Swift Substitution: The 2012 Szczekociny (Poland) Train Collision

Max S
11 min readApr 2, 2023

Background

Szczekociny is a municipality of 7538 people (as of 2020) in southern Poland, surrounding the city of the same name 56km/35mi east of Częstochowa and 62km/39mi north of Kraków (both measurements of linear distance).

The location of Szczekociny in Europe.

The city of Szczekociny lies on the Kozłów–Koniecpol rail line, an electrified and mostly double-tracked main line opened in 1971. The line is mostly used for long distance passenger services and freight trains, with regional passenger services on the line ceasing in 2000. The double-tracked section of the line allows top speeds of as much as 160kph/99mph. If two tracks are available trains are operated in right-hand traffic.

The site of the accident seen from above. The Interregio approached from the northwest (top-left of the image), the express train was coming from the southeast (bottom-right of the image).

The trains involved

TLK 31101 “Brzechwa” was an express passenger service from Przemyśl to Warsaw. TLK-services were an express passenger services offered by the PKP (Polish state railway) utilizing older rolling stock, offering far cheaper prices in part due to being subsidized by the government. This was intended to make rail travel more accessible to the masses. On the day of the accident TLK 31101 consisted of seven four-axle type UIC-Y passenger cars pulled by PKP EP09–035. The EP09-series is a four-axle electric locomotive introduced in 1988 for express passenger trains. Each EP09 measures 16.74m/55ft in length at a weight of 83.5 metric tons and can reach a top speed of 160kph/99mph. The entire train had a weight of 308 metric tons according to the official report.

PKP EP09–035, the locomotive pulling the TLK-service, photographed in 2009.

Coming the other way was Interregio 13126 “Jan Matejko” from Warsaw to Krakow, provided by Polregio, a rail service provider created in 2001 by splitting off a former division of the PKP. Polregio’s Interregio services were second-class-only passenger services connecting larger cities. On the day of the accident Interregio 13126, which was named after a polish painter, consisted of four four-axle passenger cars pulled by PKP Cargo ET22–1105 which Polregio had leased from the PKP’s cargo division. The series ET22 is a six-axle freight train locomotive introduced in 1971, measuring 19.24m/63ft in length at a weight of 120 metric tons. They have a top speed of 125kph/78mph, sufficient for freight trains’ low speeds. The train had a total weight of 299 metric tons according to the report. In total, the two trains carried approximately 350 people.

Polregio’s leased ET22–1105, the locomotive pulling the Interregio, photographed with a similar train 4 months before the accident.

The accident

On the third of March 2012 Interregio 13126 is travelling southbound towards the town of Starzyny, coming from the town of Psary and merging into the Kozłów–Koniecpol rail line. Right after merging the train was intended to switch over into the western track at the town of Starzyny, as the merger had initially put it in the eastern, oncoming track. The points to move the train into the western track were protected by a red signal, forcing the Interregio to stop ahead of merging into the main line at approximately 8:40pm. The dispatcher on duty found that the points required to set a path into the western main line track didn’t respond to his input.

After repeatedly trying to set the path for the southbound Interregio the dispatcher decides to change the train’s routing and have it run in the main line’s eastern, oncoming track. He turns on a substitute signal, which tells the train driver that the red signal was irrelevant and can be disregarded, seven minutes after the train had stopped at the signal. The train driver, trusting the dispatcher, starts accelerating the train again, merging into the main line and continuing south, despite having instructions for the western main line track which he clearly isn’t using.

At the same time TLK 31101 is heading northbound on the main line, travelling in the western track as the eastern track had been closed for scheduled construction south of the town of Sprowa, approximately 3km/2mi down the line from the site of the accident, two days prior. The train is intended to change back into the eastern track at Sprowa, with the path already set for it.

The path intended to be taken by TLK 31101.

With the Interregio travelling southbound in the eastern track, which was intended to be used by the TLK-service, the signaling system recognizes the track as occupied and turns the signal south of the switchover at Sprowa red, stopping the TLK-service in the westbound track. At this point the dispatcher at Starzyny and their coworker at Sprowa could have communicated with each other, figuring out the situation and finding a solution. All it would have taken would have been the dispatcher at Sprowa setting the points ahead of TLK 31101 straight and allowing the train to continue in the westbound track, letting the two trains pass each other in each other’s track.

Instead, the dispatcher at Sprowa was confused as to why the signal was red, as the path was set and the track should be free. Thus, they, too, turn on a substitute signal, allowing the northbound train past the red signal and into the eastern track. They suspect a signal malfunction, and with the red signal overridden the northbound train is sent on the intended and set but no longer available path, placing it on collision course with the oncoming Interregio. Due to the closure of the eastern track ahead of Sprowa the signal on the westbound track shows an indicator explaining that it’s referring to the path straight ahead, rather than the right turn the points were set to and that the train driver knew he was going to take to get to the eastern track. The TLK-driver could have spotted this discrepancy (signal shows “straight ahead”, points show “turn right”) and, following procedures for a “doubtful signal situation”, stop. Instead he trusted the dispatcher’s instructions and accelerated through the switchover, reaching the eastern track at 8:52 and picking up speed.

Both trains were allowed to reach 120kph/75mph as they headed for each other, with TLK 31101 heading through a wooded area as it accelerated. The Interregio’s driver likely spotted the oncoming train a few seconds before their train was spotted, using the last moments ahead of the impact to trigger an emergency stop and cut power to the traction motors in order to maximize deceleration. The data-logger records the train slowing from 120kph/75mph down to 40kph/25mph before the recording was cut off as the locomotive slammed into the oncoming train, which itself was travelling at 98kph/61mph on impact, having started braking at 118kph/73mph.

All three men aboard the two locomotives were killed on impact, with EP09–035 suffering a fatal loss of survival space to both cabs and 1/3 of its engine room while the heavier ET22 had its leading cab crushed and was spun around 180° as the deafening crash echoed across the surrounding villages. Both trains’ leading cars dug beneath the EP09 and collided with each other while the TLK’s second car was torn apart as it telescoped over the back of the leading car, striking the locomotive. Several more cars suffered lengthwise compression damage, being likened by responders to a Concertina. 16 people died in the collision, with another 61 being severely injured.

Aftermath

Residents of the small town of Chałupki, just a few hundred meters from the site, were the first outsiders to make their way across the fields and reach the site. Within a few minutes of the accident the first professional responders reached the site, being slowed down by most vehicles being unable to drive right up to the site located between agricultural fields. Soon a catastrophic disaster was declared, with over 800 responders eventually becoming involved in the rescue and recovery effort. Both locomotives and 4 passenger cars were nearly or entirely destroyed, three more train cars suffered noteworthy damage. Two rescue helicopters and several ambulances shuttled survivors to surrounding hospitals as responders made their way through the wreckage, with many survivors requiring on-site medical attention before they could be freed from the wreckage and/or transported to hospitals.

Responders standing in front of the towering wreckage shortly after the accident.

Two investigations were launched shortly after the accident. The local public prosecutor’s office started an investigation into finding who, if any individual, was criminally responsible, while the State Commission for Investigating Railway Accidents (PKBWK) started an investigation into the cause of the accident in general, without a focus on criminal consequences to be put in place. During a press conference on the fifth of March it was announced that both dispatchers had been detained, with one of them, the dispatcher who had worked at Starzyny, being placed at a psychiatric facility as they were seen as suicidal. Their coworker was released from custody a day later with no criminal charges filed. Nationwide mourning was declared for the fifth and sixth of March as the final number of victims and injured survivors made the accident Poland’s worst rail accident in decades, surpassing the 1990 train collision at Ursus (16 dead, 43 severely injured).

The homepage of Google Poland showing a black ribbon as a symbol of mourning after the accident.

The wreckage was cleared and the line repaired by the 8th of March, with the locomotives and two passenger cars being torn up for scrap at the site. The PKP admitted that they had known of the crossover at Starzyny being problematic, with the signals and points there being reported as defective 65 times between the day of the accident and the 30th of November 2011, the day the line was reopened after modernization.

In the meantime the PKBWK’s investigation kept looking into the dispatcher who had worked at Starzyny, and the longer they looked the worse things looked. He had set the points wrong the day before the accident and sent a train onto the wrong track, an incident caught by the train driver who stopped in time for the mishap to be rectified with no serious consequences. Guidelines demanded that such incidents be investigated, during which the dispatcher would be suspended from duty. The incident in question was never reported, and thus the dispatcher remained on duty.

Firefighters standing in the barely recognizable remains of a train car.

On the day of the accident the points intended to direct the Interregio into the western track had evidently malfunctioned, not responding to input from the signal box. This left the train’s path in conflict with that for the northbound TLK-service (which had its points set for the eastern track as intended), keeping the signal ahead of the merger from turning green. It should be noted at this point that the training for dispatchers told them this would only happen in case of a malfunction or a power-loss, not because of the track being occupied. The dispatcher could still use a subsidiary signal to override the red signal, which the dispatcher at Starzyny intended to do. This made a yellow indicator show up on the map at Sprowa’s signal box. The indicator, showing that the neighboring signal box requested a substitute signal, showed up above a supposedly empty track.

That indicator was the ONLY communication between the signal boxes at that time, the dispatchers never talked to each other as they arranged the trains’ paths. The dispatcher at Sprowa assumed that the equipment was faulty due to receiving insufficient training about what could lead to the signaling-situation at hand, while their coworker at Starzyny provided incomplete information. The dispatcher at Sprowa thus acted on bad training and lacking information, figuring out what they considered to be the most likely situation.

Compression damage to one of the TLK’s cars after the accident.

Partial fault was found to be with deceased train drivers. The driver of the southbound train passed subsidiary signal without being shown an indication that they will be using the left hand track, and then seemingly didn’t get suspicious about being in the left hand track regardless. Similarly, the northbound TLK train’s driver was shown that indication, but then found themselves directed into the right hand track. Which didn’t make them question the signaling either. It should be noted that the TLK’s locomotive was staffed with two crew members, neither of which objected to the mismatched signaling and route. However, as both locomotive crews perished in the accident neither could be questioned regarding their motivations in relation to being shown or not shown the signals matching their routing.

Had either train crew become suspicious and stopped their train, the accident most likely wouldn’t have happened. Had the northbound train remained stopped ahead of the switchover it would have been protected by another set of signals showing red for the southbound train, and had both of them remained in their respective left hand track they would have simply passed each other, with both on the “oncoming” track for their direction.

An aerial photo pf the wreckage, taken during the recovery-operation. The locomotives can still be seen atop the wreckage.

Both dispatchers were criminally charged in connection to negligence and eventually, after a retrial, sentenced to 6 years (Dispatcher at Starzyny) and 3.5 years (dispatcher at Sprowa) in prison. Due to their continuously unstable mental state the former was set to serve their sentence at a psychiatric facility.

The PKP was instructed to improve the training and work ethic of their signal box crews in the aftermath of the accident, a point mentioned by the defendants’ lawyers during the trial who called the training into question. A repeat of the accident cannot be avoided with certainty, as all the systems designed to keep two trains from ending up on a collision course were in place. There were two tracks, there were signals that automatically detected occupied sections, and signal box workers were instructed to “lock” a path before a signal could be turned green.

On the day of the accident the dispatcher at Starzyny didn’t try to lock the southbound train’s path (which wouldn’t have worked as it conflicted with the northbound train’s locked path), and the signals all correctly showed “stop”, only for two dispatchers to each independently override their red signal. Signals have to be able to be overridden, in which case communication between signal box crews is intended to ensure that a single wrong decision can’t lead to disaster. Lastly, it can be argued that the train drivers had too much trust in the dispatchers, but their motivations or even what they witnessed and didn’t witness cannot be determined anymore. As it happened there were several “layers” of safety-measures against a collision, with modern railways usually requiring at least two, but in a tragic accumulation of coincidences all of them failed.

In 2016 the PKP’s spokesman said that over 200 programs to improve operational safety were ongoing, including new simulators for train drivers and signal box workers as well as thousands of additional inspections at signal boxes.

Workers standing among the remains of several passenger cars.

An official memorial to the accident was unveiled in the city of Szczekociny in October 2012, consisting of an ornate steel cross atop a pair of tombstones whose inscription reminds visitors of the accident that occurred a few hundred meters away. A Polish flag was also attached to a powerline support pole at the site, and an annual memorial is held both in the city and at the site. It has become an unspoken rule among train drivers to slow down to a walking pace when passing the site on the anniversary, sounding their horn to salute their deceased coworkers.

The memorial to the accident on the day it was unveiled.

Video

A PKP series ED250 high speed train passing the site and saluting during the 2015 anniversary.

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A kind reader is posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.