Is Russian sabotage behind 20 recent train accidents in Poland?

Train driver poses at Przemysl train station after driving the heads of state of France, Germany and Italy from Poland to Ukraine and back. 17 June 2022
Train driver poses at Przemysl train station after driving the heads of state of France, Germany and Italy from Poland to Ukraine and back. 17 June 2022 Copyright Ludovic Marin/AP
By Una Hajdari
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After more than 20 train accidents occurred across Poland in recent weeks, authorities believe they have figured out who has been disrupting the rail networks.

After a train headed for Warsaw derailed last weekend, and hours later two others hit a delivery truck and a cargo freight – followed by more accidents in the next couple of days – Polish authorities initially believed Russian sabotage was afoot.

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The Polish train network is a crucial part of the delivery chain for everything ranging from humanitarian aid to NATO weapons destined for Ukraine, and a key route for people both traveling to and from the country, including world leaders such as US President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, Russian saboteurs have successfully triggered anything from electricity blackouts to disrupting satellite communications in Ukraine. This is why the incident was initially deemed a “hybrid or cyberattack”.

But after investigations were carried out by Poland's Internal Security Agency, it seems that local radio enthusiasts using amateur equipment managed to copy the brake signal used to override the manual functions of the train operator and force the trains to stop abruptly, causing the accidents.

Evan Vucci/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
President Joe Biden walks down a train corridor during a 10-hour ride from Poland on his way to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. 20 February 2023Evan Vucci/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

‘Sabotage equipment from AliExpress’

Polish outlets report that the equipment used for the sabotage can run cheaper than €30 and can be found on websites such as AliExpress.

Train forums and YouTube accounts for train enthusiasts have discussed the phenomenon at length going back several years.

According to them, trains use a radio system that is not protected by encryption or any other barrier to access. Anyone can emit a series of three frequencies at 150 megahertz, and launch the radio-stop command.

Polish authorities have announced their intention to introduce GSM-R cellular radios by 2025, which are encrypted and can not be sabotaged as easily.

The country’s railway company has not yet implemented the systems intended to include the Polish network in the European traffic safety.

One of these systems is ETCS, which is used to control the movement of trains. The second is GSM-R, which would also serve as a system of digital communication for railways. Neither have been fully implemented so far.

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A train with refugees fleeing Ukraine crosses the border in Medyka, Poland. 7 March 2022Visar Kryeziu/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

The current system, while easy to sabotage, also makes it easier for authorities to track down the perpetrators since the saboteurs would have to be physically close to the trains whose signals they want to disrupt.

On Sunday, two men in their 20s were arrested in Białystok after generating the signal from a fixed location in the northeastern part of the country. One of the two arrested was a police officer, and authorities have launched dismissal procedures against him.

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The other possible saboteurs are still being investigated, since it is possible for this signal to be emitted from portable radio devices, meaning that the perpetrators could move away from the location they emitted the radio-stop function.

According to official statistics, there were more than 500 incidents of radio-stop abuse in 2021 and up to 700 in 2019.

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