Monday, 5 March 2012

Communist Poland's secret rail disasters

Friday night's tragedy at Szczekociny will no doubt be in the headlines for some time to come - until the causes have been identified (this is no place to speculate on those). While reading about Polish railways' safety record, I came across mention of two undocumented rail disasters that seem to be rumour circulating around the internet, but with enough truth in them to suggest that something did happen.

The first reputedly occurred on 22 October 1949 at Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki (not far from what will soon be Warsaw's second airport, Modlin) and claimed the lives of 200 people. It is listed as the world's 26th deadliest railway accident on this Wikipedia page. News of the disaster was allegedly suppressed by the Stalinist authorities, it was picked up by two local newspapers in the US two days later - one in Reno, Nevada and one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The second is said to have happened some time in 1952 in the town of Rzepin, close to the East German border, and killed 150 people, mostly Soviet soldiers. It is said to have been sabotage, a bomb placed under a small bridge. This is the main Berlin-Warsaw line. Another version claims 160 killed, Polish civilians, on a train going too quickly around a tight curve.

Seeking information about both of these disasters leads to the same sources cited repeatedly on dozens of different websites, with no new or original information.

I would be grateful for any information about either of these two disasters - were these exaggerations of hearsay? Chinese whispers? Total fabrications? Or did they really happen?

James Oberg's 1988 book, Uncovering Soviet Disasters, published after Gorbachev announced glasnost, tells of such rumoured accidents on a massive scale. The book is full of train crashes and aircrashes involving hundreds of people that never officially happened - right up to the mid-1980s. Next-of-kin were not even informed; loved ones set off never to return - leaving their families to find out what happened. News of epidemics, accidents in mines, nuclear installations, military testing grounds was censored; the Stalinist period of course being the most restrictive in this scope.

Silencing such stories led to people's natural propensity for rumour-mongering to spread out of control; numbers of casualties would become exaggerated for sake of story-telling effect, so the truth is hard to establish.

The secrecy of the communist era creates an fascinating field of research for historians. Fortunately, there are still people alive from those days who might be able to confirm or deny such events.

Incidentally, the UK's record in recent years in terms of rail safety is comparable to Poland's. Below: 10-second CCTV footage of the Southall rail disaster of 1997 that killed seven people.

Since 1990, Poland has had 15 fatal train crashes that left a total of 75 people dead. The UK has had 16 fatal train crashes claiming 83 lives. Interestingly, the deadliest period was while the track infrastructure was in private hands, since Railtrack was re-nationalised, there have been no major disasters like the one above.

The above scale of death pales into total insignificance when set beside the number of fatalities from road traffic accidents, which in the case of Poland is in the order of 65,000 - 70,000.

This time last year:
The Cripple and the Storyteller: a short story

This time two years ago:
Dogs begin to bark, hounds begin to howl

This time four years ago:
Another light dusting


Andrzej K said...

Glad that you have compared the safety record with that in the UK. Frm the comments made by certain politicians quick to ascribe fault for everything to Donald Tusk you would believe that disasters only happen in Poland.

On a seperate note years ago in the UK single line working required that a train driver entering a given sector could only proceed if he held a metal token. This meant that a second train enetering the same sector could only do so of the train driver broke all the rules.

Sometimes the simplest controls are the most effective!

adthelad said...

From the comments made by certain politicians quick to ascribe success for everything to Donald Tusk you might believe that ...

sportif said...

pamiętam dobrze katastrofę Virgin Pendolino koło Carlisle w 2007r, rannych przewieźli do Preston, gdzie wtedy mieszkałem

AndrzejK said...


Not sure what your comment means. I can only go by what PiS politicians say in interviews. Unless you are suggesting that the comments made are later edited to the extent that they appear to say something completely different! That I do not preclude but if this is indeed the case surely the answer is not to give any interviews. Or is it a case of "parcie na szkło"?

adthelad said...

You can also go by what PO politicians say but it seems you don't. The irony is that if you went by their comments you might think that PO is liable only for successes and not for failures. PO and their cronies :) are very happy to take the credit when it's blatantly not theirs but when things go wrong it's not their fault. The opposition, on the other hand, is doing its job, holding the government to book and questioning the general 'not our fault' propaganda. That's the point of having them.

AndrzejK said...


My comments concern PiS politicians who cannot let a day go by without putting their foot where their mouth is. Not at all sure where PO has taken the credit for anything over which the govent has no control. If you listened carefully to what Donald Tusk says you will note that he clearly places the credit where it is due.

PiS is so hung up on the blame culture that it actually impedes the process of getting to the real, controllable reasons. In disasters there is usually a failure of multiple systems of control and safety. No amount of controls will ever be totally foolproof. Or at least the cost would be prohibitive. Enquiries in the West focus on how to avoid such situations in the future. If you think that the Prime Minister can micro manage all processes then OK but how come Kaczynski was unable to do so despite having at his disposal genuises such as Maciarewicz and Ziobro?

Time PiS learnt from their Conservative Party friends in the Europarliament what the role of a constructive opposition is. This would however presuppose that not just Czarnecki speaks English!

And Michal apolgies for once again abusing your blog.

adthelad said...

I agree, you do abuse this blog for political point scoring which is why I jumped in in the first place (and further abused it myself).
PO is the one which plays the blame culture game, play by the sword die by the sword. Who the winner will be time will tell. If you're not sure re PO trying to take credit for things that are not their doing take the National Stadium for starters and work your way back from there (via affiliated press 'przawdziwi polacy' lies as a pointer, which I assume among others you didn't notice either :)
Again, apologies to Michał for taking the bait.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

From the Daily Telegraph:

Meanwhile a new EU report has added to the woe surrounding Poland's rail network. In the report the European Railway Agency concluded that Polish railways were the most dangerous in the union with the 449 accidents recorded in 2010 making a significant but disproportionate contribution to the EU total of 2,400.

Anonymous said...

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Mike said...

The Daily Telegraph report White Horse Pilgrim refers to is mistaken. For more information, see