Unlucky Leak: The 1989 Ufa (Soviet Union) Train Inferno

Max S
9 min readMar 24, 2024


Ufa is a city of 1.08 Million people (as of 1989, population in 2021: 1.14 Million) in what is today southwest Russia, located in the Federal Subject (somewhat comparable to a federal state) of Bashkortostan 315km/196mi west of Chelyabinsk and 480km/299mi east of Kazan (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Ufa within today’s borders of western Russia.

Ufa is passed by the Trans-Siberian Railway (often shortened to “Transsib”), the longest rail line in the world. Opening in 1904 and largely reaching today’s routing in the 1930s the line allows a direct connection between Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east on 9289km/5772mi of track. The line is at least double-tracked throughout and electrified by an overhead catenary with trains reaching up to 140kph/87mph on some sections. The entire line is constructed in “Russian Gauge”, a wide gauge which sees the rails placed 1520mm apart instead of the global standard of 1435mm.

The site of the accident seen from above today, located in a remote forest 61km/38mi east of Ufa. The trains involved traveled in opposite directions.

The Trains Involved

Train number 211 was a westbound passenger service carrying travelers from Novosibirsk to the resort town of Adler on the Black Sea. It consisted of 20 four-axle passenger cars pulled by SZD (Soviet Railways) VL10–901. The VL10 (“Vladimir Lenin 10”) is an articulated eight-axle electric locomotive introduced into service in 1981. The locomotive, which was mainly intended for freight services, consists of two identical four-axle sections with an articulated connection between them. The complete two-section locomotive measures 32.84m/108ft in length at a weight of 184 metric tons. The combined power output is listed as 4597kW/6165h, with a top speed of 100kph/62mph.

A former SZD VL10, now running for the Russian railways, photographed in 2013.

Coming the other way was train number 212, consisting of 18 four-axle passenger cars taking travelers from Adler back to Novosibirsk. It was pulled by SZD ChS2–689. The ChS2 is a six-axle passenger train electric locomotive introduced in 1958, measuring 18.78m/62ft in length at a weight of 120 metric tons. The type, being actually intended for passenger trains, was built with a considerably higher top speed of 160kph/99mph.

The two trains carried a total of 1284 passengers along with a crew of 86 people including the drivers.

(Former) SZD ChS2–168, identical with the locomotive pulling train #212, photographed in 2009.

The Accident

The Soviet Council of Ministers had approved the construction of a new 1852km/1150mi oil pipeline from western Siberia to the Volga-Region in southwest Russia in 1981, with the first section being intended to start operation by 1984. A reevaluation of the demands during construction led to plans changing from an oil pipeline to one for so called light hydrocarbons like liquefied petroleum gas. The 273km/170mi section near Ufa ran underground, crossing beneath rail lines in 14 locations and got as close to the Transsib as 900m/0.56mi.

Two passenger trains are travelling on a section of the Transsib east of Ufa on the 4th of June 1989. Both trains are running on a slight delay as they move through the forest in opposite directions, bumbling through the remote area on an uneventful journey. There is no warning to anyone on either train when, at 1:15pm, the world as a whole appears to explode. A massive blast erupts right as the two trains pass each other, turning the wooded area into a world of fire. Train cars are flung off the rails in all directions and countless trees are flattened as flames shoot into the skies high enough to be seen from 100km/62mi away. The shock wave breaks windows in villages more than 10km/6mi away. At least 258 people are killed in an instant.


Residents of surrounding villages are the first outside people to come upon the site, alerted either by the earth-shaking blast, the towering flames or, a few minutes later, survivors staggering into their villages in what must’ve looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

Military units and medical teams are dispatched to the site within minutes, following locals to the remote wreckage in what has become a 250 hectare/1mi² forest fire. In a tragic irony the blast probably helped keep some of the survivors alive, either burning or removing trees from the immediate vicinity of the site so fire couldn’t engulf the wreckage a second, more sustained time. The sight that meets the responders is likened to the aftermath of a nuclear test, matching later calculations which place the force of the explosion as high as 12 Kilotons of TNT (the Hiroshima Bombing in WW2 was rated at 16 Kilotons) although more conservative claims go as low as 300 Tons. On-site triage and treatment is run similar to how it would be in a war zone, with doctors told not to bother with administering painkillers to those who are clearly dying. “If you help one dying person you lose 20 that may live”, one doctor later recalls being told. Survivors are recovered by truck or via numerous helicopters provided by the military. The local hospitals can’t even begin to handle the flood of severely injured people, requiring them to be transported huge distances. Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, ends up using airliners to fly some survivors out as far as Moscow so they can be treated. Most of the survivors suffer severe burns, there are said to be relatively few “conventional injuries” for two trains derailing.

Remains of the burned trains sit in the wreckage after the accident (left). The train on the right likely belongs to responders

The Soviet doctors are so overwhelmed by the amount and severity of injuries that help from the “hostile” USA is accepted, flying in a 17-member team of burn injury experts from Texas, later joined by another 16 doctors from the UK. Many of the initial survivors succumb to their injuries within a few days anyhow, with the final death toll being reported at 575 (some sources claim up to 645), with approximately 300 more surviving with severe injuries. Some of the survivors are later reported to suffer from mental disorders due to brain injuries suffered in the catastrophe.

An investigation into the cause of the disaster is ordered just hours after the accident, trying to subdue rumors of sabotage which start to circulate in the area and among responders. In fairness, at first glance it might be hard to see a different explanation for why two perfectly fine trains and a large forest were suddenly be obliterated in a huge explosion.

An overview of the site after the accident, showing pieces of the wreckage lying in the charred forest.

The investigation traces the cause of the blast to the new pipeline running just a stone’s throw from the rail line at the site, which showed a 1.7m/5.6ft crack. The pipeline had already been in use, carrying different gases while construction was still ongoing around it. At some point before the accident (the exact timing was never determined and/or publicized) an excavator hit the pipeline with its shovel, cracking it and allowing gas to leak from the pipeline.

The gas running in the pipeline is largely odor-less, with the typical “gas smell” people may know being created by adding a chemical which smells like sulfur (“foul eggs”) to natural gas and propane gas when it’s distributed in populated areas. The pipeline had been designed to have a leak detection system when it was still meant to carry oil, but the system was removed from the plans when the purpose was switched to carrying gas. It’s assumed that this decision was reached as the contamination endless amounts of soil and ground water was no longer a risk the way it would’ve been with an oil pipeline. As such, the leakage originally went unnoticed. It wasn’t until approximately 3 hours before the accident that workers at a control center noticed an increasing drop in pressure between two pump-stations. This should have alerted them to the possibility of a leak, but they instead suspected increased demand and/or a compressor failure beyond the low-pressure location and dialed up the pumps ahead of it, forcing the gas towards the leak with higher pressure which only accelerated the rate of gas leaking into the woods. This all happened on a day with little to no wind and meteorological conditions which allowed the gas to accumulate at the site, creating a large, invisible, odorless, highly combustible cloud which soon stretched from the pipeline all the way to and across the rail line. What exactly provided the spark that turned the large cloud into fire could never be determined, the two main theories are a spark from train wheels at a track-weld or a spark from the overhead wires having inconsistent contact with one of the locomotives’ pantographs.

It’s also revealed that the pipeline was left at its original diameter of 720mm/28in, despite gas pipelines being required to be no wider than 400mm/16in. This increase in diameter over a regular gas pipeline further contributed to the severity of the leak, as it increased the amount of gas in the pipeline at any given point.

Two burned train cars, likely caved in by the shock wave of the nearby explosion.

Nine people were eventually put on trial, including the head of the company conducting the construction of the pipeline, the foreman at the site where the leak was caused and the head of the control center crew that responded to a drop in pressure by supplying more gas without investigating the cause. The six-year trial ended with 7 defendants being sentenced (under Russian law as the Soviet Union had fallen apart in the meantime) to prison sentences reaching up to five years while two were declared not guilty. The union of survivors and victims’s relatives criticized the investigation and the trial, claiming that the focus was on finding a scapegoat rather than trying to actually reveal and fix the issues which caused the accident.

The pipeline was deemed to be beyond repair after the catastrophe, and rather than rebuilding it to the requirements of a gas pipeline it was removed entirely. Criticism that pointed out a culture of corner-cutting (like skipping the leak detection system and ignoring that the pipeline should’ve never been used as a gas pipeline) went largely unanswered, and one can only hope that steps were taken to increase the working conditions and work-ethic so that, in the future, an event like the dropping pressure would actually be handled thoroughly instead of trying to find a quick fix to avoid delays.

One of the few color-photos of the site, showing a twisted and burned train car next to the tracks in what used to be a dense forest.

Medical training concerning burn injuries was improved across (what then was) Russia after the accident, the hospitals at nearby Tscheljabinsk and Ufa were upgraded and expanded and the rail line hospital at Zlatoust was expanded. Purchasing a train ticket also now required providing data from one’s passport regardless of the traveler’s age, aiming to create a way to identify victims and severely injured survivors after a disaster.

A memorial was constructed at the site in 1992, centered around a 8m/26ft statue and recovered information boards that had been attached to the outside of train #212. 327 urns are also buried near the memorial, holding the ashes of over 100 victims which were burned beyond any chance of identification. The memorial is home to an annual remembrance service.

The disaster also led to the development and subsequent introduction of the SKP21 pipeline surveillance system, introduced in 2004. The solar-powered system is installed at various intersections between mainline-pipelines and rail lines or roads and constantly monitors various parameters to spot abnormalities to try and catch a leak or other incident as early as possible. Over 400 sites were equipped with the system within the first 7 years of its existence.

The memorial photographed in 2019, the white board is made up of the recovered information boards.


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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.