No Radio, No Hope: The 1995 Krouna (Czech Republic) Train Collision
Krouna is a municipality of 1429 people (as of 2021) in the center of the Czech Republic, located in the Chudrim District 78km/48.5mi north-northwest of Brno and 119km/74mi east of Prague (both measurements in linear distance).
The town lies on the Svitavy–Žďárec u Skutče rail line (referred to as rail line 261), a single-tracked non-electrified branch line opening in 1897. At the time of the accident the line was mostly used for regional passenger services along with the occasional small freight-train at speeds no higher than 60kph/37mph. The rail-line runs through rather hilly terrain, reaching inclines of 23.5 permille, meaning the track gains/loses 2.35m/7.7ft in altitude over a distance of 100m/328ft.
The trains involved
An unnamed/unnumbered freight train was being assembled at Čachnov station, consisting of an enclosed “service car” for a conductor and four open freight cars loaded with scrap metal and some sort of processed tree trunks. The exact type of freight cars included in the train is unknown, but sources from the time of the accident claim a weight of approximately 400 metric tons, cargo included*. At the time it was still common for freight trains to have a conductor ride along in a dedicated car, serving as a mobile office of sorts. Photos of the aftermath show the service car to be an older two-axle design with a wooden body on a steel frame.
*Note: A single source listed 125 metric tons, an official number is unavailable.
Travelling on rail line 261 from Skuteč to Čachnov at the time of the accident was ČD (Czech National Railway) series 810 number 061 as a regional passenger service. Introduced in 1975 as the ČSD (Czechoslovak State Railways) series M152 the series 810 (renumbered around 1990 due to EDV-compatible numbers being introduced) is a small two-axle diesel rail bus measuring 13.97m/46ft in length at a weight of 20 metric tons. Each series 810 is powered by an inline-6 diesel engine providing 155kW/208hp. Typical for a rail bus the engine along with its gearbox are “borrowed” from a city bus, in this case the Karosa ŠM 11. The series 810 offers space for 55 seated and 40 standing passengers and can reach 80kph/50mph. Despite being used exclusively on smaller branch-lines the rail buses provide international services as some of their routes cross into neighboring countries. At the time of the accident ČSD 810.061 was occupied by the driver, conductor and 21 passengers.
On the 24th of June 1995 workers at Čachnov station are eager to quickly get a freight train assembled in time for its scheduled departure. The three men, the train’s conductor, driver and a shunting worker, try to hurry the procedure along, only to notice that, just after they add the last freight car to the short group, the cars start moving. None of the four cars had had the brakes applied during the shunting-operation, with the men presumably trusting the freight cars’ own weight to keep them in place. One of them runs after the train and tries to reach it to apply the brakes, but he falls to the ground as he tries to jump aboard and can’t do anything but watch the four train cars pull away as they leave the station to the north.
The workers report the incident to the dispatcher, only to be told that there is nothing he can do either. The radio-network on the Czech railway network is spotty at best, and exclusively installed along main lines. The dispatcher knows that the incoming rail bus is on a collision course, but without a radio or any signals between the two trains neither can be warned or stopped.
A few kilometers up the line 20 years old Miss Chotěnovská is boarding the rail bus with four friends at Skutč station. She goes all the way to the rear of the bus, sitting down sideways on the left hand side and leaning against the window. A few minutes later a group of teenagers boards the train at another stop, their noisiness makes her put her earphones in and pretend to sleep, shutting out the world at approximately the same time as the freight cars depart Čachnov station. A few minutes later the little rail bus is struggling its way up a steep section ahead of Krouna station.
The freight cars keep picking up speed as they head downhill, calculations later place them at around 100kph/62mph as they leave Krouna station behind. A few moments later the rail bus rounds a curve 250m/820ft outside Krouna station, suddenly putting the driver face to face with the freight cars coming towards his vehicle. He has no time to react before the freight cars slam into the rail bus head-on. The service-car mounts the frame of the rail bus, obliterating over 75% of the bus’ body before it becomes stuck, pushing the wreckage back a considerable distance. 18 people in the rail bus are dead in an instant, the rest suffers often severe injuries. Miss Chotěnovská is alive but injured, her choice of seating saved her life. The row ahead of her is gone, the seats across the isle are filled with scrap-metal which had passed through the service car on impact and became lodged in the far end of the rail bus. One of the initial five survivors would die from their injuries a few days later, bringing the death-toll to 19.
The first people on site are residents from the surrounding towns, alerted by the deafening crash. They pull survivors from the mangled wreckage and render first aid, managing to keep the survivors alive until professional responders arrive and take over, eventually getting them to hospitals. A journalist takes a photo of Miss Chotěnovská at the hospital, a rumor spreads around that she survived the horrific accident with just a chipped tooth and an injured shoulder. Far from the truth, as time would tell.
The victims are gradually recovered and taken away throughout the day and the following night, along with the three freight cars. There is little need for an investigation, it’s clear from the get-go how the accident occured. With there being no need to keep any of the wreckage around the service car’s remains meet an abrupt end, with firefighters burning the wooden body in an adjacent field. The frame, along with the remains of the rail bus, are hauled away to be scrapped.
Charges are soon filed against the driver and conductor of the freight train, with the investigation deciding that the shunting-worker is free of criminal wrongdoing as he only acted on orders of the other two men. A court eventually sentences the two men to eight (driver) and five (conductor) years in jail, seeing gross negligence in combination with grossly unprofessional behavior. It’s speculated that the accident could have gone even worse, had the passenger service been provided by a heavier train. Pushing the rail bus back may have helped preserving the little bit of survival space that remained, a more resistant obstacle (such as several rail buses coupled together or a locomotive-pushed configuration) may have seen the service car pass through the entirety of the rail bus.
The shock of the tragedy proves to be a driving factor in quickly expanding the coverage of onboard radio systems across the country. A few years after the accident the entire network was equipped with a radio-system, meaning in a repeat of the situation the dispatcher would be able to stop the rail bus and have it evacuated in time.
In a 2015 interview Miss Chotěnovská revealed that she carried much more than a chipped tooth and a sore shoulder away from the site. Over time doctors find over 100 small fractures in her bones,she lost most of her hearing and has limited peripheral vision. On the psychological side she’s also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, making her relive the accident in nightmares and hear the voices of the victims screaming and crying as they did during the accident. She struggles with using red-colored trains for a long time, sometimes requiring medication to enter one at all, a problem that only eases up as the ČSD’s successor (CD) starts retiring the red-beige livery.
The series 810 is still in service today, having received a modernization in the late 2010s. As of early 2023 around 140 units of 678 that were made are still in service with the CD, with another small fleet being used by various rail service providers in the Czech Republic and a few other countries. Around 200 series 810 received extensive modifications to become the CD series 814, being introduced in 2005 as a successor of sorts. Classic rail busses are slowly dying out, being replaced by more sturdy rail cars or multiple units. In other cases the branch-lines their cheap operation kept alive are abandoned, removing the need for cheap rail transport.
Today a small memorial stands at the site of the accident, approximately 60m/197ft north of where the trains collided, marking the spot where the wreckage came to a standstill. A black granite plaque on a gray tombstone lists the date of the accident along with the names of all victims.
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