After Tempe: Preconditions For Regaining Confidence in the Railways

Source: Alexandros Michailidis via

Speech by Kostas Genidounias, President of the Panhellenic Association of Train Drivers (PEPE) at the conference organised by the Nikos Poulantzas Institute entitled “Safety: Countering the Argument – From Individual Responsibility to Multifaceted Collective Safety” held on 26th of April 2023.

The Greek railway drivers have been in the news in the last two months for all the wrong reasons, following the Tempe railway tragedy[1]. I think that the entire Greek society has understood what has really happened. It has not confined itself to the theory of human error, which was attempted immediately after the accident. And it is urging the drivers to draw up a plan for the reopening of the railways, whereas those at the highest institutional level have been missing for two months – either because they have resigned or because they do not appear in public. So, my presentation refers to the preconditions for regaining the confidence of citizens but also the railway workers – because we, the workers, have lost eleven of our colleagues in this tragedy, and the relationship of trust between the drivers and the infrastructure manager, who is responsible for the movement of trains, has been shaken. So, my presentation refers to the conditions for regaining the confidence of the citizens and of the railway workers – because we, the workers, have lost eleven of our colleagues in this tragedy and the relationship of trust between the drivers and the infrastructure manager, who is responsible for the movement of trains, has been shaken.

My contribution concerns four strategic issues:

  • the completion of safety projects and systems along the railway network, but also their maintenance in the days to come,
  • training, recruitment, and the regulated labour rights that rail workers should have,
  • the safety culture that should prevail in railway companies, but also the importance of delivering justice, and
  • the investments that need to be made in the railways to modernise them.

First issue: Completion of projects and safety systems

The completion of projects and safety systems requires a specific timetable, not just their announcement. Much has been said in public discussion following the accident about whether the remote-control system in the Larissa area was operating. The eventual confirmation that the remote-control system was not operating, despite the government’s efforts to convince people to the contrary, has given Greek society the certitude that there can be no confidence in what is being claimed on the part of those who are responsible, and not, of course, on the part of the workers, who from the very first moment have been arguing that there was no remote-control system. I really wonder, if we as trade unions had not formally denounced, by extrajudicial documents and letters, all that is now coming to light, what would have been the attitude of those who are in charge towards us. Perhaps we too would have been held responsible. It is characteristic that on the first day after the accident I was asked "why have you not spoken out?", and I explained that we had. But until we made the extrajudicial documents public there was a distrust toward us, simply because we are trade-unionists. It’s good to have some belief in trade-unionists, not to think of them as the "bad guys" of the system. There are some of us who perform our job in the unions, including on safety issues.

The real state of railway infrastructure today – and I will only refer to the Athens-Thessaloniki route – is that only 26% of the route is remotely operated. Only 26%! Not in the entire country, only in the Athens-Thessaloniki route. Only 43% of the route is equipped with light signals. And of that 43%, a 10-12% is operating with serious problems, i.e. instructions are constantly sent to drivers via telegraphic messages for red light transgressions. The system for protection against human error, the DCS[2], is not operating anywhere, and we are facing major problems in communications as GSM-R[3] has not been installed and is not operational. In addition, because of the shortage of staff, the maintenance of the railway network is carried out by small contractors. There was a plan suggesting that the maintenance of the network should be done through three vertically integrated large contractors, for northern, central, and southern Greece, with all that this would mean.

Our view, to regain the confidence of both the public and the railway workers, is that the maintenance of the network should remain with the public Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE)[4]. The experience of Great Britain, with the liberalisation of the market and the outsourcing of network maintenance to private operators, has had tragic results.

Second issue: Training, qualifications and labour rights of railway workers

The second issue is training, qualifications, and sound labour rights for railway workers, which is one of the key issues in railway transport. We are also addressing this issue as a trade union participating in the social dialogue in Europe. Because, in Europe, our union has participated in the social dialogue, whereas in Greece, on the contrary, the authorities were not willing to meet and discuss with us. I mention this so that you can understand how they have been treating us over the last four years.

In fact, we believe that there should be ongoing training and retraining of railway staff on all the safety systems and on the existing regulations.

Also, in relation to skills, the use of new technologies requires additional qualifications for the staff to be employed, especially in some critical jobs. A very good knowledge of computers and foreign languages is an essential requirement. In my opinion – and we have raised this in public discussion – remote control systems should be staffed by qualified engineers. This is because of their expertise in relevant matters.

It is evident that there should be an age limit for recruitment to these jobs, either internally, as is the case for drivers in private companies, or in the OSE through the Supreme Personnel Selection Board (ASEP)[5], but also the introduction of stricter examinations both for recruitment in each sector and for obtaining a license or certification to work in it. For example, for the recruitment of a stationmaster in the OSE, as we witnessed in the last ASEP examination, the so-called ‘voice test’, which is a crucial one, cannot be carried out by a three-member committee of the same organisation where the recruitment will take place. This way of doing the test gives every candidate the feeling that he or she is entering a work environment where the concept of responsibility is not so important. There should also be on-going psycho-technical tests – every year or every three to five years, as is the case for train drivers – for all staff, and strict examinations under the supervision of the regulatory authorities.

Coming to recruitment, this should be done with the respect of proper labour rights. It is inconceivable what has happened over the last year and a half, during which precariousness in labour relations in the rail sector has become widespread. Most stationmasters, almost the majority of those currently working, are employed on a contractual basis, by issuing a receipt for their services[6]. This means that pressure can be easily exercised on these workers, because their contracts are of six-month duration, and subject to successive renewals, and they thus have no guaranteed rights and are susceptible to orders, with the threat of "do as I command, or your contract will not be renewed".

Similarly, indicative of the lack of understanding about the critical nature of the role and responsibility of every job on the railways is that we see contractors being put in charge of guarding most of the junctions that trains pass through. So, we see colleagues who work for contractors leaving the train junction and the next day working in the security of a stadium. In this way, the understanding of the critical nature of the position and what this colleague is doing in the production chain is completely lost.

Finally, the training of staff must also remain under public control, the staff at the OSE Railway Academy – which was re-established in 2018 – must be strengthened, and new technologies must be applied. Examinations must be transparent and there must be procedures for rechecking the health of all staff.

Third issue: Safety culture

A very big issue for us train drivers is that of safety culture. As the saying goes, "if you are confident that your organization has a solid safety culture, you are almost certainly wrong." Safety culture is something you have to fight to achieve, and, in the end, it is hard to achieve. The process is far more difficult and more important than the end-product. But what is safety culture? I personally define safety culture as "always doing what is right, even when no one is watching".

OSE should collect and analyse data to get a clear picture of its safety level. Examples of this culture are periodic audits by internal and external mechanisms, assessment and certification of route assurance and trustworthy systems for reporting dangerous situations either by train drivers or other railway employees.

There are some specific questions: Until the time of the accident, had the companies a programme to collect, record and analyse information that could contribute to the safe running of trains? Were periodic checks carried out by internal inspection and external bodies? Was there a set protocol for reporting and assessing hazardous situations?

The culture of reporting that I have mentioned as a prerequisite is essential to make workers’ problems known and find solutions to them, so that the organisation’s safety is increased.  It is necessary to protect workers who report a dangerous incident in good faith, and not to punish them for what happened. In this way a reliable and efficient system can be developed which will be able to prevent, collect, analyse and communicate these incidents, so that everyone is aware and can contribute to further reducing them and preventing tragedies such as the one in Tempe.

In the railways over the last period, we have had a steady stream of incidents and the nurturing of a culture of impunity, of no one monitoring and controlling traffic, with the infrastructure manager, because of the interests at stake, only issuing findings when he was certain that it was mainly train drivers who were responsible in a minor incident, and who would mainly pay compensation after the incident[7].

Notably, of the few findings on dozens of minor derailments issued in the last three years, two of them blame drivers for violating the speed limit by one (1) kilometer/hour from the junction to the interchange. That is, the findings allege that the driver was responsible for the derailment because he passed at 11 kilometers per hour instead of 10 kilometers per hour which was the maximum speed limit! That was the safety culture, and this was the critical chain of trust that had been disrupted.

Also, in January 2022, after the retirement of an experienced executive of Hellenic Train, a junior executive of the company – who seems not to like unions – instructed the secretaries of the engine rooms not to send to our union, the Train Drivers’ Union, the reports submitted by our colleagues on traffic safety, as was done until 2021. This is one of the issues we have raised with the company and we believe it will be changed.

It is important to understand that when a dangerous incident takes place, we must report it so that it does not happen again to another colleague, and that we should not engage in dangerous actions for no reason. The crucial difference is that the former should be praised because it stems from good intentions, while the latter should be sanctioned because it stems from a lack of professionalism. The former increases safety while the latter increases the chances of an accident. A safety culture is very difficult to form in an organisation, and this organisation should have all the necessary elements that can lead to such a culture. As with the example of a chain, where if one link is missing, then nothing works properly.

In addition, the strengthening of regulatory authorities should be a priority, as should the promotion of a sense of justice. It is inconceivable that the real culprits of the Tempe tragedy should not be held accountable, given that the trade unions had warned that a major accident was imminent. If justice is not delivered, it is certain that the relationship of trust between the train drivers and the administrator of the infrastructure will be very difficult to restore, at least soon.

Fourth sector: Investment in railways

Finally, what needs to be done, in order to have an impact on passengers and to increase their confidence, is investment in rolling stock, in facilities, in training and in new technologies. It is inconceivable, for example, that one can book a seat on a train in Spain, even on a suburban service, through a simple mobile application, and in Athens not knowing whether the suburban train to the airport will be two minutes late. It is not possible that the annual subsidy that Hellenic Train, for example, receives is used as a tool for petty party objections and serving interests, and that no investments are intended to be made through it.

Communication announcements must be stopped, especially in the railway freight sector where this is most prevalent, the railway must be linked to the region and the public must be convinced that the railway is a means of serving the whole of society and economy. Here we all have a responsibility: both we trade unions and the political leadership.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that we workers support the idea that: "a developed country is not one where the poor have cars, but one where the rich use public transport". That is why all the necessary steps must be taken in the coming period to restore confidence to this means of transport, to bring people back to it and to put the railways back in the position they deserve in Greek society and economy.

[1] Shortly before midnight, on 28 February 2023, outside the city of Larissa in Central Greece, one passenger and one freight train had a head-on collision, which caused the death of 57 passengers and workers. In fact, many of the victims were of a young age, mainly students returning to Thessaloniki and their studies after the Carnival weekend. Initially, the government attempted to attribute the accident solely to human error on the part of the stationmaster of the Larissa railway station, but it quickly became apparent that there were significant deficiencies in the rail safety systems, about which the trade unions had repeatedly warned those responsible both within the network operator (owned by the state) and the government.

[2] DCS: Distributed Control System

[3] GSM-R: Global System for Mobile communication – Railway

[4] After 2017, when, according to the memorandum of understanding, rail transport was handed over to private entities, the infrastructure and network remained in public hands. In fact, I should say here that experience shows that after a major accident, other minor accidents often follow. Therefore, it requires a great deal of attention as to which body will be responsible for the network maintenance and how a safety culture can be fostered among all staff – something to which I will come later.

[5] The Supreme Personnel Selection Board (ASEP) is an independent Greek authority that ensures the proper recruitment of permanent and seasonal staff in the wider public sector.

[6] These persons are legally considered as self-employed, but in fact provide dependent work.

[7] What is implied is that if the findings showed that the drivers, who are employees of the private companies running the routes, were liable, the companies would be responsible for paying compensation. If a fault of the safety systems or infrastructure/network were found, then the responsibility for paying compensation would be of the (public) OSE.