the victims even angrier.”
“First of all, we learned that some of the automated systems that should have been present throughout the Greek network were in fact operational on the evening of the accident at Larissa station,” said Psaropoulos.
He explained that an automated optimal route choice for the train would have been possible, but was not used.
“Secondly, it also fails to answer why two additional station masters who should have been on duty until 11 p.m. left without permission at 10 p.m. Third, it doesn’t answer why the train left about 15 minutes late,” he added, explaining how all of these things contributed to the collision.
“It suggests huge problems in the operation and training of personnel,” Psaropoulos said.
Greece sold its state-owned railway operator, now called Hellenic Train, to Italy’s state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 as part of its international rescue program.
The government blames human error for the crash. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces elections this year, apologized on Sunday, acknowledging that decades of neglect could have contributed to the disaster.
Hours after the crash, his transport minister resigned. Mitsotakis handed the portfolio over to one of his closest associates, Secretary of State George Gerapetritis.
On Wednesday, Gerapetritis was to meet transport experts from the European Commission, which has pledged support.