Bogdan Turek in Warsaw -
Poland's worst railway disaster in 32 years, which killed 16 people and injured 58, has exposed the catastrophic condition and backwardness of the Polish railway system before the Euro 2012 football championships kick off in June. And the government had been warned just weeks before that a disaster was imminent.
The crash is a blow to Polish prestige just three months before it hosts Euro 2012 with Ukraine. Thousands of soccer fans are expected to come to Poland and rail will be a main form of transport to shuttle them between the various venues.
Two days of national mourning were declared on March 5 and 6 by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski following the disaster, which occurred on the evening of March 4.
The puzzle is why a Przemysl-to-Warsaw train and a high-speed Warsaw-to-Krakow train moving at speeds exceeding 100 kilometres per hour, collided head-on near the village of Szczekociny. Experts are investigating why the Warsaw-Krakow train switched to the track of the train running from the opposite direction.
Many pundits blame the backwardness of the railway transport for the catastrophe, which was the most serious accident since 67 people were killed in 1980. "The state of the infrastructure could be one of the reasons of the disaster," a source from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport tells bne. "Practically no single modern locomotive has been bought in Poland for 20 years. [In the same period] Germany bought over 1,000."
Trains often run on tracks that were last renovated during the rule of the communist leader Edward Gierek before 1980, and carriages used are sometimes 30 to 40 years old. "If the carriages were not so old, the results would not have been so tragic," the source says.
Only 36% of railway tracks are deemed to be in good shape, 35% are sufficient and 29% in bad shape, according to ministry figures. About PLN50bn is needed to renovate the tracks but Poland is short of PLN15bn-18bn, despite an EU contribution of about PLN20bn. To speed up construction of highways before Euro 2012, the government had diverted PLN1.2bn from the railway modernisation fund. Out of a total of 19,300 km of tracks, only 430 km were modernised in 2011; another 413 km are due to be modernised in 2012.
To make matters worse, experts and trade union officials have often warned the government that the railway system is heading for a serious accident.
Leszek Mietek, chief of the Labour Union of Locomotive Engineers, sent a letter to Minister of Infrastructure Slawomir Nowak only on February 8 asking him to improve the safety of the railway system. "Tragic events are only a matter of time," he wrote in the letter, which was made public.
Jerzy Polaczek, former minister in charge of infrastructure and transport, pointed out that, "so far, there is no head of the safety department... There are only acting heads without any experience."
Mietek said that there are too many companies operating on Poland's railway system, including Intercity, PLK, Cargo, and Interregio, as well as local systems. "Each company is getting ready safety instructions for themselves and there is lack of a joint system," Mietek said. "The office in charge of the railway transport within the ministry is only taking care of the cleanliness of the toilets in the carriages."
"The Polish system of steering railway traffic is 100 years old," he added. "It was a mechanical system before and now there should be an electric system."
Mietek said that the European System of Steering of railway lines, which eliminates human error, is being tested on only one line. Only about PLN1.4bn has been earmarked for the modern steering system, far too little to improve it fast, Mietek said.
Although the official members of the commission investigating rail accidents are still looking into the disaster, "indications are the equipment cannot be blamed for the accident," Transport Minister Nowak said.
One unnamed source at the commission was reported as saying there appears to have been a breakdown in the procedures used by drivers to move from one track to another. "The Warsaw-Krakow train entered the track (on which the other train was coming from the opposite direction) on a green light," the source said. "There was red light but a white one was flickering, meaning a conditional entry on the track can be made. We do not know why the locomotive driver did not ask by radio whether he can enter the track conditionally."
Railway officials quoted in the Polish press say that train engineers must get permission from the signal room to switch a train to a section of track in the wrong direction, and extensive procedures and warning systems should have alerted engineers to the possibility of a collision.
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