Borki Train Disaster

On October 17 [N.S. October 29], 1888, the imperial train returning from the south derailed at the station of Borki, leaving twenty-one dead and thirty-seven injured.

The railroad car carrying the imperial family capsized, but all members escaped without serious injury. the disaster was presented as proof of the miraculous grace shed by God on the tsar and the Russian people. the imperial manifesto of October 23, 1888, stated that the miracle was not only the result of divine intervention: it was God's response "to the fervent prayers, which thousands and thousands of sons of Russia daily make for Us"

On one occasion before Borki when the task fell to Witte, he created a fuss over a proposed train schedule that had been sent to him by Admiral Possiet, the minister of ways and communications. He informed the admiral that the speed called for was a dangerous one, considering the weight of the two trains, its two locomotives, and the condition of the track, and threatened not to be on the train unless the speed was cut. This was contumacious behavior and so was construed by the tsar and his entourage, but Witte stood up for his action, insisting that the sovereign's safety was his prime concern.

His concern for the tsar's safety was soon justified. On October 17, 1888, the imperial train jumped the track near Borki, on the Kursk-Kharkov-Azov line, killing twenty-two and injuring dozens more but sparing Alexander III and his immediate family, who were having lunch in the dining car.

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.