As Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev struggled to push through his radical reform program while at the same time holding together the Soviet Union and maintaining the Communist Party’s commanding role, his nation was beset in the late 1980s by a series of disasters which brought home just how antiquated was the state of the country’s infrastructure and ailing public services. Hungary had already started dismantling its border fences with Austria (the first step in a process which led to the collapse of the Soviet fiefdoms in Eastern Europe) when in early June 1989 Gorbachev’s attention was suddenly drawn to events closer to home, albeit many hundreds of miles from Moscow.
As two busy trains were passing one another on a stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway east of the city of Ufa near the Ural Mountains, a huge explosion ripped both trains apart. Seven carriages were reduced to ash by the blast, while both locomotives and the remaining 37 carriages were destroyed. There were some 1,300 passengers on board the trains which were travelling between Novosibirsk and the Black Sea resort of Adler. Many of the passengers were children, either going on or returning from holidays at seaside Pioneer Camps.
Although rumors of sabotage started to circulate shortly afterwards, what looks on the surface to have been a freak accident turns out to have been caused in all probability by negligent maintenance. An undetected leak in a natural gas pipeline which ran alongside the tracks a few hundred yards away had created a highly flammable cloud in the air; this was ignited by sparks from the passing trains. Engineers on the pipeline had apparently noticed a drop in pressure a few hours before, but had restored it to normal levels without first checking for leaks.
When was the Ufa Train Explosion: June 4 1989
Where was the Ufa Train Explosion: Near Ufa, Russia
What was the Ufa Train Explosion death toll: The official death toll stands at 575, making it by far Russia’s worst rail disaster. A memorial at the site, however, lists 675 names, and some sources state that as many as 780 may have died.
You should know: The force of the explosion was estimated to have been the equivalent of ten kilotons of TNT, not far short of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.