Major disaster averted in Helsinki rail crash thanks to quick action by traffic controller
A traffic controller of the Finnish railway company VR had to make an almost instant decision on where to direct four runaway train carriages approaching Helsinki Railway Station on Monday morning.
The controller knew that the rail cars were en route to track 9, which is directly in front of the main station hall. The carriages could have crashed into the hall after wreaking havoc among crowds of morning commuters on the adjacent platform.
The controller made a quick decision and decided to switch the coaches to track 13, which caused them to crash into the office wing of the station’s Holiday Inn hotel. There was not enough time to warn the hotel about the oncoming crash, but luckily, nobody was injured.
Yrjö Poutainen, security chief of the VR Group, praises the quick thinking of the controller, whose name was not disclosed.
“We agreed with personnel that those who were involved do not need to take part in the discussion on the matter in the media. They will discuss the matter only with officials”, Poutainen said on Tuesday in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat.
An investigation into the incident will be conducted by a panel, which is to be appointed by the Accident Investigation Board in the coming days.
The accident took place when a long-distance inter-city train was being shunted to the station to take on passengers. During braking, the last four carriages became uncoupled.
Kari Alppivuori is the head of traffic safety at the Finnish Transport Safety Agency, which is responsible for safety issues of Finland’s rail network. The agency is investigating whether or not VR followed all rules and regulations in the case. The agency is also investigating whether or not proper action was taken in the exceptional situation.
Alppivuori and VR security chief Yrjö Poutainen both say that train coaches become uncoupled “now and then”, but that this usually does not pose any danger, because the braking systems of the carriages usually stop them. A large part of the investigation will focus on why this did not happen.
In Riihimäki, an important rail junction in the south of Finland, the station has a separate braking system on the rails themselves, which will stop runaway carriages, if needed. Alppivuori does not see a need for such a system in Helsinki.
He feels that it is more important to prevent dangerous situations from occurring, than to build a new technical system at the tail end of a possible chain of events.
Alppivuori also feels that Helsinki Railway Station is safe. There is not much space at the station, but he feels that it is good customer service for trains to come into the centre of the city.
The hotel building into which the runaway carriages crashed suffered less damage than feared.
No fractures were found in the supporting structures of the building after the rolling stock was pulled away on Tuesday. Such structural damage would have been very expensive to repair. However, the rail cars appear to have absorbed most of the force of the crash.
Train delays were reported at Helsinki Railway Station on Thursday morning. Some local trains were cancelled due to the fact that two tracks remained out of use. Delays in service now are mainly attributed to poor weather conditions.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Runaway Intercity coaches back on the track after crash in Helsinki (5.1.2010)
Coaches crash into hotel at Helsinkís Central Railway Station (4.1.2010)
Accident Investigation Board
Finnish Railways, VR