Rail transport is fast, convenient and quite safe. To avoid catastrophes, engineers have created sophisticated signaling systems and locomotive safety devices that do not allow drivers to be distracted from control. However, all this does not protect against accidents by 100%. And these catastrophes can be very large-scale.
Chaos of World War I
The World War I was a test for Europe’s dense railway network. Military echelons in a dense crowd were transporting to the front more and more future victims of a terrible human meat grinder. The crippled physically and morally people returned back in the wagons. Some — forever, others — to get a little respite in the family and then to be thrown into battles again.
At the same time, due to mobilization, there was a catastrophic shortage of personnel. In those days, automation was still at a low level, and the professionalism of workers played, perhaps, a key role in ensuring the safety of transportation.
On May 22, 1915, a catastrophe occurred in Great Britain, which, more than a century later, holds a dubious record for the number of victims in Great Britain. The Quintinshill junction, near the border of England and Scotland, is still a wilderness, about two kilometers away from the nearest housing. Manager George Mekin was supposed to pass several trains in the morning: two passenger express trains, a commuter train, a military train and a freight train. At the same time, one of the two sidings was occupied by freight trains. The dispatcher got confused in the permutations and did not warn the neighboring stations of the need to delay the departing trains so that they would safely pass. As a result, the military echelon collided head-on with a suburban train standing in its way. The carriages of the trains derailed and ended up on an adjacent track, where one of the fast trains crashed into them a few minutes later.
A severe fire began, the firefighters who arrived after a while to the scene of the tragedy could not cope with it. The exact number of victims remained unclear, because only 83 bodies were identified. According to the official version, 226 people were killed and another 246 were injured. The vast majority of the victims were soldiers, and nine train passengers and three railway workers also died.
George Mekin and his morning shift, James Tinsley, were found guilty of negligence and manslaughter. However, in 1916 they were released and again took up positions in the same company.
The French disaster of 1917 was also the result of the railroad’s hard work during wartime. On December 12, a military train arrived at the Modan station, there were more than a thousand soldiers. There, two more wagons were attached to it, and the total weight reached 526 tons. According to the rules, two steam locomotives were supposed to carry it, but one of them was requisitioned for the ammunition train. The situation was further complicated by the fact that only the first three cars were equipped with air brakes, while the rest were equipped with manual brakes only. Therefore, seven railway workers were assigned to them, who were supposed to put the brakes in action, guided by the signals of the locomotive.
The engineer Girard at first refused to drive such a heavy train, but he was threatened with a court martial, and at 23:15 the train set off. On a slope near the station Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, the train reached a speed of 105 km/h with a limit of 40. The cars unhooked from the locomotive and flew off the track. A fire, which lasted more than a day, started and up to 800 people died. Six railroad workers were arrested, but the court acquitted them.
Are the cows to blame?
Year 1981 turned out to be a very unfortunate year for Indian railways. During the first nine months of the year, 526 train derailments occurred on the country’s railways. On October 19, a disaster near the city of Amritsar — the holy city of the Sith — resulted in the death of more than 60 people when a train crashed into a crowd at speed.
A few months before this incident, the country was shocked by another, more deadly catastrophe. Between the cities of Mansi and Saharsa in the state of Bihar in the east of the country, seven carriages of a train overturned from a bridge into the Bagmati River. Officially, the train carried at least 800 passengers, but Indian trains are constantly overcrowded, so that the New York Times reported that from 1,000 to 3,000 people were travelling by the train, many of them were located on the roof and running boards.
The exact number of victims will never be established. The disaster occurred during the heavy rainy season, and most of the bodies were carried away by the waters of the river. Rescuers managed to find about two hundred dead, and their total number, according to various estimates, ranges from 800 to 2000. It is believed that the overloaded rear cars were simply blown off the bridge by a hurricane wind or washed away by a large wave. However, eyewitnesses reported that before entering the bridge, the driver, a Hindu by religion, applied emergency braking when he saw a cow, a sacred animal of his religion, on the way. Is that true, we will never know.
The railway accident near Ufa, Russia became another accident that occurred in the last years of the existence of the Soviet Union. On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the Novosibirsk-Adler and Adler-Novosibirsk trains met on the Asha-Ulu-Telyak section of the Trans-Siberian Railway. At that moment, there was a strong explosion, which power is estimated in the range from 250 tons to 12 kilotons of TNT. In the city of Asha, which is located 10 kilometers away, windows were shattered by a blast wave, and the fire covered an area of 250 hectares.
The explosion occurred due to a leak on the main gas pipeline, passing under the railway. The operators noticed a drop in pressure in the pipe, but instead of looking into the reasons, they simply increased the volume of pumping. As a result, a cloud of hydrocarbons accumulated in the lowland. The engineers of the trains passing through the haul reported the smell of gas, but these warnings were ignored. An accidental spark from an electric locomotive’s pantograph or a cigarette thrown out the window led to the death of 575 people, most of whom were burned alive in the cars. 623 people were seriously injured.
As the investigation established, the pipeline was damaged by an excavator bucket during installation. The trial took six years, and in 1995 six were found guilty. Four were released due to the amnesty, two more were sentenced to two years in a colony-settlement. The investigation completely ignored the safety violations by officials who were responsible both for the construction and operation of the pipeline, and for safety on the railway led to the tragedy.
The largest railway disaster in history occurred in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, when a powerful tsunami stroke the Southeast Asia, caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean.
The route between the cities of Vavuniya and Matara runs for the most part along the sea coast, sometimes at a distance of no more than 200 meters from the water. Therefore, the train “Samudra Devi” — “Queen of the Oceans” — is very popular among tourists. On the day of the tragedy, from 1,700 to 2,000 passengers rode in it — it is impossible to calculate the exact number due to the large number of stowaways.
Not far from the village of Peralia, the train stopped at a red traffic light. No one knew that an earthquake had happened two hours ago and a huge wave was moving towards the train stationed just 170 meters from the water’s edge. The first wave hit at about half past ten in the morning, knocking the second car off the tracks. The conductor helped the passengers to get out of it, and the engineer coupled the locomotive with the remaining eight cars to take the train to safety.
But this was not possible. The second wave tore the train to pieces, throwing multi-ton cars hundreds of meters from the tracks. Two wagons were washed into the ocean. For several hours, the authorities did not even know about the disaster, and first aid was provided by police from a neighboring area, who dismantled the mangled cars by hand. Rescuers arrived in time only on the third day.
Only 150 people survived the crash, bringing the death toll to about 1,700. Most of the bodies were never found.