Train crash in Ankara was an accident waiting to happen

On Thursday morning a high speed train travelling between Turkish capital of Ankara and the central province of Konya hit a railway engine near a station in Ankara and also crashed into a pedestrian overpass close to the station. 

Nine people were killed and 47 were injured in the accident, which, according to experts talking to Ahval, was waiting to happen since the train line was operating without an automated signalling system despite warnings. 

Turkish Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Mehmet Cahit Turhan, said on Friday that the signalling system was not necessary to operate high-speed trains. 

Many experts disagree with the Turkish minister and say that the lack of an automated signalling system played a vital role in the accident. Experts also criticised the use of radio-telephones as a substitute to signalling system to guide trains. 

Turkey’s United Transportation Union (BTS) said that the organisation had reported problems high-speed train line workers experienced due to the lack of automated signalling system, but Turkish state railways management ignored these complaints. 

"We have written statements of train operators who reported these problems to their superiors," İsmail Özdemir, the union’s Ankara branch chairman, said. 

"This summer, a high-speed train collided with a car in a high traffic region. The train operator reported the issue to the authorities. But the senior staff ignored the report," said Özdemir, adding that this was only one example of many incidents overlooked by the management. 

Özdemir said that the government had expedited the construction of the high-speed railway in order to open the line before the elections held on June 24, six months before the planned date.

"Signalling system is a must for high traffic areas. It is impossible to operate on this route [that the high-speed train operates] with radio communication," said Özdemir. "The ministry started the high-speed train services without solving the technical problems in the infrastructure."

Relatives and officials are gathered in front of one of the victims of the train crash during his funeral ceremony on December 14, 2018. Adem ALTAN / AFP
Relatives and officials are gathered in front of one of the victims of the train crash during his funeral ceremony on December 14, 2018. Adem ALTAN / AFP

"They should've updated and the technology before delivering the system," the former under-secretary of the union said. "But the government was in a hurry to deliver the train services before elections."

It is impossible to run a train that operates at higher speeds and shorter intervals without a proper signalling system, former undersecretary İhsan Kocabıyık said. "It was an accident waiting to happen.”

Once a train line starts operating, it becomes very difficult to install the signalling system according to Kocabıyık. "You'll have to install the signalling system line during the five-hour breaks at night, and that is not realistic. It might take up to three years instead of about six months,” he said. 

"The line operators were using the radio-communication system for nine months now. We warned the ministry about this," Yunus Yener, the president of the Chamber of Mechanical Engineers said. 

Noting that the operating companies reduced the number of railroad workers from 47,000 to 16,000, Yener said that a 2013 law that had opened the way for the privatisation of the railway lines had created a perfect environment for accidents as it had ignored the expertise of the state railway’s technical personnel and units. 

Privatisation without proper regulations is creating an environment for similar accidents according to Yener. "The government needs to take the necessary measures immediately. At least they should put a temporary automated system until they build the signalling system," he said.

Gürsel Koç, the chairman of the Ankara Branch of the Turkish Transportation Association, a pro-government transportation workers union, refused to make a statement before the official investigation is over.  “I don't know if there was a signalling system line or not. We didn't receive any information or complaints about that,” he said.

The discussion on an online forum on high-speed train services in Ankara shows that the passengers were aware of the problems, Diken news site said. “I would be happy if someone shares information about when the signalling system will be completed,” a passenger wrote in the forum in early October. “I live close to the railway I do not see any work for the installation of the signalling system,” another one said the same month. 

Another passenger submitted an inquiry about the signalling system to the Turkish presidency’s communication centre in November. He was told that all safety measures had been taken. 

A switchman told the police that he might have forgotten to switch rails on Thursday morning, Hürriyet daily reported. The switchman was appointed temporarily to Ankara one month ago. 

Since 2004 there has been eight deadly high-speed train accidents in Turkey killing 98 and injuring 540. ”The government chooses to cover-up rather than investigating the reasons. Ankara high-speed train accident is a result of this constant failure. As long as the government covers up negligence and refuses to bring the ones responsible to justice, we will keep having such accidents,”  journalist Mustafa Hoş said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.