Mystery surrounds fatal rail accident

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A formal inquiry is underway into Wednesday’s fatal and bizarre accident in Oslo involving 16 runaway railroad boxcars and spectacular drama. “This never should have been able to happen,” said the head of the state commission that investigates accidents.

Knut A Olsen of the state Havarikommisjonen said his team hopes to come up with some answers into what caused Wednesday’s accident, which has been described as “something right out of a terror movie.”

On Thursday, the cause of the accident remained a mystery. No one knows why 16 railroad boxcars suddenly started rolling from one end of the large Alnabru freight terminal on Oslo’s northeast side to the other, and then onto tracks that led down to another cargo terminal on the waterfront at Sjursøya (photo). Like bobsleds careening down a run, the heavy railcars with no locomotive attached kept gathering speed, since their nearly eight-kilometer-long route fell around 100 meters in elevation.

A full catastrophe alarm was sounded and rail traffic controllers immediately picked up the runaway cars on their screens at Oslo’s Central Station (Oslo S). “Our people tried to stop them, by derailing them and forcing them into a concrete wall, but didn’t manage,” the head of state railroad Jernbaneverket, Elisabeth Enger, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday evening.

It was only a matter of minutes before the boxcars roared into the terminal at Sjursøya and adjacent Ormsund. Witnesses told newspaper Aftenposten that their speed was so high by that point that the wheels of cars in the rear were off the tracks, literally airborne. Some crashed into parked cars and assorted structures, and people ran for cover as the front cars plowed through a large building, cutting it in two. Several boxcars ultimately plunged into the fjord.

Both Aftenposten and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Thursday that several security barriers at the Alnabru terminal weren’t functioning properly on Wednesday. The set of 16 cars had arrived at Alnabru earlier in the day, been disconnected from their locomotive and parked at the north end of the terminal, Aftenposten reported. Jernbaneverket reportedly confirmed that braking devices (bremseslangene) weren’t connected. The biggest mystery is what caused the heavy boxcars to start rolling. Investigtors said it was too early to determine whether equipment failure or human error was to blame.

The victims were three men, aged 49, 58 and 67, but it remained unclear exactly where they were located when the accident occurred. Three of the four persons injured remained in hospital on Thursday, one of them, a 35-year-old woman, in critical condition.

Emergency crews worked to raise submerged boxcars out of the water on Thursday, while others sifted through the wreckage at the terminal and clean-up efforts began. As many as 15 cars were destroyed, and several others damaged.

The accident occurred after weeks of public debate in Norway over chronic problems with the state-run railroad, which has suffered decades of neglect. “This is the most serious accident for the railroad in several years and it has unfortunately had tragic consequences,” Enger said in a prepared statement, adding that she declined further detailed comment until results of the investigation into the accident are available.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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