In one of the worst traffic accidents in Slovakia’s history, a collision of a bus with a train near the village of Polomka in central Slovakia claimed 12 lives. A passenger train with two carriages crashed into a bus which was carrying 37 skiers from Bánovce nad Bebravou to the ski resort Bučník at about 9:00 am on Saturday, February 21.
The bus driver, who is also the owner of the transport company, survived the crash with slight injuries and was released from hospital two days after the accident.
The bus was crossing a railway without an electronic warning system. The driver apparently failed to spot the nearing train. The train hit the bus and pushed the vehicle on the railway tracks for about twenty meters. Some of the victims remained trapped underneath the wreckage.
Three helicopters and nine ambulances transported the injured. The injured passengers were taken to hospitals in Banská Bystrica and Brezno, wrote the SITA newswire. Eight passengers in the bus were seriously injured and 13 had lesser injuries. The youngest victim was 34, the oldest 62. The victims included three married couples.
Businessman Ľubomír Beňo from Partizánske was sitting on the back seat of the bus, which probably saved his life. He suffered a complex leg fracture. He told the Czech daily Blesk that most of those killed were his friends. He added that when the bus turned over he could hear the crying and shouting of those injured.
“And then suddenly, it was quiet,” Beňo said for Blesk. “I saw motionless bodies in the middle part of the vehicle and injured people who were trying to get out.”
The Czech daily Právo quoted the words of the Slovak passenger transportation company Železničná spoločnosť Slovensko (ŽSSK) spokesman Miloš Čikovský that neither the train engineer nor passengers on the train were seriously injured; only two of them had minor graze injuries.
“The engineer saw the bus coming, he blew the signal and pushed the emergency brake,” Čikovský told the daily Právo. “However, he could not have prevented the collision.”
Trains are allowed to operate at 70 kilometres an hour at the site of accident.
The railway crossing is protected neither by automatic gates nor by lights. Martina Pavliková, a spokeswoman for ŽSR, the railway network operator company that also owns the tracks told The Slovak Spectator that this is because of good local visibility and a low frequency of trains passing through the crossing. However, in winter, there are many more tourist buses and cars travelling to the nearby ski resort, the Sme daily wrote.
Prime Minister Robert Fico, Transport Minister Ľubomír Vážny and Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák appeared at the accident site to coordinate rescue efforts.
Fico, Kaliňák, and Vážny said they thought the accident was unambiguously caused by the bus driver. Vážny was quoted by the daily Sme to have said that “this is probability bordering almost on certainty”. The bus driver could face four to ten years in prison if found guilty of the crime of public threat due to negligence.
In Kaliňák’s opinion, also, the driver of the bus caused the accident. He simply was not supposed to stand at the crossing, Kaliňák told the news television channel TA3.
Kaliňák also claimed that the bus driver had a good view of the railway stretch from where the train was coming. He estimated that after arriving to the crossing, the driver sees on the left “continuous rails, straight for 300 metres, and then they disappear behind the bend, so the view is evidently there, and sufficient.”
However, Interior Ministry Erik Tomáš stated to The Slovak Spectator that Kaliňák did not prejudge the result of the investigation; he was only describing what he thought the traffic situation was shortly before the crash. What the actual cause of the accident was will be investigated, Tomáš added.
“The bus had no reason to be on the rails at the time the train was approaching on the rails,” Tomáš said. “It should have given right of way (to the train).”
The bus driver had braked at the railway crossing, according to the Sme daily, as the road at the crossing is in a bad technical condition. At the moment when the train was coming, he was shifting gears but the bus failed to escape from the tracks, according to Sme.
Slovak daily newspapers reported that five years ago a passenger car collided with a train at the same site, killing two people.
The municipality of Polomka has repeatedly asked the railway company in recent years to mark the crossing with at least signal lights but their requests were not acted upon. The mayor of Polomka, Ján Lihan, confirmed this for Sme, as did as former mayor František Ďurčenka.
The spokesperson for ŽSR, Martina Pavliková, told The Slovak Spectator that this is a standard crossing, of which there are 1249 of this type in Slovakia. Although from the point of view of railway company’s parameters it is not necessary to increase the safety at the crossing in Polomka, the management will now address this issue after the tragedy, Pavliková told The Slovak Spectator.
She added that increasing of the safety of one crossing in one degree – that is by installing signal lights or gates – costs €265,000 (Sk8 million). To secure all “unprotected” crossings, the railways would have to invest €331 million (Sk 9.9 billion).
Former Mayor Ďurčenka says that the situation at the railway crossing has been dangerous for a long time.
Mayor Lihan again asked Transport Minister Ľubomír Vážny, while he was at the crash site, to at least secure signal lights.
“We can just ask and ask again,” Lihan said.
Vážny reacted by saying that the ministry concurrently evaluated 1,249 unprotected railway crossings. Later, when asked by journalists if he would resign, Vážny responded that he saw no reason to do so because of the accident.
“It is really an unbelievably vain gesture to draw political responsibility for such an tragic event,” Vážny told journalists, according to the daily Sme.
He referred to the fact that his resignation would not return the victims to life.
“I simply cannot bear responsibility for any accident on the roads, as tragic, as they might be,” Vážny added.
Fico summoned a special cabinet session on Saturday evening and announced a national day of mourning for February 22.