The Austerity Train Wreck

If human error is to blame for the deadly train collision in Greece on February 28, the responsibility ultimately lies with those who devised, defended, and promoted the economic doctrines underpinning the austerity policies that were imposed on the country in the 2010s. Without those polices, this tragedy never would have happened.

AUSTIN – In a flash, the savage destruction of Greece foretold in 2015 (and before) is back in the news, owing to a grisly tragedy on one of Europe’s smallest railroad systems. On February 28, a passenger train collided head-on with a freight train traveling in the opposite direction on the same track, resulting in the obliteration of the lighter, faster passenger train.

According to The Guardian, “the trains were traveling on what appears to be a well-maintained stretch of electrified mainline.” Take a moment to let the irrelevance of that observation sink in. We are talking about a head-on collision. Of course it wasn’t the track. Was it a “tragic human error,” then, as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis quickly announced? The stationmaster at Larissa has been arrested and faces a long prison term. How convenient that there is someone to blame. Who was the stationmaster? Journalist Dimitris Konstantakopoulos reports that he “was a 60-year-old man of limited experience, alone in a position of great responsibility.” The New York Times adds that he had only six months of training. Why were humans involved at all? Apparently, automated systems to prevent two trains from approaching each other on the same track were not installed. And why not? Evidently, such things are expensive. They add to costs without contributing to revenues. To ensure that such safeguards are in place, the firm hand of regulation must override the profit motive. Worse, Konstantakopoulos reports that, according to a former director of the Trainose company, “The last system of tele-management of the railways was deactivated in 2020.” Since then, the former director “stopped traveling by train.” Worse still, The New York Timesnotes, “Rail workers say the traffic lights were always red because of years of technical failures. Workers were left to warn one another of oncoming trains only by walkie-talkie.” And the president of the train drivers’ association told the BBC, “Neither the indicators, nor the traffic lights, nor the electronic traffic control work.”

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Trainose, Greece’s railway operator, was purchased from the Greek state in 2017 by Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato. Since the Italian company was the only bidder, we can infer that it got an excellent price. The privateers – excuse me, the privatizers – did just what the profit motive demanded: they cut costs, not only by eschewing safety equipment but also by shedding railway staff. There are only 800 employees today, down from 6,000 in 2010, though there are supposed to be 2,800. Having multiple sets of eyes on the rail line is after all redundant – 99.9% of the time. So, there was indeed human error. But which humans made the mistakes? Does responsibility lie with the lone stationmaster, or with Trainose (which last year changed its name to Hellenic Train)? The stationmaster is obviously a scapegoat. And since Hellenic Train’s management did exactly what it was required to do, it can hardly be accused of making an error. How about Mitsotakis? His government has regulatory power that it failed to exercise. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport had a responsibility to upgrade the network, but it did not do so. But that, too, was no error. The failure to regulate was in the service of the private firm’s profit motive. The failure to upgrade was in the service of the government’s austerity program. What about former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who of the 2015 surrender to Greece’s creditors that led to the wave of fire-sale privatizations? Again, this was not done in error; it was the result of treachery, bad faith, and force majeure. What about those who imposed the terms of austerity, deregulation, and privatization on the Greeks? The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – the infamous troika – took effective control of the Greek government in 2010 and again in 2015 and still run the show to this day. They also made no errors. They simply applied the dogma that had been prescribed by economists in the service of creditors. Theirs was victor’s justice, executed precisely as intended. The human error therefore lies elsewhere. It lies with those who devised, defended, and promoted the economic doctrines that have ravaged Greece, and with the rest of us who went along. We did so stupidly but with self-assurance, smugly accepting that free-market economics is the only option (“there is no alternative”), that regulation is an avoidable burden, and that private ownership is always better than public. Those in positions of power were complacent – if not cheerful – as these doctrines took hold in Greece and around the world. Ergo omnes in culpa.

* James K. Galbraith, Professor of Government and Chair in Government/Business Relations at the University of Texas at Austin, is a former staff economist for the House Banking Committee and a former executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. From 1993-97, he served as chief technical adviser for macroeconomic reform to China’s State Planning Commission. He is the author of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe (Yale University Press, 2016).

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