RIGA - The safety of Latvia's railway system was thrown into question Feb. 2 when a Lielvarde-Riga passenger train collided with a locomotive, killing four people and injuring 32. The crash was the country's worst train accident in 30 years and came just one day after the government announced it intended to restructure the country's railway operator.
Official reports have so far placed the blame on the commuter train's 29-year-old conductor, Sergejs R., as he reportedly missed a red-signal warning of the approaching locomotive.
Transport Ministry spokeswoman Biruta Saksne emphasized that the accident had nothing to do with technical problems, saying that Latvijas Dzelzcels (Latvian Railway), the state-owned railway company to which both trains belonged, utilizes the most modern system.
"We have always done everything to ensure the commuter's safety, and we continue to do so," Saksne said. "We use an updated Swedish automatic system, and investigations show that there were no technical problems involved with the accident."
The tragic crash happened shortly before 11:00 a.m. as an electric train, filled with passengers, was approaching the Central Railway Terminal and collided with an empty Riga-Moscow train moving in reverse. The four victims 's two men and two women 's were identified hours after the collision. One of them was the conductor's 20-year-old assistant, while the other three were passengers: a man and woman, both 24, and a 56-year-old woman.
In addition to those killed, 19 passengers were hospitalized with various injuries. The conductor, who was trapped under train debris for 10 hours before being rescued by paramedics, was under intensive care as of Feb. 4.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said that overall responsibility for the accident lied with Latvian Railway. "It is completely clear that it is Latvian Railway's fault. The conductor fully violated safety rules by entering the station during a red light," he told the Baltic News Service.
He added that modern technologies were able to precisely determine "who had been doing something wrong and at what time."
The Transport Ministry, however, emphasized that responsibility for the disaster could not be officially placed until the criminal case, opened shortly after the accident, comes to a close. "Although there were technical conclusions that the train driver didn't see the red light, we cannot officially judge before the criminal case is closed. All we can say right now is that the train failed to stop at the light," the ministry spokeswoman said.
Kalvitis echoed this point, saying, "As much as it was the conductor's fault, it could be the operator's or a failure with the company's coordination system."
Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons said that, according to preliminary investigative reports, the passenger train was traveling at 30 kilometers per hour. The second train, which was driving in reverse, showed a speed of 20 kilometers per hour.