Andria (Italy) (AFP) - An Italian train station manager admitted partial responsibility for a head-on collision that killed 23 people as investigators on Thursday probed the fatal delay in upgrading rail safety.
The crash happened Tuesday on a single-track stretch of railway run by station managers who communicate directly with train drivers, a system Italian authorities described as outdated and "risky".
"I'm the one who sent the train on its way," Vito Piccarreta, head of Andria station in the Puglia region in southern Italy, told journalists.
"There was some confusion, the trains were late. But I'm not the only one at fault."
Hundreds of mourners held a candle-lit procession to the station late Wednesday, after relatives of victims spent the day at a hospital morgue, providing identification details to help doctors put names to the mangled dead.
- 'Goodbye angels' -
One of the four-carriage trains was supposed to have waited at Andria to let another through from the nearby town of Corato, just 10 minutes ride away. The collision flung several carriages into fields and olive groves bordering the track.
"The olive groves are stained red," read one message left at Corato with flowers and candles. Another read: "Goodbye angels".
An extra train had been reportedly slotted into the timetable at the last minute because of delays on the line Tuesday, which may have resulted in the confusion for the Andria station chief.
The delays worsened after one of the trains coming north from Corato had to turn back because it had forgotten to let a disabled girl off at the previous stop, the Repubblica daily said.
Piccarreta, 57, is under investigation for having lifted the green "Go" signalling sign. But the Corato station master, Alessio Porcelli, 62, is also in the spotlight because Piccarreta reportedly warned him the train was on its way.
Trade unions had filed complaints saying the recent increase in traffic on the line with no extra staff was a safety risk, the Repubblica paper said.
A slight bend in the track reduced visibility, leaving the trains -- which were travelling at more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) an hour -- with fewer than 50 metres in which to brake to a stop, when they needed 250 metres, the Corriere della Sera said.
But assistant prosecutor Francesco Giannella insisted the station managers would not become scapegoats.
"We will absolutely not stop at the first version of the truth. Human error is only the starting point of this drama," he said.
- Warning sign -
A call for tenders to modernise the security system and lay a second track had been scheduled to open later this month after a two-year delay.
About 55 percent of the rail network in Italy is single track. A pot of 150 million euros ($166 million) allocated by the European Regional Development Fund in the 2007-2013 budget to add second tracks was only partially used, La Stampa daily said.
A spokesperson for the Commission said Thursday that the funds for improvements to the track in question had been earmarked "but there were some difficulties and challenges related to the permissions in the region".
"When a region spends four years discussing with Brussels whether a project is ok or not, it's clearly a sign of something wrong," Transport Minister Graziano Delrio said.
As Italy's financial police opened an investigation into the project delays, the head of the nation's anti-bribery authority pointed the finger at endemic corruption in the country which has poisoned the well of public infrastructure procurement.
"The tragedy is probably the result of human error, the judiciary will establish the facts. But it is without doubt also the result of an old problem in our country, the difficulties in putting in place suitable infrastructure," Raffaele Cantone said.
"And one of the reasons for these difficulties is precisely corruption".
Italian consumer association Codacons also insisted Piccarreta and Porcelli could not shoulder the blame alone.
"It is frankly unacceptable. If the control and warning systems had been installed, none of this would have happened," it said.