One of Poland’s largest train manufacturers, Newag, has been accused of deliberately programming failures into its vehicles to gain more business servicing them.
The firm has denied the reports and announced legal action against those responsible for spreading the claims. However, its shares plunged on the news this morning, dropping as much as 17% at market opening.
A minister in Poland’s recently departed government also appeared to confirm at least part of the claims, saying that the authorities have been aware of them since May this year and suggesting that Newag had used “a cyberweapon against its own customers”.
Polecam artykuł o tym jak firma Newag potraktowała cyberbronią… swoich własnych klientów 🙂⤵️ https://t.co/qDzkGPkh8O
— Janusz Cieszyński (@jciesz) December 5, 2023
The story has its origins in 2022, when trains produced by Newag and belonging to local railway operators came to a standstill in several places in Poland.
The trains could not be restarted after they had undergone servicing by Newag’s competitors or, in some cases, after they had travelled one million kilometres, reported news website Onet today. In other instances, they stopped working for no apparent reason after the date 21 November.
One of the companies servicing the trains, SPS Mieczkowski, was baffled by the problem, as there was no indication of any error.
However, because SPS could not resolve the issue, it began to face contractual penalties from a rail operator, Koleje Dolnośląskie, that had hired it to service the vehicles. The fines eventually totalled 2 million zloty (€462,000).
Koleje Dolnośląskie came to the conclusion that SPS did not have the necessary know-how to service modern trains produced by Newag. So it sent them back to the manufacturer, which, after receiving an additional fee, found them to be working.
Skandal na polskiej kolei. Hakerzy ujawniają, kto stoi za tajemniczymi awariami pociągów: „Firma Newag wszystkiemu zaprzecza. Jej prezes w rozmowie z Onetem był bardzo opryskliwy” https://t.co/Khu3bIIwvf
— Bertold Kittel (@Bertold_K) December 6, 2023
According to Onet, citing industry sources, the issue “started to get complicated” when it became apparent that trains that were not serviced by SPS, but had been standing in train sheds for ten days, were also stopping running.
“This had already become very suspicious, and stories have started to spread in the industry that Newag itself is behind the mysterious faults,” a source connected to one of the train service companies told the website.
SPS, aware of rumours that the problem lay in the train’s software, reached out to a well-known collective of Polish hackers known as Dragon Sector.
According to both Onet and Zaufana Trzecia Strona, a cybersecurity website, the hackers discovered that the trains had been deliberately programmed to stop working in certain circumstances.
A Polish policeman is among those detained on suspicion of involvement in the use of radio signals to cause major disruption of Poland’s rail network over the weekend
There were also reports of the Russian national anthem playing over railway staff radios https://t.co/g0ytSPspGL
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 29, 2023
“We are sure that it was a deliberate action on Newag’s part,” Michał Kowalczyk of Dragon Sector told Onet. “We discovered the manufacturer’s interference in the software, which led to forced failures and to the fact that the trains did not start.”
Kowalczyk – whose team also worked on Newag trains owned by other operators – notes that they discovered, for example, programming that stopped the train from starting up again if it had been stationary for 10 days or more.
“Someone apparently came up with the idea that, if the train is standing still, it must be under servicing,” said Kowalczyk. However, it later transpired that this was stopping trains from working that had simply been parked in train sheds temporarily.
“Someone at Newag rightly decided that this spoiled the narrative about the incompetence of the SPS,” continued Kowalczyk, whose team then later found new programming that caused the trains not to move if they were located at the service workshops of SPS and other firms in the industry.
A record number of journeys were made by train in Poland last year.@PKPIntercityPDP, the main long-distance operator, carried 58.9 million passengers, beating the previous high of 49.6 million in 2019 https://t.co/MfpOi5JtTz
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 4, 2023
Following the media reports, today Janusz Cieszyński – who served as minister of digital affairs until last week – confirmed to Onet that hackers from Dragon Sector had informed the authorities of their findings in May this year.
He said that the case was under investigation but did not provide further details. However, in a post on X, Cieszński shared Zaufana Trzecia Strona’s report and wrote: “I recommend this article about how Newag used a cyberweapon…against its own customers.”
The firm itself, however, strongly denies the allegations. In response to questions from Onet, it said that the conclusions of the journalists and hackers were wrong. Newag said the problems with its trains were related to interventions by third parties of which the company had notified the “relevant services”.
Zbigniew Jakubas reaguje na doniesienia o Newagu. Mamy komentarz https://t.co/0Zg53GMNG6
— Business Insider Polska 🇵🇱 (@BIPolska) December 6, 2023
In a further comment to Business Insider Polska, Newag’s CEO, Zbigniew Jakubas, called the Onet publication “unreliable” and said that it “constitutes manipulation of Newag’s share price”.
“This matter must be dealt with by all state authorities and services. Appropriate notices and lawsuits against all persons influencing the creation of this damaging material will be filed immediately,” Jakubas said.
This morning, Newag’s shares plunged as much as 17% but recovered during the day to end trading just over 6% down.
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Main image credit: Akumela/Wikimedia Commons (under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.