Barely Braking: The 1882 Hugstetten (Germany) Derailment
Hugstetten nowadays is a town of 2766 people (as of 2021) in the municipality of March, located in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg 4.9km/3mi northwest of Freiburg and 16.5km/10mi east of the Rhine River (which today marks the border with France) at the town of Breisach am Rhein in the extreme southwest of Germany (both measurements in linear distance).
Hugstetten lies on the Freiburg-Colmar rail line, a former main line which today has an interruption at the French border in Breisach as the bridge across the Rhine was destroyed several times, lastly in 1945 as German troops retreated. Opening in September 1871 and being extended to Colmar, which was German at the time, in 1878 trains could travel from Colmar to Freiburg, a fairly large city, in just over an hour.
At the site of the accident the rail line is heading downhill towards the Rhine at an angle of around 12 permille/1.2% and still carried the track laid down ahead of the rail line’s opening, even though the construction of rail lines had advanced since. As such the ends of two rail-sections met hanging freely in the air rather than above one of the wooden sleepers, the sleepers weren’t impregnated for waterproofness, and the whole thing was resting on finer pebbles than the usual gravel ballast. An overhaul was scheduled but had yet to be carried out.
With no signaling system in place the line had a marshall positioned every 1000m/0.62mi who could communicate with one another via bell-signals.
The train involved
The train involved in the accident was an unnumbered irregular passenger service from Freiburg to Colmar provided by the Grand Duchy of Baden State Railway (Großherzoglich Badische Staatseisenbahn, shortened BadStB), scheduled for departure at 8pm. It consisted of 23 wood-bodied passenger cars housing around 1200 passengers and was pulled by the “Kniebis”, a Xc-series steam locomotive constructed on plans developed by the British railroad pioneer Robert Stephenson. The type Xc was a 32 metric ton three-axle “longboiler”-design, which had been developed for lines requiring higher than usual power output, and consisted of a lengthened boiler on the unchanged underpinnings, causing the (if you will) body of the locomotive to protrude past either end of the wheelset quite a bit. First introduced into German rail traffic in 1864 these locomotives completely fulfilled the requirements, managing to pull a 170 metric ton train at a 12.5 permille incline with 22kph/13.5mph, which, at the time, was plenty. Their level-ground top speed likely was around 70/44mph, exact numbers aren’t known.
As usual for the time the locomotive didn’t have a pneumatic brake system (that was still a long time in the future), instead several “brakemen” would ride on selected passenger cars and slow these down individually. The long overhang of the new boiler design had soon proven to be a flaw, with the locomotives developing strong vibrations at higher speeds that translated into a rocking motion around the transverse axis similar to a ship. These could get so bad that, in 1851, the motion lifted a similar locomotive’s front wheels out of the track, derailing the train. After that accident the type’s speed was limited to 50kph/31mph, banning them from most passenger services.
During the era of the German Empire (1871–1918) the 2nd of September was declared the Sedantag (Day of Sedan), a holiday to celebrate the victory in the 1870 Battle of Sedan which led to the capture of Napoleon the Third and capitulation of the French army, ending the Franco-Prussian War and leading to the creation of the German Empire. In 1882 hundreds of people had used the good weather for a late-summer excursion to Freiburg and the surrounding black forest, planning to return on the 3rd of September with a specially provided passenger service.
Needing a powerful locomotive for the heavy 28-car train the BadStB chose to use one of the longboiler-design type Xc, despite those having been largely pulled from passenger services due to their limited speed and tendency to rock back and forth at higher speeds. Guidelines at the time dictated that at least 25% of a train’s cars had to have a brakeman on them, which meant that, having six cars staffed by brakemen, the train to Colmar was understaffed and thus under-braked from the start. In addition to the six brakemen around 1200 passengers boarded the train on the fateful Sunday evening as a rainstorm put an end to the summerly weather. While the train into Freiburg had been a chartered service the train back also carried random passengers, meaning right after departure two of the brakemen went to make their way along the outside of the train cars, collecting the fare from the passengers. Another brakemen climbed up to one of his coworkers on another train car, helping him as he was new at the job. As such, instead of the mandated 7, there were effectively 2–3 brakemen depending on how much instructing distracted the new brakemen and his coworker from braking. Adding insult to injury was that the two experienced brakemen left focused on their job had next to no knowledge of the route.
Soon after the train departed Freiburg on a slight delay, having waited in hopes that the rain would let up, it entered the downhill section of the rail line. Two brakemen were still busy collecting the fares, one was the new guy who may have braked, been focussed on his coworker’s instruction or a mixture of both, one was doing the instructing, and the remaining two had so little knowledge of the route that the investigation would show that one braked too little, the other one not at all. With the heavy train pushing from behind the locomotive crew did their best to slow down, but with next to no support from the brakemen their attempts were futile, alternating between the locomotive speeding up with spinning wheels or being pushed along with locked up wheels.
As the train sped up out of control the locomotive began rocking back and forth, by this point no one on board had any control over any part of it. The weak, waterlogged ground and ballast couldn’t stop the locomotive from causing the track to swing along with it, the effect was not far from imagining a 32 metric ton block of steel bouncing on a diving board. The series Xc carried no speedometer, but calculations later showed that the train reached speeds in excess of 70kph/43mph before, 5.4km/3.4mi outside Freiburg main station, disaster struck. The rocking-motion from the locomotive pushed the track down a fatal bit too far, separating the rails at a weld and causing the train to derail. The locomotive immediately dug into the soft, swampy ground, being rapidly decelerated. Behind it, the train cars ran into its tender and one-another, bursting apart into a cloud of wooden splinters. The rear four cars came to a stop mostly intact and on the track while some of the forward ones had nothing identifiable left of them at all.
Residents in the surrounding towns of Hugstetten, Hochdorf and Lehen were the first people to reach the site in the stormy rain, being met with a sight beyond their worst imagination. Much of the train had been reduced to splinters and some bent metal, bodies, survivors and blood were everywhere. Residents started picking through the wreckage by hand, using handcarts and horse-drawn carts to transport the living, dying and dead off the site. Statements that survived the 140 years since the derailment talk about some of the gruesome sights encountered by those looking for survivors, with some witnesses writing notes and giving statements how finding some of the bodies more or less intact was sometimes worse than finding just pieces as, with pieces, you didn’t have to accept that what you found was human and didn’t necessarily have to look into a face. One responder is quoted as saying “we found the dead inside the cars, and pieces of them all over the outside.”
The derailing train had mowed down the telegraph-line running along the tracks from station to station, making it impossible for responders to call for help via it and also keeping the dispatcher at Freiburg from receiving information about the train’s status. As such the following scheduled train was released just 15 minutes after the special service had departed, merely telling the driver to “be careful”. Luckily a marshal had heard the crash, ran down the line, spotted the wreckage and sprinted back up the line far enough to warn the following train early enough for its driver to stop before crashing into the wreckage.
That same marshal sent a bell-signal to Freiburg station asking for the rescue-and-recovery train to be dispatched, but when the signal was finally paid attention to the dispatcher realized that they had no locomotive for it. He eventually stopped a passing freight train and had its locomotive take the rescue-train to the site, where it arrived by 11pm, over two hours after the derailment. Making matters worse the dispatcher had not sent any doctors on the train, which had to head to the wreckage by horseback and didn’t arrive until just before midnight.
By the early morning hours responders pulled the last bodies from the wreckage, coming in at 64 direct victims. In a moment, whole families had been extinguished. Over 230 people are listed in records as having been severely injured, five of which didn’t survive the week after the accident, bringing the death toll to 69. This was the worst accident in German railway history at the time, and it would take until the Genthin Train Collision in 1939, over 50 years later, that it would be surpassed.
The accident caused horrified shock and mourning across the German empire, flags were flown at half-mast and various public events were cancelled. Most of the victims were transported to their hometowns in the Alsace-area (nowadays part of France) and buried there, five victims were laid to rest at Freiburg.
Investigators traced the cause of the accident to human error/negligence rather than a suspected technical defect, concluding that, at the excessive speed (which was still increasing as the train derailed), any train would have been doomed, the undesired “rocking” of the locomotive was thus more of a side-effect than a cause, it just meant the train derailed slightly earlier, rather than being a deciding factor. In April 1883 the chief inspector of railways, an engineer involved in the maintenance of rail lines in the area, the surviving train driver, a station assistant and a surviving brakeman were all arrested and charged with various charges comparable to negligent manslaughter. But due to conflicting statements, an absence of precise data (there was no data-logging, not even a speedometer) and all defendants claiming innocence the Freiburg Regional Court eventually released all of them, ending the investigation with no one ever being held legally responsible. Instead, it was claimed that “general flaws in the organization of rail traffic” had caused the accident.
The locomotive was actually only minorly damaged in the derailment and was returned to service. However, it had become so infamous that there are several accounts of people refusing to board trains pulled by it and of residents/land-owners blocking it from passing over their property. Thus, the BadStB decided to no longer give locomotives individual names but to just use numbers, a system that stuck around to this day.
The exact fate of the KNIEBIS isn’t known, but the series Xc was finally retired in 1918, after being withdrawn from service in 1907 some surviving units were used to help against equipment-shortages in World War 1. There are no preserved units around today.
In 1885 a simple cross on a pedestal was constructed at the site of the accident and can still be found there today. The inscription of the pedestal carries an unusually churchy/christian message, reading:
It (the cross) stands witness to the deathly terror, which suddenly struck happy people, but also stands as evidence to the awakening and a devout christian hope.
Hiker! Pray a Lord’s Prayer for those who suffered the accident on the railway on the third of September 1882
The accident could not happen the way it did today, with the age of car-by-car braking and brakemen being long over and even the most remote section of rail line being built at a higher standard than the one at the site of the accident.
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