Shark Attacked: The 2021 Milavče (Czech Republic) Train Collision
Milavče is a town of 596 people (as of 2021) in the far west of the Czech Republic, located 42km/26mi southwest of Plzeň/Pilsen and 14.5km/9mi north-northeast of the German border near Furth im Wald (both measurements in linear distance).
The town is passed by the Plzeň-Furth im Wald rail line, a mostly single-tracked unelectrified main line opened in October 1861 to better connect Prague with the Regensburg-Nürnberg rail line in Germany. Today the line is almost exclusively used by regional passenger services at speeds of up to 100kph/62mph. Most of the trains are multiple units from the CD (Czech national railway), with a few locomotive-pulled trains in between, among them the Munich-Prague express provided by the German DLB (“Die Länderbahn”), a private rail service provider. In 2020 the CD had accelerated their installation of the European train control system (which, among other things, can stop a train from running a red signal) on their network, but by the time of the accident it was only running on approximately 500km/310mi of their network, including a small part elsewhere on the Plzeň-Furth im Wald rail line. As such, the operations on most of the line relied on the drivers obeying signals as they waited to pass one-another in sidings.
The trains involved
Travelling southbound from Plzeň main station to Domažlice was a CD series 844 as passenger service (Os) 7406. The CD 844 is a two-car diesel multiple unit made by PESA as the Link II, introduced into service with the CD in 2013. Each unit consists of two identical end cars resting on a shared central jacob’s bogie, measuring a total of 43.73m/143ft in lengh at a weight of 84.4 metric tons. Each car is fitted with an MTU diesel engine sending 390kW/523hp to the bogie at the end of the car, enough for the train to reach 120kph/75mph while carrying a driver along with up to 120 passengers in a two-class configuration. The train cars feature large energy-absorption elements at the ends as a crumple-zone of sorts, fulfilling the highest European crash safety standard. This includes anti-climb elements meant to keep another train from mounting the 844’s frame in case of a head-on collision. Their distinctively “angry” design has given them the nickname “Shark”, which the CD picked up on and branded the series 844 the “RegioShark”. Against original plans the series 844 doesn’t currently hold a registration for Germany (despite near-identical trains also being in service with the German national railway), so they cannot provide cross-border services. At the time of the accident the train carried a driver and 7 passengers.
Coming the other way was the “Západní Express” from Munich to Prague, provided to the CD by the DLB who provided part of the rolling stock along with the driver for the German part of the trip. Pulling the train was a Siemens ER20 “Eurorunner” diesel locomotive owned by the DLB as locomotive 223 066. The ER20 “Eurorunner” is a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 2002 and made in 181 units until 2011. Each unit measures 19.28m/63ft in length at a weight of 80 metric tons. The locomotives are powered by an MTU V16 turbodiesel-engine sending 1600kW/2146hp to the wheels (1750kW/2347hp on locomotives set up for freight trains). They can reach a top speed of 140kph/87mph, enough for the regional or freight services they usually provide. The DLB has their 12 locomotives as long-term rentals from “Alpha Trains”, using them mostly for their “Alex” express trains within Germany with a distinct turquoise livery. They had been introduced on the Munich-Prague relation in 2010, cutting down travel time and cost as they removed the necessity of swapping the locomotive at the border. Now only a Czech driver takes over the train, with no shunting needed. When running to Prague as the express train they usually enjoy priority over the local regional trains. DLB 223 066 had started service in 2007 and up until the 2021 accident had no incidents on record.
The four-car train pulled by DLB 223 066 was made up of different older-model four-axle passenger cars, starting with 2 modernized UIC-Z passenger cars from the CD followed by two Eurofirma-type passenger cars previously owned by the Italian FS-railway. At the time of the accident the train carried a driver and 60 passengers.
On the fourth of August 2021 at approximately 8am both the northbound express from Munich to Prague and the southbound Os 7406 are approaching the small town of Milavče. Most of the rail line has a 100kph/62mph speed limit, while the section Milavče is limited to just 80kph/50mph due to some sharper turns. Usually the northbound express has priority over the local regional service, but today the entrance-signal ahead of the siding at Radonice tells the driver to expect a stop. The express-train enters the siding at 8:06:08am at a speed of 75kph. Not only is it not slowing down, the data-logger will later show that it’s gradually accelerating. The train breezes past the service-office at the siding and reaches kilometer 161.8 at 8:06:42am. From here the driver can see the exit-signal, which is set to red for “stop”. Regardless, the train keeps going.
The express-train rejoins the rail line unpermitted at 8:06:53, travelling at 79kph/49mph, just as the oncoming RegioShark rounds the last bend before passing through Milavče station. Presumably, the driver aboard the express train now realizes his fatal mistake, triggering an emergency stop at 8:06:56. The data-logger barely has time to record air-pressure being dumped and the train losing a single kph before, at 8:06:59, the two trains collide head-on just south of Milavče station, at a combined speed of 117kph/73mph.
The heavy express train forces the RegioShark back 75m/246ft as both the regional train and the locomotive derail, along with the express train’s leading car. Both driver’s cabs are obliterated in the collision, with the RegioShark’s crash engineering being designed for collisions at a far lower speed. The leading passenger car crashes into the back of the locomotive, causing severe damage to the passenger car and buckling its body while the other 3 passenger cars only suffered relatively minor damage, with shattered windows on the whole train proving the forces that went through even the fourth car. Both drivers are killed on impact, having had no time to even try to retreat from their seats, while one passenger dies as the leading passenger car‘s front end breaks apart on the locomotive. Another 56 people are injured (according to the report, some news-sources claim up to 67), 8 of which being listed as having suffered severe to life-threatening injuries.
By 8:08am the first emergency services are alerted, within minutes responders from as far as Plzeň and Germany are involved in the rescue-effort. The worst-injured survivors are treated immediately adjacent to the tracks before being flown or driven to hospital, 4 helicopters ferry survivors to hospitals in Germany and the Czech Republic. The destruction to both trains is mind-boggling, the diesel engine has no trace of a driver’s cab left while only a piece of the RegioShark’s outer skin marks where the cab used to be. Based on a rumor that the express train’s driver might have jumped off the surrounding area is searched by responders and dogs, only much later, as they start cutting the wreckage apart, do firefighters find his body at the entrance to the engine-room, hidden behind moved and crushed interior pieces.
While neither driver stood any chance of survival it is noted that the RegioShark’s anti-climb structures worked in some capacity, with the destruction of the driver’s cab stemming from a blunt frontal collision. Had the diesel locomotive completely mounted the frame of the oncoming train the destruction could have been far worse and included the passenger area. The regional trains passengers were injured by the rapid deceleration and impacts on interior equipment, not by a loss of structural integrity.
Mister Havlíček, the Czech traffic minister, arrived at the site shortly after the accident, handling the present media’s questions as investigators gradually took over from responders. Due to the involvement of an international train with some German passengers there was an international interest in the accident, with several media-outlets zeroing in on the supposedly poor and outdated state of Czech rail lines. And there is truth to that claim, since the line does not have a modern train control system that keeps trains from disobeying signals and speed limits. However, this isn’t the CD’s fault alone, as, especially on the line where the accident occurred, it had been Germany who had significantly slowed the modernization and expansion of the rail line and its equipment. At the time of the accident the northern section of the Plzeň-Furth im Wald rail line had already been upgraded to two tracks, been electrified and fitted with the ETCS train control system tragically missing at the site. The project to upgrade the entire line is meant to involve a completely new routing between Osvračín and Domažlice, excluding Milavče. Due to these plans the CD had chosen not to prioritize upgrading the section at Milavče.
Finding no fault with the signals or the trains investigators quickly focus on the behavior of the train crews. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the express train took the RegioShark’s right of way, ignoring 2 signals ordering it to hold at the Radonice siding. Instead the train sped right past the two signals, forced the points at the northern end of the siding open and rejoined the rail line just moments before impact. This explanation is backed up by both the locomotive’s data-logger and matching scratches found on the points caused by them being forced open as the train ran through them unpermitted.
Since the data-logger aboard the diesel locomotive shows an emergency stop being triggered right before impact it is clear that the driver was inattentive, assuming that he would have the right of way as usual. The investigation also finds no sign of intoxication or a medical emergency that could have caused the behavior. As such there is no valid other explanation than the driver of the northbound express train negligently disregarding two red signals. If he completely forgot about the oncoming train or just assumed it would be held in the next siding is a question that will remain unanswered, as the driver took the reason to his grave. The report does note that the RegioShark ran about 1 minute behind schedule at the time of the accident, but it is unclear if those seconds would have avoided the accident. Either way such a small delay is within the limits of regular operation and does not mean that the RegioShark’s driver holds any share of the blame.
The RegioShark’s leading half was scrapped after the investigation concluded, with the rear half being kept in storage for parts. Despite severe damage the diesel locomotive was also last documented in storage, with unconfirmed rumors stating that a repair is planned. Both services resumed operation on the line in similar configurations after the accident, with no retirement for the ER20 in sight. The rail-line’s refurbishment is proceeding at an advanced pace, with the CD claiming that it will be double-tracked, electrified and fitted with ETCS by 2030, allowing speeds of up to 200kph, removing a bottleneck in European cross-border rail traffic. Furthermore, ETCS is intended to be operational on all Czech main lines by 2025. This would make a repeat of the accident impossible, as driver’s negligence similar to what led to the accident would be caught by the ETCS-system, keeping the train from proceeding past a red signal.
The accident at Milavče had come 13 months after an almost identical collision 100km/62mi linear distance north of Milavče, where a RegioShark and an older multiple unit had collided on a single-track line after one of the drivers had ignored a red signal. The accident had injured 3 people and could have similarly been avoided with modern safety-equipment, causing the safety of rail travel in the Czech Republic to be called into question.