Something a little different to my usual blog content this time. Why will all the trains in Hungary be sounding their horns at 14:30 tomorrow?
In a roundabout kind of way, we are lucky to live in a world where the deaths of rail staff and passengers are rare enough to warrant news coverage. Last year, the EU recorded that only 34 staff and 28 passengers died on the railways of its 26 rail-served countries. Compare that combined figure of 62 with the 27,996 road deaths recorded in the same area during the same time period (data from World Health Organisation statistics).
That rail as a mode of transport can boast such an enviable safety record is largely thanks to the existence of reliable safety systems and the universal professionalism and diligence of its staff. It is therefore all the more galling when a railwayman loses his life through an accident over which he had absolutely no control.
On Monday 28 November 2016, a heavy freight train consisting of oil tanks was heading south from the Hungarian city of Gyor, driven by Miklós Puskás. As it approached the level crossing at Nyul, a grain lorry drove into the path of the train, and the two collided at speed. A gallery of 25 photographs appeared quite quickly on the “kisalfold.hu” website, demonstrating the full extent of the damage that was caused to the locomotive in the collision – a warning though, they do make quite distressing viewing.
Disregarding his own situation, the train’s other driver, who had been travelling in the cab with Driver Puskás administered vital first aid. However, very sadly, Driver Puskás did later succumb to his serious injuries in hospital.
I shall note without further comment that the lorry driver escaped without injury.
Driver Puskás’s locomotive – no.659002 – belonged to Floyd ZRt, a Hungarian private freight operator. However, it was actually a British export – built in Doncaster in 1982 by and for British Rail – and along with a number other British locomotives, was only exported to Hungary for further use relatively recently. Anyway – this background info is for a reason! – in the latter days of its life in the UK, no.56115, as it was then known, carried the name “Barry Needham”.
Barry Needham was himself a dedicated railwayman, who died in the train crash at Great Heck in February 2001, when a Land Rover and trailer left the M62 motorway, landing on railway property in the path of a 125mph express. The express, on which Mr Needham was travelling, derailed, colliding with an oncoming coal train. 10 people died in the resulting devastation. There has not been a more serious railway accident in the British Isles since.
Two entirely avoidable accidents which resulted in innocent people losing their lives as a result of road vehicles entering railway property when they should not have done. The link between the two is admittedly a coincidence indeed. However, both serve to underline that even with the railways’ fantastic safety record, any interface with roads – and therefore motorists – presents a higher risk.
This is not the fault of level crossings – although, in truth, level crossing risk is pretty high in Hungary compared to elsewhere. It is worth noting that, last year (again, according to EU statistics), there were only three countries in Europe with more level crossing accident-related deaths, all of which – France, Germany and Poland – have considerably bigger networks. Level crossings are safe if used correctly. The Great Heck accident did not even involve one – the Land Rover left the road, broke through a fence and landed on the railway that way; its driver was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.
I’ve included a video (above) which I recorded in Gyorszabadhegy, Hungary, on a freezing cold morning in January 2015. It features the locomotive involved in the Nyul accident, hauling the same type of wagons, and I believe the Driver Puskás might actually be the man at the controls. Coincidentally, Nyul is the next station line down the line, only 5 miles away. If those tanks are full, the train will weigh somewhere in the region of 2,000 tonnes, and would take some distance to stop. It certainly couldn’t swerve around an obstacle. Perhaps food for thought if you have ever been tempted to jump the barriers at a level crossing.
Driver Puskás’s funeral service will commence at 14:30 tomorrow, 23 December (13:30 in the UK) in Dunaújváros, south of Budapest. At exactly that time, the horns of locomotives all over Hungary will sound for one minute, in tribute to a man who died whilst simply doing his job. I invite you to take a moment or two of reflection tomorrow afternoon as well.