From Fog to Fire: The 1960 Stéblová (Czechoslovakia) train collision

Stéblová is a town of 271 people (as of 2022) in the north of the Czech Republic, an area that used to be Eastern Bohemia, Czechoslovakia at the time of the accident. The town is located 94km/58mi east of Prague, the Czech capital, and 6.5km/4mi north of Pardubice, the local capital of the Pardubice Region (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Stéblová in Europe.

Stéblová lies on the Pardubice-Liberec rail line, a mostly single-tracked partially electrified branch line opening in sections between 1857 and 1859 before being modified to today’s routing and length of 160km/99mi in 1871. At the time of the accident the line wasn’t yet electrified, with diesel- and steam-powered trains providing the various passenger services and the occasional freight train. Stéblová station was ideal to let trains pass one another, as it possessed three tracks, connected points and mechanically connected pre- and main signals.

The site of the accident seen from above today, Stéblová can be seen at the top-left corner of the image. The steam train came from the north (top of the image).

On the day of the accident a CSD series M131 provided passenger service number 653 from Pardubice to Hradec Králové. The train consisted of the small diesel railcar and four passenger cars, followed by another railcar of the same type. Introduced in 1948 the CSD (Czechoslovakian national railway) series M131.1 is a small two-axle diesel railcar measuring 12.1m/40ft in length at a weight of 16.6 metric tons, based off a German pre-war design. The M131.1 is powered by a 114kW/153hp Tatra diesel engine and can carry up to 60 seated passengers at a speed of up to 60kph/37mph. To expand capacity the CSD also acquired several dedicated passenger cars for the M131.1, which were extremely similar to the railcar except for being unpowered.

A preserved CSD M131.1 photographed at a museum in 2022.

Heading the other way was train number 608, a mixed southbound service from Liberec to Pardubice. It consisted of a CSD series 354.7 steam locomotive followed by a mail car, a freight car, a passenger car and an office car, followed by eight more passenger cars. The train was manned by a driver, stoker, two conductors and a steward. The CSD series 354.7 was an Austrian locomotive, originally introduced with the Imperial Royal Austrian State Railways (kkStB) as the series 429 in 1909 before ending up in different countries after World War 1. The locomotives had three driven axles along with an unpowered leading and trailing axle and measured 10.55m/35ft in length including their pulled tender. An unloaded locomotive had a weight of 55 metric tons, coming in at 61.2 metric tons when loaded up with coal and water. A top speed of 80kph/50mph was perfectly sufficient for most passenger services at the time. At the time of the accident train number 608 measured approximately 170m/558ft in length.

A surviving CSD series 354.7 photographed in 2012.

On the 14th of November 1960 train 653 left Pardubice northbound at 5:22pm, running a minute behind schedule. 3 minutes later train 608 departed Hradec Králové to the south on a seven minute delay, having had to wait for an oncoming passenger train. The dispatcher at Stéblová set a path for train 608 to use track 1 and planned to send train 653 into track 2, the opposite of how the two trains would usually be arranged. Train 608 pulled into the station at 5:40pm, by which point heavy fog had moved into the area, reducing visibility in the dark to around 50m/160ft.

After train 608 the dispatcher briefly left the office before returning to set the path for train 653, while his coworker headed out to set the points number 4 as a preparation for 653’s departure as well as to lift the barriers at a nearby level crossing now that 608 had passed through.

Note: What happened next was never fully determined, the following is as specific as it can be retold.

Both conductors stepped off train 608 into the foggy darkness, which is when the senior conductor claims to have seen a green light close to the station office, which would have meant the dispatcher gave them permission to depart. He informed the junior conductor of what he later called the “green flash of light”, telling him to get back on the train as they were to head out. The junior conductor didn’t see any light but trusted his superior, so he forwarded the instruction to the driver. The train driver, trusting the two conductors, called departure and set the train in motion. The stoker, whose job it would be to observe the signals, was shoveling coal into the firebox as he noticed a low water level being indicated, distracting him from the signal, which was red. Green flash or not, the steam train was departing without permission. The steward would later say he must have overlooked the signal also, assuming that the meeting between the trains had been moved from its usual location to the next station on the line.

The dispatcher saw the train start moving and ran to his office, using a lantern and two whistles to signal “stop by any means”. The signals were directed at the senior conductor, but instead of checking for signals from the station office he had begun checking tickets. One of the station employees jumped on a bicycle and went after the train, trying unsuccessfully to catch up to the locomotive while the dispatcher called the next signal box 2km/1.25mi up the line, but the dispatcher there only picked up the phone after he had left his post to watch the southbound train 653 go by, meaning the collision was now unavoidable.

Shortly after the phone call a deafening crash rang out through the darkness as the two trains had slammed into one another head-on at approximately 57kph/36mph each. Both train drivers had applied the brakes, but due to the poor visibility the effort came way too late. The leading rail car was lifted up as the steam locomotive’s boiler drilled itself through the majority of it, taking away the entire interior space before the following passenger cars broke apart on the front of the massive obstacle in their path. Only the rear railcar stayed on track and remained mostly intact. The crew aboard the steam locomotive survived the collision almost unhurt, the sturdy construction of the locomotive and the long boiler protecting them from most of the harm. The first two cars behind the locomotive disintegrated on the back of the tender before the first passenger car was crushed between them and car 4, which in itself was struck and ridden up on by car five. The telescoping collision ate up enough momentum for the remaining passenger cars to stay mostly intact as they rear-ended each other.

Moments after the collision the stoker remembered the low water level and, fearing a boiler explosion, dumped the burning coal from the locomotive’s firebox. He didn’t know that diesel fuel from the railcar had spilled along the tracks beneath the wreckage, leading to the coal and ashes dropping into the spillage and igniting it, setting the wreckage ablaze.

The first responders arrived at the site at 6pm, eventually the police, medical services, fire department, military and local civilians would all get involved in the rescue effort. Most survivors had been rescued by 8pm, another one was found under pieces of the wreckage at 11pm but died during transport to the hospital. All in all the accident claimed 118 lives while 110 people survived with severe injuries, with most deaths being credited to smoke inhalation or fire as survivors were trapped in the burning wreckage. Several people survived the crash and fire but lost their legs as the benches in the train cars broke loose and were shoved together. Several victims were not identified and 3 people known to be on the trains were never found.

The local hospitals were completely overwhelmed by the tragedy, requiring surgeries to be performed in any available space, even the maternity ward. The government was very interested in not having any bad light fall on the country’s railway system, leading to scarce and highly controlled reporting on the accident. They couldn’t claim it didn’t happen, but they could try to make it quickly forgotten. A short bulletin published two days after the accident merely mentioned that there had been an accident, how many people had died, which politicians had visited the site and ended with the announcement of a thorough investigation.

Several of train 653’s passenger cars, compressed into a distorted ball of twisted metal.

The official investigation, run on a tight leash by the government, published their report just sixteen days after the accident. It claims that, of course, the country’s great railway system had nothing to do with the accident, it was exclusively caused by flagrant ignorance towards basic rail transportation rules and could not have been avoided by any technological steps. Pretty much the entire crew of train 608 was put on trial, while the steward was acquitted everyone else received jail sentences between 5.5 years and 1 year, with all of the defendants also being banned from their professions for several years. The total damage was claimed at 477 thousand Czechoslovak crowns, over 360 times the country’s average monthly income.

A rail car’s remains, the wooden construction offered little resistance to the forces of the crash.

The source or even existence of the green light the senior conductor insisted on having seen was never determined, it couldn’t have been the station dispatcher as he was inside his office at the time, not a position from where he could’ve flashed a green light. Some surviving passengers later said they might have also seen a green light, but none were sure. It is entirely possible that there was a green light of some sort, emitted by accident by the junior conductor’s lantern or even from a passenger’s flashlight, but it is also possible that there was no light and the conductor, falling victim to routine, only assumed that he had seen the light, ever so briefly. In the end, blame most likely lies with the senior conductor giving a false information and the locomotive crew, neither member of which bothered to check the claim before departing into the foggy darkness.

The wreckage was cleared the day after the accident, with trains running on the line as soon as 12:30pm on the 15th of November 1960. A memorial was erected at the site in 1967, consisting of a tall cross by the side of the rail line. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, the dilapidated cross was removed and replaced with a black granite plaque carrying a reminding message.

The memorial at the site of the collision, photographed in 2017.

The accident remains the most tragic rail accident in Czech history, surpassing the 1953 Šakvice train disaster by 15 victims. The stoker’s decision to dump the burning coal from the firebox certainly made the outcome of the collision drastically worse, but at the same time he had a good reason to do it, as boiler explosions caused by a lack of water have had devastating consequences all of their own, such as the 1977 Bitterfeld boiler explosion in Germany previously featured on this blog. It was, in the end, bad luck that diesel fuel had leaked beneath the firebox where the coal landed and managed to catch fire. A repetition of the accident today is just about impossible, as modern railway lines no longer use lanterns for communications and most rail lines are fitted with systems that automatically stop a train from running a red signal.

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