Into the Overpass: The 2008 Studénka Bridge Collision
Note: Most sources for this were in Czech, I did my best with online translators but still apologize for any errors or inaccuracies that slipped through.
Studénka is a town of 9477 people (as of 2020) in the east of the Czech republic, located 21km/13mi southwest of Ostrava (the country’s third-largest city) and 58.5km/36mi east of Olomouc (both measurements in linear distance).
The city lies on the Břeclav–Petrovice u Karviné rail line, a double-tracked electrified main line opened in 1839 as the Austrian Northern Railway by the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway Company (as the area was Austrian territory at the time). At the time the purpose of the railway line was to connect Vienna with salt mines in Bochnia near Kraków (now Poland). It still remains as an important railway corridor through eastern Europe, being used by both passenger and freight traffic in national and international connections at speeds of up to 160kph/99mph. The accident occurred on a section with 5 parallel tracks just west of Studénka station, just a few meters ahead of a local cement plant’s rail connection (northern side) and the turn-off for the Studénka–Veřovice branch line (southern side).
The train involved
EC 108 “Comenius” is an international express train from Krakow (Poland) to Prague (Czech Republic) provided by the CD (“České dráhy”, Czech national railway) since 2006 as part of the “EuroCity”-program, a system of international European express trains introduced in 1987. Among the passengers on the day of the accident was a large group of Iron Maiden fans headed to a concert in Prague. The train consisted of 10 four-axle passenger cars and had a total weight (according to the report) of 539 metric tons. Pulling the train was CD 151.018–9, a four-axle 82 metric ton electric locomotive. The series 151 was created in 1996 by modifying and refurbishing the series 150 locomotives to achieve higher reliability and an increased top speed of 160kph/99mph, enabling it to pull express trains at the highest scheduled speeds achieved on Czech railways. Each series 151 measures 16.74m/55ft in length and puts out 4200kw/5632hp.
Just to the west of Studénka station the Břeclav–Petrovice u Karviné rail line is crossed by country road 464 from Opava to Skotnice at an angle of approximately 58°, with two grass-covered embankments holding up the ends of the bridge. The old bridge consisted of five parallel steel beams carrying a reinforced concrete slab which in turn had the road constructed on top of it. Having served its purpose since 1961 the concrete slab had worn and needed replacement as a whole. To reduce risk to the trains passing underneath the bridge it was decided that the entire slab and its steel support structure would be lifted and moved 28m/92ft to the northern side of the tracks to replace the concrete and tarmac before moving the whole thing back into place. To facilitate the operation a temporary steel support structure was constructed under both ends of the bridge, consisting of nine blue lattice towers carrying three large orange steel beams on which special purpose built wheel sets carried the bridge as it was moved by hydraulic rams. The support structure stood parallel to the tracks with the orange beams running at 90° to the tracks, meaning the bridge would have to be moved across them at an angle rather than straight across.
On the 8th of August at approximately 10am workers prepared to move the new roadway another 4 meters across the tracks, having done the same thing on both prior days without incident. The construction company had assessed the risk of the operation to be low enough for the rail line to remain open and without a low speed zone needing to be established. As such the workers lifted the new piece up, brought the wheel sets into the correct starting positions and began to lower the new section onto the wheel sets to begin the push across the tracks. At the same time 55 years old Jiří Šindelář is driving EC 108 “Comenius” towards Studénka at 134kph/83mph. The train is running 10 minutes behind schedule, carrying an approximate 400 people.
As the workers set the section down on the wheel sets (at approximately 10:25am) the construction became unbalanced and started leaning downwards on the northern side, causing the construction to start swinging/waving up and down. The support structure managed to hold up the heavy piece of the bridge despite the unexpected dynamic forces caused by the swinging motion for several seconds, allowing workers to evacuate the bridge. Only then did the support structure fail to hold up the out of control piece of steel and concrete, causing the new section to start slipping off the supports to the south, throwing the wheel sets to the north/northwest. Approaching the bridge at just this point Mr. Šindelář saw the massive obstacle slide into the path of his train. The impact with the ground snapped the several hundred metric tons heavy bridge in two, destroying the northern support structures and blocking all five tracks in an instant. Mr. Šindelář knew his train was doomed. He initiated an emergency stop, cut power, used the whistle to warn workers at the site and, seconds before impact, retreated into the engine room (presumably saving his life).
The locomotive started braking 452m/1482ft ahead of the collapsing bridge, enough space to slow down to 90kph/50mph before it struck the bridge at frame-height at 10:30am. The impact by the heavy train deformed the bridge as it was forced several meters along the track into a row of parked freight cars before the locomotive ended up climbing the destroyed bridge and coming to a stop.The locomotive and four of the train cars derailed and struck the bridge more or less head on, with 3 of the cars passing the locomotive on the left and colliding with the freight cars or debris from the collapsed bridge. The forward two passenger cars suffered the worst damage, both being largely obliterated in the collision as the relatively lightweight construction had little to offer against such an obstacle at high speed. Six people died in the collision, with 85 being injured (67 of which severely).
As the accident happened in broad daylight in the middle of town civilian witnesses were on site to help immediately, with professional responders only taking a few minutes to arrive. Within a short time 151 firefighters and 64 medical emergency responders got involved in the rescue effort. The firefighters inched their way to the chaotic wreckage, cutting the train cars into pieces to access the survivors inside. 45 ambulances and 2 helicopters were used to take the injured survivors to nine surrounding hospitals, within 2 hours of the accident all survivors had been removed from the train. Tragically, by that point, an initial survivor had succumbed to his injuries at the hospital, raising the death toll to 7. Another initial survivor would cling to live until passing away on the 30th of September 2008, over a month after the accident. Polish and Czech politicians expressed their sorrow and sadness over the events, and during their concert the same evening Iron Maiden honored the victims of the train crash also, later releasing a statement on their homepage about the accident.
As the investigation got underway to find out how the accident could have happened Mr. Šindelář (who survived with minor injuries) soon found himself declared a hero, as his quick reaction shaved a considerable amount of speed off the train and might have also warned the workers at the bridge of the impending collision. It was pointed out that train drivers must not have a “down with the ship”-mentality, once an emergency stop is initiated the train will follow through on its own. Retreating to the more rigid section in the middle of the locomotive allowed him to survive which also meant he could give important first-hand information about the chain of events. That he managed to snap out of the initial shock very quickly and did everything to achieve the strongest deceleration possible and warned bystanders before retreating meant he did more than could be expected in such a situation.
Initially the CD found themselves blamed for the disaster, having allowed trains to run at full speed through the construction site. But it was soon pointed out that the construction didn’t affect the track itself, and that they had not been informed that the bridge would be moved across the tracks on the day of the accident. A representative of the construction company initially claimed that a subcontractor had actually worked on the bridge and that they had fulfilled the requirements and notified the railway company. He soon (allegedly in the same interview) backpedaled and admitted that there had been no notification at the time as this was only deemed necessary for when the new section was pushed further across, not for the task of setting the section up for the push. A different representative said that the company would be ready to accept blame for the disaster if and only if it’s proven beyond doubt that they are to blame. A TV-station found out that the subcontractor employed at the site had a history of poor workmanship, a pedestrian bridge they had constructed a year prior began cracking before it could be tested, much less opened. Witnesses reported that they had seen workers at the site drinking alcohol on the job, but none of the workers encountered on site after the accident were intoxicated. On the tenth of August 2008 the investigators released a statement to the media explaining that the cause of the accident had most likely been an insufficient/undersized support structure. 3 days later 2 engineers involved in constructing the temporary support structure were arrested on charges of public endangerment. The investigators presented evidence that the engineers had acted negligently, ignoring deformations to the support structure during the operation and patching up damaged parts rather than stopping the construction and reevaluating their construction. Furthermore investigators claimed that the support beams were not designed to carry the weight of the bridge. The latter point could not be proven as the bent beams disappeared from the wreckage a few days after the accident and calculations said that the beams were strong enough, if barely. Finding that the most likely cause was a number of smaller acts of negligence and thus couldn’t be blamed on just the two engineers the police filed charges against 8 further involved people in October 2009.
In the meantime the collapsed bridge was removed from the tracks and the damage fully repaired by the 1st of September 2008. The new bridge was completely destroyed in the collapse and a full replacement was in order. Not only had the span of the bridge stretching across the tracks been destroyed in the collapse, the impact of the heavy segment on the ground had also destroyed its attachment-points on the embankment. In the weeks between the first trains crossing the site and the rail line being completely operational again passengers on passing trains could spot pieces of the wreckage, including crushed passenger cars, sitting by the side of the track.
On the 20th of June 2011 the trial against the suspects began in the Ostrava District court, the nearest court that had a courtroom large enough for all the people needed to attend. A dozen individuals found themselves on trial for various charges surrounding homicide and cause of bodily harm by professional negligence. The relatives’ and survivors’ hopes to find someone to blame for the tragedy was disappointed when, in December 2017, all suspects were relieved of guilt. The presiding judge said that the court could not find out what exactly made the bridge collapse and who was to blame for that one fatal act that set the chain of events in motion. Aiding in this was the focus on a rapid removal of the wreckage to get the important rail line back into operation. This led to the investigation on site being rushed and not as thorough as it could’ve been. A retrial at the local regional court ended the same way in November 2019, and when relatives took the case back to the Ostrava district court they were disappointed again by all suspects being relieved of guilt yet again in October 2020. All the relatives ever got was an undisclosed amount of damages being paid by the CD, which also had to foot the bill for material damages of 136 million crowns (5.6 million Euros, 8.4 million US dollars). In the meantime a local interest group called Comenius 2008 collected money for a memorial, which was unveiled near the site in 2011. Made by sculptor Miroslav Rybička the small memorial consists of two curved pieces of concrete decorated with small pieces of the collapsed bridge in the form of a stylized flower, listing the first name of each victim. The memorial is found on the northern side of the new bridge, just a few meters from the train tracks.
EC 108 was removed from schedules at an unknown point after the accident, the name going to a different EC-connection. The series 151 is still an important part of the CD’s fleet, even after its successor (series 380) started service in December 2009. Surviving locomotives have by now almost all been repainted in the CD’s new express train livery, giving them a blue-white livery that matches the repainted express cars.
The bridge was completely disposed of after the accident, a new bridge was constructed in its place and opened on the 24th of July 2009, less than a year after the accident. Its northern embankment was chosen as the location for the official memorial pictured above.
Tragedy strikes twice
On the 22nd of July 2015 the town of Studénka is struck by tragedy yet again, just a few hundred meters from the site of the bridge collapse. A truck driver fails to run a level crossing to the east of Studénka station and stops right on the tracks where his vehicle is struck by an incoming high speed train. The 2015 Studénka Level Crossing Collision claims three lives.