A Light in the Distance: The 2013 Granges-près-Marnand Train Collision.

Background

The location of Marnand in Europe.

The Granges-près-Marnand station lies on the “Broye longtiudinale” (“Boyetallinie”/Broye Valley Line), a 63.8km/39.6mi single track branch line running from Palézieux in the far southwest of Switzerland to Kerzers further northeast. Opening in 1877 the railway line never saw a lot of use due to two competing main lines already existing, serving largely regional passenger trains. The line was electrified with an overhead catenary in the late 1940s, making it one of the last lines to retire steam engines from regular service. At the time of the accident Granges-près-Marnand station only saw four regular instances of trains passing one another at the station per day, two in the morning and one in the evening. A relatively unique feature of the station are the two signals to be passed when departing the station. One at the end of the platform, telling the driver he is cleared to depart (essentially replacing a conductor) and one showing if the adjacent single track section is safe to enter. The latter is 300m/984ft away from the platform. The near signal will turn off when the train is cleared to depart as far as operations at the station are concerned, with drivers having to observe the far signal to see if it’s safe to actually depart. At the time of the accident the station was equipped with Integra-Signum, a signaling system that could trigger an automatic stop if a train runs a red signal, but could not keep a red signal from being approached.

The site of the collision seen from above.

The trains involved

SBB “Domino” RBDe 560 244, identical to the train involved, photographed in March 2013.

Travelling in the opposite direction from Moudon to Payerne was Regio-Express 4049, provided by a four-car RBDe 562 numbered 562 002. Introduced in 1997 the series 562, like the Domino-trains, is also based on the RBDe 4/4, being a modified version handling two different electrical systems for services between Switzerland (15000V/16,7Hz)and France 25000V/50Hz) as well as having different doors to fit French platforms. The performance- and capacity-specifications are largely identical to the Domino-trains, as is the design of the trains. The best way to tell them apart is the Dominos’ white-red-black livery while the series 562 retained the blue livery of the RBDe 4/4. The middle cars of the latter also lack the larger windows indicating the Dominos’ low-floor sections. At the time of the accident the train was led by control car BT 29–35 950, with the motor car pushing from behind.

BT 29–35 950, the control car leading at the time of the accident, photographed 6 months before the accident.

The accident

The site of the collision on Google StreetView, the signal is just beyond the nearest catenary support.

After waiting for just over a minute the 58 years old driver of the Domino train assumes to see the signal in the distance turn green. He folds in the rearview mirrors Swiss trains use to observe passengers entering and leaving the train and, at 6:42pm, the southbound train starts moving. The driver will later insist that he absolutely certainly saw a green signal, and that he would never ever depart on, much less run a red signal on purpose. With the freight cars obstructing visibility through the turn neither train is visible to the others’ driver, and the installed signaling system cannot keep the Domino from departing. The Domino’s motor car has little trouble picking up speed, by the time the Domino’s driver sees the oncoming train heading towards him he’s already travelling at 69kph/43mph. The driver triggers an emergency stop, leaves his seat and retreats into the luggage compartment behind the driver’s cabin, awaiting the imminent collision.

RE 4049 also triggers an emergency stop, but by the time the brakes apply it’s just 40m/131ft from the other train and moving at 55kph/34mph. In the short time before the collision the train only looses 10kph/6mph. At 6:44pm, 48 meters/157ft after deploying the emergency brakes, the Domino train slams head-on into the oncoming RE 4049 at 60kph/37mph after having traveled just 332m/1089ft since departing the station. The 24 years old driver of RE 4049 is killed on impact as his control car is compressed to 2/3 of it’s length, it’s frame cuts the Domino’s leading bogie off it’s mount as 3 of the 7 cars involved derail. The Domino’s lead car is lifted onto the frame of the RE and slightly deflects to the left, tearing the other train’s body off it’s frame. The Domino has it’s cars connected by special permanent couplings which stay together and transfer forces, buckling the train’s second car, while the RBDe 562’s regular couplings (as it uses regular passenger cars as middle cars) tear apart during the collision, splitting the train in half. The forward half remains at the point of impact just ahead of Granges-près-Marnan’s signal the rear half is bumped back 57m/187ft. 25 passengers are injured, six of which severely. The driver of the RBDe 526 is the sole fatality while his colleague in the Domino survives with minor injuries thanks to his retreat into the luggage compartment.

Aftermath

The forward section of RE 4049 as it’s being towed away, giving an idea of the forces involved in the crash.

Responders work at the scene throughout the night, cutting into the wrecks and eventually pulling the two trains apart. The body of the driver can finally be recovered in the early hours of the following morning, shortly thereafter the wracks are taken to a storage facility at Yverdon (19km/12mi linear distance away) for further investigation. The track and overhead wires are repaired during the day and the line is reopened the following night. Investigators meticulously examine both trains, but they fail to find any defect that could explain what happened and thus turn their attention to the surviving driver. He wasn’t intoxicated at the time of the accident, and his records show over 30 years of service without any incident. How did he end up in this nightmarish situation? Throughout the investigation he insists that he saw a green signal, that he is experienced and knows to never depart on red and would never do that.

A (translated) sketch from the report, showing the final position of the trains.

As they are getting nowhere with the driver the investigators turn their attention to the signaling system itself. It had been installed in 1975 and, by all means, was in perfect working condition at the time of the accident. Swiss regional traffic operates on a single man concept, meaning the driver observes passengers entering and leaving the train and has to observe the signals for his permission to depart and clearance to proceed. There is no conductor watching on and using a whistle to dispatch a train. However, Granges-près-Marnand station still had a dispatcher on site, who testifies that he sprinted down the platform when he saw the train start moving, trying to alert the driver with gestures and a whistle. He failed, instead having to watch the disaster unfold in front of him. There were two buttons in his signal box that he could have pressed, cutting power to the cantenary and stopping the departing train well ahead of the point of impact. However, the system was a leftover from past times, it wasn’t part of emergency protocols anymore and it’s use wasn’t taught. It’s hard to imagine what he must have felt, first failing to alert the driver, seeing the collision, and later being told he could have avoided it by staying put and pressing two buttons. An up to date signaling system (called “ZUB”) could have also avoided the accident as it wouldn’t have allowed the Domino to start moving in the first place, but at the time Granges-près-Marnand station was only equipped with the more basic “Integra-Signum” which, while it could monitor block sections and stop a train that ran a red signal, could not enforce speed limits or keep a train from departing towards a red signal. At a station like Granges-près-Marnand, with such a long distance between the platform and main signal, that meant a train could pick up plenty of speed before being stopped by the system. The insufficient (but legal) safety-systems was a major focus of the investigation, while the systems were up to the requirements it was clear that upgrading to available superior systems could have avoided the tragic consequences of what was eventually deemed human error.

Survivors being evaluated and treated next to the wreckage.

The SBB (swiss national railway) agrees that there is room for improvements and, by October, introduces a new procedure at Granges-près-Marnand station and six similar stations which has drivers forced to wait until the dispatcher shows them a special hand board with a star on it before departing, regardless of the signal turning green before that. By December another 5 stations introduce this solution while the SBB works on a permanent solution. In addition, 21 stations without a dispatcher on site are fitted with a system monitoring the speed of the trains, alerting the drivers if they go too fast or move without permission. By 2015 the SBB introduces a new app for the LEA-system (a tablet-computer carried by the drivers providing various information like schedules and reroutes) which will display a large warning on the screen if the driver attempts to depart on red. A year later the signaling-system is upgraded to stop trains from departing on red altogether. By that point the two trains have been stripped for parts and scrapped, marking the first Domino train to be retired.

A photo from the report showing the proximity of the site of the collision to the misread signal (52ft).

After the accident the surviving driver is moved to an office-position, with the SBB suspending his driver’s permit. In May 2018 the first trial is cancelled as he is mentally unfit to stand trial, a new trial starts in September of the same year. The public prosecutor’s office demanded that the court should sentence the man to a fine paid in 90 daily rates along with 2 years of probation on charges of negligent manslaughter and negligent cause of bodily harm. The defense asked for a lighter sentence, claiming that the accident was not the defendant’s sole fault but also in part that of the SBB, whose cost-cutting measures had unloaded the tasks of three employees on one, along with a high pressure to remain on schedule. The latter claim was backed by the train driver saying he was running two minutes late on the day of the accident, and was eager to shorten or remove the delay. Present at the trial were Mister and Misses Bourdon, the parents of the killed driver. In an interview they state that they don’t hold a grudge against him, agreeing that his error shouldn’t have been able to have such fatal consequences. Mister Bourdon further expresses that he doesn’t understand how the driver is the sole person charged, in his eyes someone from the SBB should have been put on trial also for neglecting to have sufficient safety systems installed. He compares the procedures to his past career in the chemical industry, saying at his job they always had to have two independent safety-systems and he can’t understand why passenger trains don’t have that requirement.

In his final statement the defendant again promised that he had seen a green signal in the distance and that in his decades-long experience had never made such a mistake. He was quickly shot down by the judge, pointing out that he wasn’t colorblind and red and green were pretty different colors. In the end the driver was sentenced to 90 daily rates of 60 Swiss Francs (55€/67USD), payment of which was made the condition of his two year jail sentence keeping it’s probationary character. Had he failed to pay even one of the rates he would have had to serve jailtime. While the court decided that he had caused the accident by acting negligently when he should have known better by experience, they did admit that the situation at the station was far from ideal. An attempt by the defense to reduce the sentence to 30 daily rates was denied.

Another look at the wreckage, showing that the Domino hadn’t even really left the station.

The last RBDe 562 were retired from service in 2019 as they couldn’t be upgraded to meet new safety-standards, with the last 3 units being towed to the scrapyard in December 2020. The Domino involved in the accident remains the only one of it’s type to be scrapped, the rest is still in regular service and planned to not be retired before 2035. The infrastructure-setup at Granges-près-Marnand station is still largely the same as it was at the time of the accident, while the signaling system was upgraded the signals weren’t moved from their positions.

A Domino-train photographed in March 2021, travelling as an Intercity from Basel to Biel.

History nearly repeats itself

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