Winter 1995 (3.4)
Baku's Metro Accident
A Challenge to Strategize
by Elizabeth Atwell and Pirouz Khanlou
On October 28, 1995, the worst Metro tragedy in world history took place in Baku when fire broke out on a Saturday evening rush hour train. For the majority of the 300 victims, death was swift. Deadly fumes of carbon monoxide poisoning from the burning synthetic materials in the cars overpowered them in a matter of minutes. The impact of the accident stunned the city as the latest in a string of disasters.
It wasn't the first time a catastrophic accident had occurred on the Metro (See AI 2:2, p. 66, "Tribute to Rafig Babayev"). Two prior bomb attacks by terrorists in 1994 had left 20 people dead. As always, rumors swept through the city. Naturally, terrorism was suspected especially since Parliamentary elections were only two weeks away. Many suggested it was a political game to destabilize the country-a scare tactic, gone awry. But when gas, not burns, was seen as the cause of so many deaths, people immediately thought of Tokyo's subway disasters earlier this year.
Left: Baku's Metro was built in 1967 and used to be one of the prides of the city.
According to Swedish experts who investigated the Metro accident, the fire started accidentally from an electrical spark in wiring near gears under one of the cars. Since Azerbaijan's Metro is nearly 30 years old, the cars are manufactured from materials that are prone to give off noxious fumes if they catch fire: fully 90 percent of the material is flammable.
Baku's Transportation System
This unfortunate tragedy raises critical questions about the overall strategy of Baku's transportation system. Our article is only an attempt to raise a few questions about this very complex issue. The accident comes as a great warning to anticipate and ward off further accidents which could be even more devastating. Since the fire, there have already been three more Metro fires. Fortunately, they all turned out to be minor and no one was hurt. But it calls into serious doubt the overall maintenance and condition of the system.
Left: Death Trap: One of Baku's Metro cars involved in the tragedy on October 28th. Some of the men riding the train broke out the windows with their bare fists so the passengers could escape. More than 300 people died in the accident, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning. Photo: Ilgar Jafarov, Azertaj.
Baku, with its burgeoning population of more than 2 million, has a sophisticated and comprehensive transit system - at least, on paper. Public transport consists of bus, trolley bus, electrical bus, a funicular (which is in serious disrepair) and a Metro system. Curiously, they are all operated by separate municipal authorities.
Left: Alive! Larissa (center smiling) who had been pronounced clinically dead when she arrived at the Toxicology Center in Baku was revived by shock therapy. She is surrounded by some of the team of emergency doctors and staff who worked 36 hours around the clock to attend to the 500 patients who came to the Center for treatment after the Metro Tragedy on October 28, 1995. Photo courtesy: Chris Cannon.
According to latest figures available*, the transit fleet consists of 605 buses and 340 trolley buses. Three years ago, Baku bought 50 Mercedes buses assembled in Iran and recently they acquired trolley buses from Turkey.
The Metro, which opened in 1967, is powered by third rail, and consists of two lines, serving 18 stations in 29 kilometers (18 miles). That makes Baku's system comparable to some of the finest, similarly-sized systems in the world, again "on paper", and that includes world model transportation systems in Curitiba (Brazil) as well as projects in Kobe (Japan), San Diego (California), and Seattle (Washington).
But the reality is that traffic on Baku's streets is far more congested today than it was three years ago. In fact, it's rapidly turning into a nightmare. In sections of the central city, it's faster to walk because of "one-way" and "no-left turn" traffic patterns which take vehicles far out of their way and result in redundant traffic movement.
Photo: Rare photos of Baku's Metro accident on October 28th, scene of the tragedy where more than 300 passengers succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning when an electrical spark ignited one of the cars. Lack of maintenance was blamed for the tragedy. As it was too danger for photojournalists to enter the Metro tunnels at the time of the incident, photos that appeared in the international press were from old files of the two previous Metro bombing incidents in 1994 when 20 people died. Photo: Ilgar Jafarov (Azertaj).
Too often, drivers of electric buses are seen jumping out and running behind the bus to reconnect to the electrical cable above. Such jams invariably happen at intersections. Buses are generally dirty, dilapidated and inevitably crammed so full that there's hardly standing room. They don't appear be regularly maintained. A few months ago, the brakes failed on a bus, which went out of control and slammed into a pizza parlor, killing six people.
Fundamentally, the problem is that Baku's transportation system, like everything else, was designed for the Soviet era. Back then, the system consisted of fairly wide avenues with private cars reserved for the elite. But Baku's reality is different today. Economic growth and private ownership (at least for some people), plus the additional influx of an estimated half million refugees give the city a different complexity.
Though still extremely expensive, it's not just the privileged sitting in the driver's seat these days. Cars are being brought from Germany, Russia, Japan, Korea, and the US. A car is a family's highest priority if they have the money.
Feasibility Plan Needed
Certainly this tragedy has created a need to examine the transportation system as a comprehensive whole. City authorities need to sit down with appropriate transportation entities, and hire experts and consultants to look at the problems systematically. A comprehensive transportation feasibility study should be made for the city which anticipates the city's future especially since rapid growth stimulated by the oil industry will generate more activity.
Patterns of traffic should be identified for peak periods, both on a daily basis as well as on weekends. Studies should determine public views towards public transportation given its current state of disrepair. The system needs to be examine ways in which it can be made profitable and self-supportive. To this end some of the finest transportation models in the world should be studied and the best ideas should be adopted to fit Baku's unique needs and characteristics.
In this period of transition from a socialist to a market economy, the city will continue to develop in a haphazard way unless there is a serious strategizing that anticipates the future. The city's new entrepreneur activities will become paralyzed.
As with other fundamental infrastructure projects, creative finances can usually be found; for example, Baku's overhaul of the water system which is now underway is being financed by the World Bank (See AI 2:3, 15). All these things are possible. It just takes careful strategizing and hard work to make it happen.
* From the 1995-96 Edition of "Jane's Urban Transport Systems", edited by Chris Bushell and published by International Thomsen Publishing Company.
Elizabeth Atwell is Transportation Project Manager of HDR Engineering in Irvine, California. Pirouz Khanlou is a practicing architect with Metro Design in Los Angeles.
From Azerbaijan International (3.4) Winter 1995.
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