The imperial family was en route from Crimea to Saint Petersburg. Contrary to railway rules of the period that limited commercial passenger trains to 42 axles, the imperial train of fifteen carriages actually had 64 axles, well above the safety limit. Its weight was within the limits set for freight trains, but the train actually travelled at express speeds. It was hauled by two steam engines, a combination that caused dangerous vibrations that, according to Sergei Witte, directly caused the derailment. Technical flaws of the royal train were known in advance, yet it had operated for nearly a decade without incidents.
21 people were killed instantly. According to official propaganda, corroborated by Sergei Witte's memoirs, at the moment of the crash the royal family was in the dining car. Its roof collapsed in the crash, and Alexander held the remains of the roof on his shoulders as the children fled outdoors. Later Soviet, Russian, and foreign authors denounced this version, claiming that the side walls of the car remained strong enough to support the roof. None of the royal family initially appeared to be hurt, but the onset of Alexander's kidney failure was later linked to the blunt trauma suffered in Borki.