Skipping Toll Takes a Toll: The 2015 Studénka Level Crossing Collision
Note: Most sources for this were in Czech, I did my best with translation but apologize for any errors or inaccuracies that slipped through.
Studénka is a town of 9466 people (as of January 2021) in the east of the Czech republic, located 21km/13mi southwest of Ostrava (the country’s third-largest city) and 59km/36mi east of Olomouc (both measured 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), connecting 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.
The vehicles involved
Travelling as SC (“Supercity”) 512 from Bohumín in the east of the country to Františkovy Lázně in the far west was CD (Czech federal railway) Class 680 number 003 (coded 680 003). The Class 680 is a “Pendolino”-type tilting high speed electric passenger train introduced in 2003. The trains consist of seven cars each, holding 331 seats in the CD’s two-class configuration at 185.3m/608ft long. With motors in every second car (which still hold passengers also) the trains have a combined output of 3920kw/5260hp, allowing them to reach up to 230kph/140mph despite an empty weight of 384 metric tons. However, due to the condition and shape of Czech rail lines they only travel up to 160kph/99mph in regular service, aided by a special suspension system allowing the trains to lean into corners (a common comparison are motorbikes) by as much as 8° (limited to 6.5° in regular service). The leaning of the chassis changes the forces pulling on the wheels and track, allowing higher speeds even on curvy routes. It also means higher comfort for passengers, who feel less like they’re being pulled out of their seats (think of the feeling when driving around a corner in your car at speed). This leaning technology is the defining feature of the “Pendolino”-brand of trains by Alstom. Alstom (and previously FIAT Ferroviaria, the dissolved train and bus division of the Italian car manufacturer) have sold trains with the Pendolino-technology to railway companies in over a dozen countries, including Russia, China, the USA and the United Kingdom. On the day of the accident, 680 003 was running in the following order:
On the same day Mr. Sondaj, a Polish citizen, was driving a Scania124L 420 Topline semi truck, pulling a Krone SDP 27 canvas trailer.
Travelling from Hungary to Poland Mr. Sondaj was transporting 17 metric tons of aluminum sheets on several pallets, leading to a total cargo weight of 17.985 metric tons. Adding that to the empty weight of the trailer (7.4 metric tons) and that of the truck (7.96 metric tons empty) the vehicle weighted almost 33.4 metric tons at an overall length of approximately 16m/52ft. The investigation later showed that Mr. Sondaj had chosen to avoid the motorway in favor of smaller streets to avoid having to pay toll (which cost 4.52 Czech Crowns/0.16 Euros/0.19 USD per Kilometer for his vehicle). He then proceeded to get lost in the unfamiliar area, presumably because his navigation system could not differentiate between his truck and a car and kept suggesting roads lacking height or width clearance for his truck.
On the 22nd of July 2015 at approximately 7:38am the CD Supercity 512 had been travelling for less than half an hour on it’s cross-country trip to Františkovy Lázně in the far west of the Czech republic. Driven by 59 years old Mister Černý, an experienced long-time employee of the CD, the Pendolino is carrying 145 passengers as it approaches Studénka from the northeast at 160kph/99mph, planning to proceed right through the small city’s station in a westbound direction after completing a long right hand turn.
At the same time 50 years old Mr. Sondaj is approaching a level crossing just east of the station in his semi truck, travelling south to north on his way towards Poland.
As he rounds the corner ahead of the level crossing the flashing red lights on either side of the road are on and an loud warning noise can be heard. Regardless, Mr. Sondaj proceeds to drive his truck into the crossing. Seeing the opposite side’s barrier lower in front of him he stops, causing his vehicle to block the entirety of the crossing’s length. The barriers are designed to easily break if hit by a vehicle, allowing even a motorbike at slow speed to break through. Doing this would send an auto-stop signal to all trains in the vicinity, greatly reducing the risk of a collision. Rather than doing this Mr. Sondaj, realizing the danger he is in, inches his truck forwards barely enough for his driver’s cab to clear the tracks. The rear of his truck and the heavy trailer are still blocking the train tracks.
Coming out of the turn Mister Černý spots the massive obstacle in his train’s path and triggers an emergency stop, desperate to shave off as much speed as he can to lessen the impact. Being only a few hundred meters from the crossing he knows well enough that a collision can not be avoided.
At 7:41:49 the train strikes Mr Sondaj’s vehicle right behind the rear axle of the truck. The data-logger aboard 680 003 records a speed of 142kph/88mph on impact before the sensors are destroyed, with the resistance from the heavy cargo peeling the train’s body off the frame as the recording is cut off. Two of the pallets in the trailer, weighting around 3 metric tons, penetrate the train, destroying most of the driver’s cabin as the truck and trailer are torn apart.
The truck’s cabin is ripped off the chassis and remains near the point of impact, landing upright with relatively minor damage after rotating 165° (now facing in the opposite direction). Mr. Sondaj, still buckled into his seat, survives uninjured and emerges from his cab seconds after the train passes. Surveillance footage shows him stepping away from the cabin (which is all that is left of his truck) and looking at it in shock.
The forces of the impact disintegrate the truck and trailer, ripping open the fuel tanks and spilling fuel along the tracks as the heavily damaged train proceeds into the station. The fuel ignites in a fireball, leading to the train shedding burning pieces of the truck and itself along it’s path. The remains of the truck cut a gash into an elevator-building at the station, with the speeding wreckage scraping along various structures, uprooting signals and taking chunks out of the platform.
It takes 500m/1600ft for the train to come to a stop, having created a path of destruction from the crossing almost out the other end of the station. A witness recalls sitting in the first car, seeing a flash of fire outside (probably the fire from the spilled fuel) and the next moment finding herself lying next to the stopped train, separated from most of it by a massive piece of metal. Not staying in her seat probably saved her life as a piece of debris had become lodged where she had been sitting.
A fuel tank from the truck is found 48m/157ft behind the point of impact, The cargo of the truck has spread out over 136m/446ft, reaching the start of the train station. An axle and wheel from the truck is found on the station platform number 2, 190m/623ft behind the point of impact, a pair of wheels from the truck’s rear axle are found 288m/945ft from the point of impact.
Two people are killed in the accident when debris strikes their seats, with 21 more being injured severely enough to require medical attention (five of which being people waiting or working at the station). Most injuries and both initial deaths happen in the leading car of the train, which suffers severe damage as it absorbs the brunt of the impact. Despite the destruction of the driver’s cabin Mister Černý survives the accident with severe injuries, his leg being crushed and trapped means he can do nothing but wait for responders to cut him free.
Soon after responders arrive Mr. Sondaj is arrested, tests for alcohol and drugs are negative. Fearing that he might leave the country and return to Poland he is placed in pretrial custody the same day. A severely injured passenger is flown to the hospital, he succumbs to his injuries late the following night despite the doctor’s best efforts.
It takes responders a while to work their way through the wreckage of the leading car, the driver’s cab, forward entrance and six rows of seats are completely destroyed.
Mister Černý can be rescued and survives, loosing his left leg and having to be treated for severe spinal injuries. He is released from the hospital around Christmas, but soon has to go back to hospital as complications start to show. By March he has developed a dangerous sepsis, and doctors have no choice but to remove his right leg also. In a crowdfunding-effort 3.7 million crowns/140883 Euros/169736 USD are collected to help pay for treatment, therapy and handicap-equipment. Černý has since stated that he feels “alright”, and is thankful for the support and help, saying he could afford very good treatment and, with the help of prosthetics, might even be able to walk again. In an interview in late 2016 he talked about having learned to drive a car with hand controls, and greatly enjoying the re-found freedom.
The truck and trailer are completely destroyed and taken away for scrap, while the train can actually be towed away from the site. The report praises Černý’s fast thinking and reaction, saying the reduction in speed kept the train from derailing which could have caused even greater damage and potentially loss of life.
While the rear 5 cars were barely damaged and are soon ready for service Alstom constructs a new leading car and first class car, using little more than the bogies from the crashed cars. In the report the financial damages to railway infrastructure and equipment alone are listed at 210 million crowns/8 million Euros/9.6 million USD. This does not include the truck, cancelled trains, medical bills or therapy-costs. In late 2017 CD 680 003 returns to service. Rebuilding the train took that long as the train-model had moved on to a new generation, so Alstom could not just take the needed cars off the production line.
Mr. Sondaj is charged with public endangerment, in February 2016 the court in Nový Jičín sentences him to 8.5 years in prison and bans him from driving on Czech territory until 2026. During the trial it came out that, while he had no prior legal trouble, he has had a number of traffic accidents and had been fined 16 times in the recent years.
The judge blamed him for grossly violating regulations and acting negligently on greed, which was confirmed when Mr. Sondaj admitted to not even really knowing the regulations he was meant to follow. He admitted to knowing he wasn’t supposed to drive into the crossing when he did, but said he expected more time to pass between the crossing coming down and the train reaching the site.
At the crossing it takes 44 seconds from the red lights coming on to the barriers lowering, meaning he definitely drove into the crossing under an easily visible red, it was not a matter of the lights coming on right as he reached the crossing. A video of the accident taken by two surveillance cameras at the crossing goes viral, it is used in news coverage and keeps being reposted on various social media sites.
Technology cannot be blamed for this accident, all systems to prevent an accident like this were in place and worked as they were supposed to. Sondaj’s decision to inch his cab out of the way rather than breaking through the barrier just means that they didn’t get to try to avoid the accident. In 2019 a proposal is published that would see the crossing removed in favor of an underpass. By 2021 nothing has been changed at the site, with the crossing still existing as it was when the accident happened.