Otloczyn – still unsolved after 30 years

by

Clearing up after the disaster.

August 1980 – since the start of the summer rumblings of discontent fuelled by rising prices have been alarming bosses in charge of Poland’s state industries. The country is like a forest after a severe drought. It only needs a spark… At the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk the management decide to make an example of Anna Walentynowicz, a crane-operator and long-time campaigner for independent trade unions. After 30 years service at the shipyard, she is sacked a few months before her retirement thereby depriving her of her retirement pension. On 14 August, the workers at the Lenin Shipyard go out on strike in her support. They demand, not just the reinstatement of Walentynowicz, but also the legalisation of independent trade unions and the raising of a monument to the workers shot during demonstrations in 1970. On August 16th, several other plants join the Gdansk shipyard workers and a coordinating committee is formed to synchronise the demands of the strikers. On 17 August, the committee prepares a list of 21 demands addressed to the factory bosses and the government. In addition to the earlier demands, the list includes: an end to media censorship, the right to strike, new rights for the Church, the freeing of political prisoners, and improvements in the national health system. A news-sheet, Solidarnosc, is run off on the shipyard printing press with a run of 30,000 copies. By 18 August, the Committee is authorised to represent the strike committees of 253 plants. Bosses try to break the power of the coordinating committee by trying to negotiate separate settlements at each of the individual plants…

It is August 19. Driver Gerard Przyjemski reports for duty at Torun Glowny about 03:20. He is booked to take train 5130 to Lodz Kaliska which is due to depart at o3:37. But his train is held beyond its scheduled departure time awaiting a connecting train from the seaside resort of Kolobreg which is running late. Finally the connecting train arrives, passengers rush from one train to another. Two couchette coaches full of children returning home from summer camp are detached and attached to the rear of his train. At 04:18 Przejemski is given the command Odjazd! (Right away!) and starts easing his train out from Torun Glowny. Train 5130 consists of Torun Glowny-based diesel locomotive SP45-160 and 7 passenger coaches – 5 ordinary coaches and the two couchette coaches at the very rear. Przejemski builds up speed until he is travelling at a steady 55 mph.

At 04:28 train 5130 passes the block post at Brzoza Torunska. As it passes the block post the line controller receives a phone call from the main signal box at Otloczyn, ‘Oc’, that freight train 11599 has made an unauthorised departure from a holding siding at Otloczyn and is proceeding ‘wrong line’ towards Broza Torunska. With no way of contacting either of the drivers horrified signallers and line controllers can only await the inevitable. At 04:30 Przejemiski sees the freight train coming round the bend. He applies the brakes and dives onto the ground of corridor next to the engine. Przjemski’s train is moving at 85 km/h, the freight train at 33 km/h.

Przejemski was lucky, and though seriously injured, survived. His second man, the driver and second man of the freight train and 64 other people were killed. 64 people were injured. Otloczyn is etched into the memories of railwaymen as Poland’s worst railway accident since WW II.

Otloczyn – signals and sidings at the time of the accident.
Diagram via Wikipedia by Gregorz Petka. (Public domain)

PKP set up a commission to investigate the accident, the government set up another. The result of the investigation established that when the accident occurred Miroslaw Roschek, the driver of the freight train, had been on duty for 24 hours. At 02:10 he brought Chojnice-based ‘Gagarin’ ST44-618 to the Otloczyn holding sidings. Here he attached his locomotive to a rake of empty coal wagons to make up train 11599. He waited for over two hours in the loop siding (track 4 in the diagram) then at about 04:22 he made an unauthorized departure passing the semaphore signal (F2 in the diagram) which was set at danger. His engine and coaches passed through the double slip which was set up to permit a straight movement on the main line (track 2). The facing point part of the slip switched the engine onto the ‘wrong line’, the blades of the trailing point part of the slip were forced back by the flanges of heavy ‘Gagarin’s’ leading bogie and became detached from their control rodding. The second bogie of the locomotive and the empty coal wagons passed through the pointwork without any difficulty. There is no derailment. The signalman in the auxiliary cabin ‘Oc1’ contacts the blockpost controller in signal box ‘Oc’ that train 11599 has made an unauthorised departure and is proceeding ‘wrong line’ towards Torun. The controller contacts his opposite number in Broza Torunska. It takes a precious time for the implications to sink in. Just as the controller is about to order his signalman to set the departure signal to danger, the latter reports that passenger train 5130 has just passed through at speed. It is 04:28…

To this day there is no clear explanation why after over two hours waiting at the stop signal Roschek decided to make his departure. One suggestion made at the enquiry was that after two hours staring at the blue shunting signal (Tm4 on diagram) Roschek’s eyes deceived him; the red light on stop signal appeared to him not as red, but as orange – ‘proceed at caution to the next signal’. Nevertheless it should have been clear to Roschek or his second man that they were proceeding ‘wrong line’ a manoeuvre which requires special authorisation before it can be permitted. Railwaymen found it difficult to believe that a driver as experienced as Roschek could have made such a basic mistake and after the accident rumours abandoned that there had been a ‘third man’ in the cab of the ‘Gagarin’ who had forced the crew to make a departure, and who leapt out just before the crash.

The crash joins a list of unexplained ‘accidents’ during term of office of Edward Gierek’s, first secretary of Poland’s communist party – the explosion of the Rotunda bank building, and the fire on the Most Lazienkowski bridge a few weeks before the scheduled opening of Warsaw’s first urban express way. At the time it was given minimum publicity and public attention soon moved back to developments in Gdansk. In the Autumn of 1981, a book about the accident Pociąg nr. 5130 (Train 5130) by Zbigniew Juchniewicz was published, shortly afterwards on December 13 martial law was declared in Poland and all unsold copies were seized by the censors. Yet railwaymen have never forgotten, and to this day as trains pass the accident site they sound a warning on their horns memory of those who lost their lives in the accident.

TVP documentary (in Polish) about the accident:

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