Popular anger over the national tragedy which befell Greece on February 28th, when a train collision killed 57, is boiling over.
Throughout Greece, on Wednesday, March 8th, over 60,000 people took to the streets to demand safer railroads. In Athens and Thessaloniki, fierce clashes with police were observed, Reuters reports.
In conjunction with the protests, thousands of railroad workers and employees in other transportation sectors have been holding rolling 24-hour strikes since last Thursday. As a result, Greece’s train network is effectively shut down, while metro, streetcar, and bus services in its capital of Athens, as well as ferry services going to and from Greece’s many islands, are disrupted.
The street protests, which were joined by various teacher and student associations, are the largest the Greek government has had to grapple with since its 2019 election. In the capital alone, 40,000 were present, marching to the parliamentary building as they chanted “Murderers!” and “We are all in the same carriage.”
In front of the building, some protesters hurled petrol bombs while a van and garbage bins were set on fire.
As in previous protests, there were violent confrontations between demonstrators and police. In Athens, as the demonstration was nearing its conclusion, a group of protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, who in turn deployed tear gas.
In Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, 20,000 people demonstrated, with some throwing stones at a government building. There too, skirmishes between groups of protesters and police were observed and continued throughout the evening and night.
Alongside a thorough investigation of what caused the accident, demonstrators are calling for the government to urgently address railroad safety, which they claim has been ignored for years.
Underinvestment and understaffing, stemming from years of austerity measures to pay off Greece’s debt, are believed to be the root causes. During its debt crisis, in 2017 Greece sold its state-owned railway operator to Italy’s own state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane; a sale which was part of the country’s bailout agreements with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Greece’s conservative government, whose term ends in July, refused to perform a mea culpa, blaming the crash mainly on human error, but also on systemic deficiencies that had remained unaddressed over the past decades.
Addressing the press, Transport Minister George Gerapetritis (freshly appointed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after his predecessor resigned over the crash) said that he understood the anger the accident had elicited.
“No train will set off again, if we have not secured safety at the maximum possible level,” he promised, apologizing for the tragedy—Greece’s deadliest rail crash yet.
In addition to an investigation into the matter, the minister promised more infrastructure investments and the hiring of extra staff. Later, he met with mobility experts from the European Commission to improve the safety of Greece’s railroads.