Asbestos-laden carriages

The so-called «highly comfortable» sleeper cars recently introduced by Hellenic Railways (OSE) in some routes, notably the daily «Friendship Express» train linking Thessaloniki with Istanbul, have been the subject of extensive litigation that forced their original owners, France’s National Railways (SNCF), to abandon their use. The 72 T2 sleeper cars, constructed between 1970 and 1975 and integrated into SNCF’s network between 1973 and 1976, became controversial in 1996, when it was disclosed they had large quantities of asbestos. An attempt to remove the carcinogenic material was only partly successful, as a lot of residue remained and led to several members from the cleaning crews dying of lung cancer. SNCF was forced to remove the cars and place them in a junkyard. It was from that junkyard that OSE «rescued» 21 of those cars and made them part of its «upgraded» and «modernized» services, without heeding either the numerous European Union directives concerning asbestos or the court rulings against SNCF (and other national railways). Kathimerini reveals exclusively how the asbestos-laden carriages, in which crew, technicians and unsuspecting passengers, who spend several hours on them, were acquired – despite having been rejected by a previous OSE management – as well as the legalistic jargon OSE and SNCF used to keep the existence of the deadly material secret and those who would rather bury the issue. The SNCF offer to sell the 21 carriages in two tranches (11 in 2004 and 10 in 2005) arrived at the OSE offices on July 9, 2004. Previously, an OSE delegation had visited the junkyard where the carriages were kept. OSE sources confirmed that the company indeed needed the extra carriages as part of its plans to upgrade its routes to neighboring countries, including a first-ever fast direct connection between Thessaloniki and Istanbul. However, the time to implement these plans was fast approaching and nothing had been done for the procurement of sleeper cars. That is why the OSE board supported this cheap solution, even though the story of the litigation involving the cars was well-known to all major railways around the globe. It is said that these very same carriages had been offered to OSE before 2000. However, the then-managers, having learned of the presence of asbestos, had cut off talks. Last year, the new board under managing director Costas Yiannakos was called to approve the offer and it did exactly that, towards the end of August. The total cost for the 21 cars was 476,630 euros and was considered very low. The report to the board failed to mention the asbestos and the board members were happy to approve what they considered a bargain. A more detailed document of 500 pages contained the revelations. OSE vice-president first spotted it and alerted the Transport Ministry. We do not know what the ministry replied. All we know is that the vice president in question resigned and his reasons for resigning were never made public. Yiannakos and those of his aides who handled the acquisition, were aware of the controversy but failed to disclose anything, leading the board to consent, despite the existence of four EU directives (83/477, 91/3872, 98/24 and 2003/18). SNCF did not hide the existence of asbestos but took care to impose terms that made it immune to litigation. Thus, a special chapter in the contract was titled «Awareness of the presence of asbestos on Type VL Abu T2 carriages.» In it it was said that «the buying party recognizes that it was informed of the following: that the asbestos present in these cars consists mostly of a soundproofing material (insonastic)… This is a non-brittle material which includes asphalt strengthened by asbestos threads.» After describing the failure of SNCF technicians to get rid of the asbestos in 2002, the contract implies that it falls upon OSE to try and remove it and that the buyer will not bring forth any action against SNCF for the presence of the material. OSE will also be responsible for any litigation brought by a third party. The contract was signed on November 9, 2004, by Jean-Pierre Loubinoux for SNCF and by Dimitris Roussopoulos, general manager for equipment, for OSE. The contract is subject to Greek law (Article 17) and its contents are covered by a seven-year period of secrecy (Article 16), as if it were a contract for the procurement of sensitive high-tech material and not for some 30-year-old carriages. This contract raises a number of questions: how can the state agree to a contract that involves breaking a number of rules concerning asbestos? How can OSE exonerate SNCF over a major public health issue? Have any measures been taken to protect OSE crew, technical staff and passengers? Who will be held responsible for this import of asbestos? We are waiting for the answers.

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