Train wreck: Czech Railways calls emergency meeting after spate of accidents, ‘incidents’

Collision at Brno’s main railway station, photo: ČTK/Václav Šálek

Czech Railways management are holding an emergency meeting Wednesday in the wake of back-to-back train collisions and a steep rise in reported accidents and ‘incidents’ – near misses. They will likely agree on stricter safety measures and tighter controls, including reviews of train drivers and key personnel.

Collision at Brno’s main railway station,  photo: ČTK/Václav Šálek
A head-on train collision at Brno’s main railway station on Tuesday left two dozen passengers injured, half seriously enough to be admitted to hospital. The day before, five were injured in a train collision in the Chrudim region. And two weeks before that, a runaway train in the Vysočina region travelled six kilometres without a driver before coming to a stop on an uphill slope, and two shunting locomotives collided in České Budějovice.

These are only a few of 220 accidents and ‘incidents’ compiled by the Rail Safety Inspection Office in January and February – about a quarter more than in the first two months of 2018. The problems stem more from human error than any technical or systematic deficiencies, says Czech Railways general director Miroslav Kupec:

“We dispatch some 7,200 train journeys a day. So, unfortunately, incidents sometimes do occur. I have to stress that there are no systemic problems in Czech Railways or in the railway infrastructure itself. Unfortunately, it comes down to people not exercising proper care, which cannot be entirely prevented.”

Czech Railways management say that a preliminary review of recent serious incidents shows that all engine drivers involved had taken a break of at least 24 hours before shifts, so they should have been rested and alert. Rail Safety Inspection Office chief inspector Jan Kučera says they may nonetheless be distracted or overworked.

“Czech Railways workers are on their mobile phones during working hours and may not be paying attention while driving. Or they are overloaded, in which case they are tired. It’s very difficult to say. In fact, none of the workers – including the train drivers – say they were tired. They all say everything was fine.”

Collision in Ronov nad Doubravou,  photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek
While human error may be largely to blame, there is clearly a benefit to reviewing existing regulations and implementing more control mechanisms, according to Minister of Transport Dan Ťok (ANO). That said, he favours introducing a points system for train drivers to penalise them for infractions of existing regulations.

Meanwhile, Emanuel Šíp, a member of the Czech Railways supervisory board, is calling for more extensive changes, with an eye towards a looming shortage of trained train personnel.

“It’s a matter of revising regulations and greater controls. Of carrying out more inspections, more often to uncover problems and show the steps that must be taken. In the long term, of course, there also needs to be greater support for vocational education, so there are more graduates to choose from.”

According to opposition Pirate Party MP Andrej Polanský, the main cause is a delay in introducing modern safety equipment, specifically the industry standard European Train Control System. That signalling and control component is now deployed in half of Europe.