Poland has suffered its worst train crash in over twenty years, after two trains were involved in a head-on collision in the south of Poland. Over 16 people were killed in the accident and another 57 lie injured in hospital.
The Polish media and political class have reacted as if to a national tragedy. PM Donald Tusk and three ministers were immediately on the scene. The news channels have been transmitting continual coverage of the incident, with newsreaders wearing black. Finally President Bronisław Komorowski has announced two days of national mourning.
This is of course primarily a tragedy for the people involved in the accident and the families of those who were killed and injured. However, there are a number of wider points that should be considered.
First of all, why do we react so strongly to a train accident, whilst accepting the far-greater number of people that are killed on the roads? This is probably due to the fact that train accidents are relatively rare and they therefore shock when they do occur. In contrast we accept the scores of people who are killed and injured in car accidents every weekend.
In 2011 there were around 39,400 car accidents in Poland in which 4,411 people were killed. This is 11% more than in 2010 and equals around 80 people every week, more than four times the number killed in this weekend's train crash. Over the previous few years the number of fatal accidents had been declining annually. The decision to raise the national speed limit most probably contributed to the rise in accidents last year. Despite the fact that around 213km of motorways were opened in 2011, the road network still remains grossly underdeveloped and overcrowded.
Despite this hypocrisy, there are serious questions to be asked as to how such a train accident could occur. Although the train system in Poland remains relatively safe, the number of accidents has increased in recent years. This is primarily due to the low level of investment in the system's infrastructure, with accidents only prevented due to trains having to run slowly in those areas where the infrastructure is in disrepair.
The disregarding of the Polish railway network has not only made it less safe and reliable but has dramatically reduced its size and density, pushing more and more people onto the roads. According to a Eurostat report:
'A particularly striking reduction in rail infrastructure was seen in Poland, where the railway density dropped from 84 km/1 000 km² in 1990 to 74 km/1 000 km² in 1998 and then to 65 km /1 000 km² in 2008. Data on regional rail infrastructure in Poland have been available since 1998. The most striking reductions between 1998 and 2008 were in Dolnoslaskie (down by 14 % to 88 km/1 000 km² in 2008), Lubelskie (down by 24 % to 43 km/1 000 km²), Warminsko-Mazurskie (down by 70 % to 50 km/1 000 km²) and Wielkopolskie (down by 46 % to 69 km/1 000 km²), compared with a decline of 13 % for Poland as a whole over the same period. Most of these regions had high-density networks in 1990. One exception is the Slaskie region, where the high-density rail network inherited has actually been significantly extended since 1998 (up by 16 % to 174 km/1 000 km² in 2008).'
Obviously the immediate cause of yesterday's accident is as yet unknown, despite some already claiming that it was due to 'human error'. Yet, this tragedy cannot be taken out of the context of the general decline and disinvestment in the Polish railways. This has immediately been recognised by those who work on them. The leader of the Solidarity railways' trade union , said:
The safety situation on the Polish railways is getting worse. The only thing that counts is money and not health or people's lives. As trade unionists we appealed for a change in this approach after previous accidents, but the situation did not change, which led to further tragedies.
Also the leader of the train-drivers trade union, Leszek Miętek, placed the general blame for the accident on the Polish railways' signal system.
In Poland we have a signal system that is practically 100 years old. The only difference is that it is now operated electronically rather than mechanically.
He goes on to note how this archaic system is reliant upon the train driver and that it does not sufficiently protect against errors caused by, for example, tiredness. In this situation a mistake made by a train driver or signal operator can have fatal consequences.
In less than 100 days Poland will host the EURO2012 football championships. On Wednesday, there was much self-congratulation and back-slapping after the first football match was successfully held in Warsaw's new stadium. Despite the huge effort in building such stadiums around the country, the government has almost entirely neglected its railway network. Yet it will be on Poland's railways and roads that supporters will be travelling between these new stadiums. More importantly, those living in Poland are reliant upon these networks every day – before, during and after EURO2012.
It is a scandal that during a period of large infrastructural development in Poland, the lives and safety of passengers has been almost entirely neglected.