The Kalmorska Accident of 1908

The early years of the twentieth century saw a rapid increase in the weight and speed of trains, which was made possible on the RSR by the constant series of improvements that Karel Belčamin applied to his locomotive designs. Unfortunately, there was not a corresponding improvement in safety systems and driver skills, as an accident at Kalmorska in the summer of 1908 was to show.

The international expresses that passed through Ruhnia in those days were often delayed on their long journeys from their far-away starting points in eastern Europe. On 2nd July such was the fate of the sleeping car express NE51 from Warsaw to Rome, which was over an hour late leaving Parvašč after completing frontier formalities. As was normal with international expresses, the only scheduled stops within Ruhnia (apart from border crossings) were at Bevice and Kropčahne. The short distances between stops did not offer much scope for regaining time, with the result that a mere seven minutes had been made up by the time the train reached Bevice. A shorter station stop, just long enough to change the locomotive (much to the annoyance of some passengers, who were as good as ordered to hurry up as they boarded and left the train), afforded another five minutes. The five-coach train, which was now pulled by the new Belčamin class B15 4-4-0 no. B15-13, crewed by Driver Blanno Remenute and Fireman Karron Vahrtie of Terešan shed, got off to a very lively start. Remenute drove his engine hard round the curves between Bevice Semesa and Bevice Setti and at Kalmorska Amšunt had already reached an estimated speed of some 55 km/h, well over the 45 km/h limit which was imposed on the curved approaches at the eastern end of Kalmorska Tipaš station. As already stated, train NE51 was not scheduled to stop at Kalmorska and Remenute certainly made no attempt to restrain his steed as she roared through Tipaš station and on to Kalmorska Štahdio.

And here it was that fate moved its hand against the Warsaw-Rome express. Usually, train NE51 would be routed via Pachlo Chabost and the RK main line to Kropčahne but during June and July the RK had embarked upon an extensive programme of nighttime track renewals, necessitating diversions over the RSR line via Brehliu. By the time Driver Remenute had noticed the green-over-amber aspect of the Štahdio starting signals, showing the diverging route to the left with its 45 km/h speed limit, it was too late to do more than reach for the brake handle. No. B15-13 entered the curve at some 80 km/h and within seconds she tipped over to the right, dragging her tender with her down the low embankment and spilling coal and water as she went. The coaches piled themselves on top of both engine and tender, two of them telescoping very neatly together as they rammed a solid oak tree that was growing there. The final toll of this dreadful smash was seven passengers killed and some twenty persons injured, including Driver Remenute and Fireman Vahrtie.

At the public enquiry, held in Bevice City Court on 27th July, the cause of the accident was clearly recognised to be excessive speed on the sharply-curved track west of Kalmorska Štahdio station. The inspecting officer, Filip Estanoht, placed more emphasis on finding out the reason for it. Driver Remenute said in evidence that he was trying to make up some of the 55 minutes' delay to his train and hadn't noticed anything amiss as he approached Kalmorska from Bevice. No. B15-13 had ridden that first curve "like a Pullman". (What the ride must have been like for the passengers was not discussed.) Furthermore, he had expected to go straight on from Kalmorska to Pachlo Chabost and had this been the case, there would have been no danger. It was obvious that neither driver nor fireman had paid sufficient attention to the signals on the approach to Kalmorska Štahdio, or they would have had advance warning of their diverging route beyond the station, nor had they taken the trouble to inform themselves about diversions or other hazards before starting their journey.

Driver Remenute was found guilty of causing death by reckless operation of a machine (that was how the law was worded) and sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour. (He was paroled after seven months.) Fireman Vahrtie was found guilty of negligent operation of a machine and sentenced to nine months' gaol, of which he served fifteen weeks. The inquiry also criticised the RSR for not providing speed indicators on its locomotives (a perennial theme) and for not taking the time to familiarise footplatemen with this new and much more powerful class of locomotive.

It is difficult to imagine in retrospect how this accident, caused as it was by excessive speed, could have been avoided without a scheduled stop at Kalmorska Tipaš. Even after the accident, the RSR declined such a measure, reasoning that the repeated starts and stops would disturb sleeping car passengers. The danger of being overtaken in one's sleep by a train crash seems to have carried little weight. There was also no visible inclination to learn from the experience of the three English railways which had suffered accidents of similar pattern (and all the more mysterious, due to the deaths of the footplatemen involved) two years earlier.

At this time the Great Western Railway was in the process of installing on its main lines a system that would cause a warning to sound in the cab if a distant signal was at amber. Unfortunately, it was found that the driver could acknowledge such a warning and promptly forget it. Not until 1930 did the RK (followed in 1932 by the RSR) start to install a safety system on this principle.

(c) Norman Clubb 2004