Blame the New Guy: The 1992 Holthusen Train Collision
Holthusen is a municipality of 926 people (as of December 2019) in the Northern German federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 9.5km/6mi south of Schwerin and 90km/56mi east of Hamburg (both distances measured in linear distance).
Sitting on the southern edge of the municipality (and the main settlement/town) is Holthusen station, a passenger station with 4 tracks in south-north direction (numbered 1–4 west to east) as well as a dead end siding numbered 5, located to the west of track 1. The tracks 2 and 3 are part of the Ludwigslust-Wismar railway, a 69km/43mi mostly double-track electrified main line opened in 1848 and mostly serving passenger traffic. The southern extension of track 1 also served as the turn-off where the at the time single-track Hagenow Land-Schwerin railway diverted from the Ludwigslust-Wismar Railway. The Hagenow-Land-Schwerin railway is a now (since 1996) double-track electrified main line and, having opened in 1847, the second-oldest railway in its federal-state. An oddity of Holthusen station, both at the time of the accident and now, is a level crossing to the south of the platforms going across all 4 tracks of the station.
The trains involved
E 3756 was an express-train made up of unknown rolling stock travelling southbound from Schwerin to Hagenow. Passing through the station on track 2 it went into track 1 south of the station to continue to the southwest towards Hagenow on the Hagenow-Land-Schwerin railway.
D 2721 was another express-train, carrying around 50 passengers on its southbound journey from Rostock to Leipzig, scheduled to pass straight through Holthusen station and follow the Ludwigslust-Wismar railway to the southeast. D 2721 was pulled by DB (German national railway) series 143 620. Introduced in 1984 for the DR (GDR’s/Eastern Germany’s railway) the series 143 is a 16.64m/55ft long four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive made by LEW Hennigsdorf as the series 243 (after reunification they were renumbered, as the DB used 2xx for diesel locomotives), based on the six-axle series 250 heavy freight train locomotive. Putting out 3500kw/4693hp the 82.5 metric ton locomotive can reach up to 120kph/74mph, plenty for its intended use at the time.
Doing some shunting-work at Holthusen station were two railway employees with a DB Series 346, a four-axle 10.88m/36ft long diesel powered shunting locomotive. Introduced in 1962 as the DR series V60 the 55 metric ton locomotive was intended for light and average shunting work, meant to finally retire the still used steam locomotives. To achieve a low weight per axle the relatively short locomotive has 4 axles but no bogies that can turn independently from the frame, with power being transferred via a coupling rod similar to what you’d find on a steam locomotive. Powered by a V12 turbocharged diesel engine the locomotives have a power output of 478kw/641hp at just 1500rpm, enough for a top speed of 60kph/37mph. After the first production run’s red livery (similar to the series 143) the locomotives were painted yellow-ish orange, once they got dirty this brought them the nickname “Goldbroiler”, a German name for a grilled chicken.
Working the night shift between the 30th and 31st of December 1992 in Holthusen station’s signal box was a fairly inexperienced dispatcher. He was working his tenth solo shift, having been retrained for the job after serving with the SED (Eastern Germany’s single political party) as a member of the local sectional directorate until the German reunification in 1990, a job that had nothing to do with railway operation. At around 7:12am two railway employees were riding aboard their DB series 346, having taken a tanker car from a nearby fuel depot into the siding (track 5). They were to now leave the siding, pass the tanker car, enter the siding and couple their locomotive to the other end of the tanker car. But first they had to wait for E 3756 to use track 1, the track the siding merged into, to pass through the station and turn off towards Hagenow. Typical for a shunting-operation there was no prearranged path to be set for the series 346, they would get the go-ahead and then see where they were being directed. At 7:16am E 3756 raced through the station and disappeared into the night, a few moments later the dispatcher cleared the shunting-operation to leave the siding. Unbeknownst to the shunting-crew the dispatcher had forgotten to dissolve the passed express train’s path, so as the shunting locomotive slowly left the siding the points led it from track 5 across track 1 into track 2, the Ludwigslust-Wismar railway’s southbound track. The driver of the shunting locomotive later recalls being confused why they would be set to go around the freight car on track 2 rather than track 1, which was closer to the freight car and would shorten the duration of the operation, but he didn’t question the dispatcher’s (his superior’s) decision.
In the meantime D 2731, the express train from Rostock to Leipzig, had left Schwerin main station and picked up speed, heading towards Holthusen station with the intention of passing through the small town at full speed. There were no red signals, being a shunting-operation meant the series 346 didn’t register with the block-system. Thinking that the shunting locomotive was on track 1 the dispatcher set the path for D 2731 on track 2, turning the signal green without doing the mandatory visual inspection of the selected track. He then contacted the next station to the south to update them on the express train’s status and path, and closed the level crossing next to his station. At approximately 7:20am he radioed the driver of the shunting locomotive, allowing him to change direction and go around the freight car. A few seconds later he, to him inexplicably, saw the small orange locomotive roll into the view outside his window on track 2 rather than track 1. He withdrew the green signal for the express train, too late for it to be seen, and ordered the shunting crew to abandon the locomotive. At 7:22am he attempted to radio the driver of the express train, but it was too late to avoid the collision. Racing through the night at 120kph/75mph the driver of the express train most likely spotted the obstacle moments before impact, managing to shave 20kph/12.5mph off his speed before impact. The heavy express train struck the stationary locomotive at 7:23am, tearing the smaller locomotive apart on impact and dragging most of it along for about 100m/330ft before the derailed locomotive came to a stop, having fallen over onto its side. Several of the passenger cars derailed as well, zigzagging as they came to a stop. The forward-most car was largely destroyed and at least two more cars suffered severe damage.
The shunting crew had managed to jump off the locomotive and run out of harms way at the last possible second, surviving uninjured. Holthusen’s own fire department and police were at the site within minutes, realizing that they were out of their depth they soon requested support from several surrounding municipalities. One of the express train’s passengers, two members of the train’s crew and the attendant in the bistro car had been severely injured and were flown to the hospital at Schwerin while five more passengers suffered minor injuries.
With daylight coming in some time after the accident the responders started to realize just how violent the collision must have been. The express train’s locomotive, thrown on its side and compacted by a few meters, formed the edge of a large pile of torn and twisted metal, into which the forward two cars of the express train had largely disappeared. Pieces of a locomotive that didn’t match the large electric locomotive lying strewn across the wreckage were all that remained of the shunting locomotive, there was barely an intact piece of it left. A few hours after the accident responders cut their way into the remains of the fallen over series 143, cutting apart the obliterated forward driver’s cab to recover the body of the driver. He had been killed on impact, but thanks to the shunting crew abandoning their locomotive in time he remained the only fatality. That the express train had been nearly empty helped also, a few days earlier or later trains were much more packed with people traveling for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Investigators soon tracked the series of events to the dispatcher, who admitted to having failed to set the points for the shunting locomotive after E 3756 had passed through the station. Being new to the job and the world of railroading, having to set the path for D 2731, notify the next station down the line and operate the level crossing had just been one too many tasks and he’d not managed to follow proper procedure. The shunting crew was relieved of guilt. They could have asked the dispatcher why they were directed into track 2, but this wasn’t required. And since the dispatcher was their superior they had no reason to question his decisions. There had never been an agreement on what track to use, so the minor suspicion that it was “weird” to have them use track 2 wasn’t enough to warrant doubt and/or blame them for not radioing back to ask. After all, both track 1 and track 2 would’ve gotten them to the other side of the freight car. In June 1994 the dispatcher was sentenced to a suspended fine for negligent manslaughter and negligent cause of bodily harm, presumably with the court recognizing his inexperience and the multitude of tasks. The remains of the shunting locomotive were scrapped shortly after the accident, and records show 143 620 permanently retired by April 1993. Presumably it was stripped for parts and then scrapped also.
After the accident the track-layout of Holthusen station was changed, removing the siding and enabling southbound trains to use the turn-off towards Hagenow at up to 160kph/99mph. This saw the abandonment of the old station building, moving the platforms to the other side of the level crossing. The signal box was removed, with signals and paths being set remotely from a new signal box at Schwerin main station.
A couple of series 346 are still in service today, mostly with private railway companies for both shunting and off-network services (like arranging train cars at factories). A small number is still in use with the DB at Sassnitz harbor on the German island of Rügen, shunting trains on and off ferries. Since part of the harbor is built with Russian wide-gauge track some of the locomotives used are actually special wide-gauge versions of the V60 (now 347). However, the amount of freight going through that harbor has been steadily decreasing so the locomotives might be gone from the DB’s service in a few years.
By the mid to late 90s the series 143 had become obsolete, being too slow for even most regional trains, having structural problems (minor impacts would buckle the body and bend the frame and generally poor crash-protection) and suffering a difficult spare parts situation. By 2015 300 of the 646 locomotives made had been scrapped with another 80 already retired. It’s expected that none of the locomotives will survive 2021.