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Was neglect and poor maintenance behind a deadly train collision in Greece?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A railroad union says it warned operators about poor maintenance, chronic understaffing and faulty automation before two trains collided in the worst rail accident Greece has ever seen. Death toll is now up to at least 43 after a passenger train and a freight train wound up on the same tracks, barreling toward each other at a combined speed of 100 mph. Independent journalist Lydia Emmanouilidou is with us this morning from Athens. Welcome to the program.

LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what are you hearing from family members of people who were on that passenger train?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Well, many family members are still trying to figure out exactly where their loved ones are. You know, we know that there are 44 - at least 44 people who died. Only 11 of those people have been identified so far, and that's partly because - you know, I'm sure you've heard descriptions of the collision.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

EMMANOUILIDOU: This was a high-speed collision. Temperatures in some of the front wagons reached more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And so the wagons disintegrated, and so did some of the - you know, some of the people inside them. It's really hard to identify them. And so family members have been going from hospital to hospital. Some are going to the collision site. You know, of course, they're very desperate to find their loved ones. And right now, they are - some people who haven't yet found their loved ones who are still missing, unaccounted for, they're giving DNA samples in the hope that, you know, there will be a match. And from what we understand, some of those determinations will be made today. And, of course, that's a phone call that nobody wants to get to find out that, you know, there's been a DNA match with a person who's dead.

INSKEEP: That's got to be worse than knowing the awful truth. And I want to note something else. I said in our introduction at least 43 were dead. You gave us an updated number of at least 44, which just underlines that we don't really even know the full toll here, do we?

EMMANOUILIDOU: That's exactly right. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk about what may have happened. And we should underline, it's early. It can take months, it can take years to figure out what truly, truly caused a collision of this kind. However, authorities have arrested a station manager on the railroad. What was this person's job?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Yeah. So this person's job and where the mistake seems to have happened is that they were supposed to switch the track line and to give the go-ahead to the passenger train to go. So let me just back up for a second and say that one thing that we do know at this point is that the two trains that collided, they were traveling on the same track towards each other for several minutes before the crash, even though this was a double-track line. And so how does this happen? According to the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who gave a statement yesterday, this was partly because of human error, partly because of the rail manager's mistake.

But, you know, of course, railway worker unions have been saying for years that actually there are much bigger issues. This cannot just be pinned to a single person's human error, that the system has been in a dire state. There's outdated equipment, staffing shortages. And this is partly because of the privatization that we've seen over the past few years.

INSKEEP: Yeah, mistakes happen, but the several minutes after the mistake is the horrifying part, when no one caught it, or at least no one caught it in time.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Right.

INSKEEP: Lydia, thanks so much.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: That's journalist Lydia Emmanouilidou in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.