While official investigations are still proceeding into the cause of the gas transport train blast that brought death and destruction to the north-eastern Bulgarian village of Hitrino – human error and speeding are being named as possible reasons – the disaster has revived the issue of railway safety in the country.
Ironically, Hitrino was the site of the first-ever rail accident in Bulgaria, in May 1867. There were no casualties in that accident, unlike the disaster of December 10 2016, which has left seven people dead and 29 injured.
In contemporary Bulgaria, the country has a railway fatal accident rate 10 times the average for the European Union, going by Eurostat figures for 2014 and 2015.
The Hitrino accident is the worst since 2008, when in February the Sofia – Kardam caught fire, leaving nine people dead and 10 seriously injured. In the intervening years, however, while accidents have been less dramatic, train fires have been a regular occurence.
Nastimir Ananiev, head of the Bulgarian Parliament’s transport committee, told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio on December 11 that there should be an investigation into railway lines that pass through residential areas.
At the time these rail lines were built, they were outside town limits, but as the cities and towns developed, they enveloped them.
Ananiev said that the risks needed to be analysed and brought down to a minimum.
He noted that from the outset, Hitrino was not a case of the village growing to surround the railway line, because it had been built around the railway line in the first place.
Reform of Bulgarian State Railways, BDZ, was imperative, Ananiev said. Legislative amendments could be put forward after a thorough analysis was done.
Bisser Minchev, the chief auditor of safety at the Railway Infrastructure Company, said that while the railway line at Hitrino was old, it had not been left unattended.
Minchev said that he was not concerned about the state of the track or the reliability of the operation of security equipment at the station, adding that there had been ongoing maintenance of the railway line, on schedule.
Evgeni Dikov, director of the National Investigative Service and deputy Prosecutor-General, told BNR on December 11 that the investigation into the Hitrino accident was just beginning.
The device that records the speed of the train had been found and the data was yet to be analysed, he said.
“One of the principal hypotheses we are working on is human error and breaking of the speed limit.We are not ruling anything out,” Dikov said.
On December 10, in the first hours after the accident, Hitrino’s mayor told reporters that the train had been speeding. Some reports have claimed that the train was travelling at 110km/h at the time of the accident
Vesselin Vassilev, chief executive of the Railway Administration Executive Agency, said that there was no problem with the loading of the tanks, nor was there any preliminary indication that the rolling stock was in any way degraded.
There was unconfirmed evidence that the train had broken the speed limit for the stretch of line where the accident had taken place, Vassilev said.
Eurostat, in a November 2016 report on railway safety statistics for the EU, said that when analysing the relation between passenger transport performance and rail safety using the number of passengers killed per passenger-kilometre, two countries record ratios of 10 times higher than the EU-28 average (0.06 passengers killed per billion passenger-kilometres). These countries were Bulgaria (1.29) and Czech Republic (0.74).
The Eurostat report said that in 2015, there were 20 fatalities in rail accidents in Bulgaria. Eighteen involved, as the statistics agency put it “accidents to persons caused by rolling stock in motion” while the other two were at level crossings.
Two countries accounted for more than one third of all rail victims registered in the EU-28 in 2015, namely Poland and Germany.
In all, in 2015 a total of 993 people died in railway accidents in the EU. Of these, 146 were in Germany and 227 in Poland.
(Archive photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)