Rescue workers in Greece frantically searched for survivors through flattened carriages and smoking wreckage on Wednesday after a head-on collision at high speed between a freight and passenger train killed at least 36 people, many of them young, and injured scores of others in what appeared to be the country’s deadliest rail accident.
Kostas A. Karamanlis, the Greek transport minister, announced hours after the crash that he would resign, saying in a statement that “when something so tragic happens, it’s impossible to continue as if nothing had happened.”
“It’s a fact that we inherited the Greek railway in a state that is not fitting for the 21st century,” he added. “In those three and a half years we made every effort to improve this reality. Unfortunately, those efforts were not adequate to avert such a tragedy.”
It was not immediately clear what the circumstances were that led to the crash, which happened as the passenger train traveled from Athens to the northern city of Thessaloniki just before midnight on Tuesday. But the Greek police early on Wednesday afternoon arrested the station manager in Larissa, about 20 miles south of the crash site, without giving a reason. Greek news media reported that the station manager had directed the freight train onto the same track as the passenger train, but the authorities declined to confirm or deny those reports.
The fire service said that there had been 342 passengers and 10 railway staff on the passenger train and two people on the freight train. Many of the passengers were college students and other young people, Greece’s health minister, Thanos Plevris, told reporters. Greek media reported that many of the young passengers had been returning from carnival celebrations in Athens. “It is a terrible process for parents and relatives,” Mr. Plevris said.
Survivors described scenes of horror, with the impact sending passengers hurtling through train car windows or trapping them under buckled cars.
“Windows were shattering and people were screaming,” a young man, who was not identified, told a television crew after surviving the crash. “There was panic in the carriage. A huge chunk of metal from the other train had come through one of the windows.”
Video of the crash, which occurred moments after the passenger train emerged from under a highway underpass, showed the graffiti-scrawled passenger cars derailed and overturned and burned to a shell.
“Carriage 1 and 2 no longer exist, and the third has derailed,” Costas Agorastos, the regional governor of the Thessaly area, told the Greek channel Skai Television.
As 85 people were taken to hospitals with injuries, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hurried to visit the scene and trepidation grew about a rising death toll. Greeks began to look for answers.
A Greek railway official, who requested anonymity because he said he was not authorized to discuss the crash, said that while only Greek subway trains were outfitted with special braking systems to prevent such accidents, electronic monitoring and warning systems along the track worked only sporadically, in part because of budget problems and in part because the system was not fully operational. Yiannis Ditsas, head of the Greek rail workers’ union, told Greek television that the two trains raced toward one another for 12 minutes before colliding.
Experts noted that the country already had the worst record for rail safety in Europe and that endemic problems of maintenance had not been addressed for decades, even before austerity measures enforced by Europe after Greece’s 2009 financial crisis led to drastic budget cuts.
Mr. Karamanlis, the transport minister, choked up earlier in the day while talking to reporters at the scene of the crash. He said later that he was resigning “as the minimum expression of respect to the memory of those who were so unfairly lost” and that he was “assuming responsibility for the chronic ailments of the Greek state and the political system.”
Greece is expected to hold a general election in the coming weeks, probably in early April.
It was unclear if or how the tragedy would reverberate across the political landscape. But the crash clearly struck a nerve, becoming the country’s most deadly in memory, surpassing a 1968 collision involving two passenger trains near Corinth, about 40 miles west of Athens, which left 34 people dead.
A spokeswoman for the Greek police, Constantina Dimoglidou, said that the process of identifying the dead had begun, and she asked relatives of passengers to call a hotline for information.
Asked by reporters about the cause of the crash, Mr. Plevris said that it was not the right time to focus on the circumstances of the disaster.
“The priority now is to nurse the injured and support the families who have lost their loved ones. Everything else we will deal with afterward,” he said.
But experts and critics raised their voices immediately on Wednesday.
“Nothing works,” Kostas Genidounias, president of the association of Greek train drivers, told state television.
“Everything is done manually,” he said, adding that neither the signals nor the traffic control system worked. “If they had been working, the drivers would have seen the red light and the trains would have stopped 500 meters away from each other,” he added, noting that he and colleagues had frequently reported malfunctioning systems recently.
“We are constantly complaining about it,” he said.
It is an issue that the country’s railway officials have been aware of.
“Preventive maintenance has been a problematic issue for years now,” Spyros Pateras, the president of the Hellenic Railways Organization, the body that oversees rail infrastructure in Greece, told a transport conference last year. He said that while the government had allocated 25 million euros, about $26.5 million, for maintenance, perennial lack of funding and staff “has been lacking in recent years.”
Greece had already stood out in Europe for the lack of safety on its rail network. From 2018 to 2020, Greece had the highest railway fatality rate among 28 European countries per million train kilometers, according to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways.
In 2019, the European Data Journalism Network, a group of media organizations, reported that from 2010 to 2018, 137 people died and 97 were seriously injured in railway accidents in Greece, with an average of more than 15 deaths and 11 serious injuries per year.
The media network attributed the problems to unsafe level crossings, poor infrastructure and traffic management systems, and understaffed companies.
Vasileios Vathrakoyiannis, a spokesman for the fire service, said at a televised briefing that the rescue operation was “currently concentrated on the two first carriages of the passenger train, which have overturned.” He said four cranes were being used.
Television footage showed red cranes looming over the twisted, charred wreckage, as police and rescue workers in fluorescent jackets surveyed the scene.
The army was assisting with the rescue operation, and the Greek minister for civil protection, Christos Stylianides, was coordinating the state’s response.
Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident, told The Associated Press, “There were many big pieces of steel,” adding, “The trains were completely destroyed, both passenger and freight trains.”
Mr. Polyzos said that he had seen people who appeared to be dazed and disoriented trying to flee from the trains as he arrived on the scene.
“People, naturally, were scared — very scared,” he said. “They were looking around, searching; they didn’t know where they were.”
America’s Transportation Secretary should take notice of the Greek secretary’s decision and consider resigning from his position.