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Railway Giants: Tragic Demise on the Tracks – The Tale of Jan Perner

Railway Giants: Tragic Demise on the Tracks – The Tale of Jan Perner
photo: Pardubice / Public domain/Railway Giants: Tragic Demise on the Tracks – The Tale of Jan Perner
06 / 11 / 2023

Have you ever heard the name Jan Perner? The name of a man who managed to achieve extraordinary feats in a very short period. A man who had a passion for the railways from a young age, only for it to tragically lead to his demise.

Education Is Fundamental

Our story begins at a time when the established order in Europe, which had been in place for hundreds of years, was undergoing significant changes. Not long before, the steam engine had been invented, the first steam locomotive and railway line had been built, cities were expanding at an unprecedented rate, especially in England, and a national revival was occurring in the Czech lands. We find ourselves at the dawn of the 19th century, specifically in 1815 when a boy was born into the family of a Bratčice miller named Jan Perner and his wife Kateřina. The boy, christened Jan after his father, was frail at birth, prompting his worried parents to baptize him promptly, adhering to the customs of the era. Despite his fragile beginnings, little Jan survived.

At seven, he commenced his elementary education in Potěhy in the Čáslav Region. His talent did not go unnoticed by the chaplain, who played a significant role in preparing him for further studies. His preparation bore fruit, and Jan began attending a school in Prague. It was 1830, and Jan successfully passed the entrance exam to the Prague Technical School, established by František Josef Gerstner. Unfortunately, his parents could not afford his studies and had other intentions for their eldest son — it was a longstanding tradition for the miller’s firstborn to inherit the mill. But Jan had other plans and resolved to fund his education independently.

In 1833, he concluded his studies with distinction. Jan knew precisely what he wanted to pursue next — the railways had long captivated his interest. When František Antonín Gerstner, a Prague technical teacher, sought technicians for railway construction in Russia, Jan knew his path. He was selected and departed for his first overseas assignment. Yet, before this, he was dispatched to Britain to gather the latest insights on railway development.

Vojtěch Dočkal / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

A Rising Star

The year was 1836, and Jan arrived in impoverished Tsarist Russia. However, his tenure there was shorter than he might have anticipated, lasting only three months before he returned home due to a falling-out with his superior, F.A. Gerstner — a fate shared by many of Gerstner’s assistants.

The disappointment from this failure was fleeting; by May 1837, the still youthful engineer had secured a position with the Northern Railway of Ferdinand, a company aiming to link the heart of the Habsburg monarchy, Vienna, with Bochnia, in what is now Polish Galicia. Perner worked as an engineer on the Brno-Břeclav section until 1839, then as a designer on the stretch between Auschwitz and Ostrava.

In 1841, the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand made a pivotal decision: the state would assume control over the construction of the main railways. The following year, the seasoned engineer Perner was appointed chief engineer for the state railways. He advocated for a railway route connecting Vienna and Prague to pass through Olomouc, reaching the Czech capital via the Polabí and Pardubice regions. His proposal was successful, and construction commenced. Concurrently, he was tasked with evaluating all proposals for a new line to connect Prague with Dresden, as well as negotiating its construction with neighboring Saxony. Ultimately, Perner favored a route through the Elbe Valley.

Afterward, Perner returned to his magnum opus, the railway linking Prague and Vienna. With many responsibilities in this project, the official opening of the track in August 1845 brought him immense satisfaction. Passenger services commenced on September 1, 1845, followed by freight services on October 1.

Rolf-Dresden / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

A Tragic Ride

On September 9, 1845, engineer Jan Perner was aboard a train on the Olomouc-Prague railway, conducting routine inspections. As the train neared Choceň station, after passing through the tunnel, Perner stepped down to the lowest step of the door. Looking back as the train approached the station, an unexpected blow struck him, resulting in a severe headache and a loss of vision. It is believed that as the train entered the station, Perner’s head collided with a post on the entrance gate. Despite medical advice, he chose to travel to his parents’ home in Pardubice. He succumbed to his injuries the following day.

This concludes the story of a young visionary instrumental in the development of railways in Austria. Ironically, the railways, his greatest passion, also became his fate.