Bridgeless: The 1995 Braz (Austria) Derailment

Braz is a pair of two communities (Ausserbraz and Innerbraz) in the extreme west of Austria with a combined population of 2019 (as of January 2022). They are located 32km/20mi northwest of Ischgl and 41km/25.5mi south-southeast of Bregenz in the Vorarlberg-Region. The communities are officially part of the city of Bludenz, despite being located 5km/3mi to the east of the edge of the city (all measurements in linear distance).

The location of Braz in Europe.

Braz has a station on the Arlberg Railway (“Arlbergbahn”), a 136.7km/84.9mi electrified largely double-tracked main line connecting Innsbruck with Bludenz. Opening in sections between 1884 and 1886 the line is nowadays mostly used for freight services and express trains up to the “Railjet” high speed trains at speeds of up to 160kph/99mph. Despite the use of various bridges and tunnels some sections of the line are rather steep, reaching 34‰/3.4 percent on the western ramp down the Arlberg towards Bludenz.

The site of the accident seen from above in 2000, the train came from the right (east).

IC 566 “Niederösterreichische Tonkünstler” (“Lower-Austrian musicians”) was an international express passenger service connecting Vienna in Austria with Lindau in Germany via Salzburg and Innsbruck. In 1995 it ran in a so-called sandwich-configuration, meaning there was a locomotive on either end of the train with the passenger cars in between them. On the day of the accident it was pulled by ÖBB (Austrian national railway) 1044 047. The rear locomotive is unknown but likely was of the same type. The series 1044 is a four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive introduced in 1978 for both heavy passenger express trains and freight services. Each 1044 measures 16.1m/53ft in length at a weight of 84 metric tons and can reach up to 160kph/99mph thanks to a total power output of 5280kW/7081hp. At the time the series 1044 was the ÖBB’s flagship locomotive.

ÖBB 1044 240, identical with the locomotive involved, photographed in 1998.

The train on the day of the accident consisted of eight four-axle passenger cars, most of which were examples of the type 21–73 with second or first class interiors. Introduced in 1980 these cars, often referred to as “Lange Schlieren” (“Long Shlieren”) in reference to their predecessor, were developed mostly for express passenger services in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Each car measures 26.4m/87ft in length at an empty weight of 40 metric tons. First-class cars can carry up to 72 passengers, second-class cars have a capacity 80 passengers. There are also baggage- and bistro-cars with reduced seating, but it is unknown if those were included in the train that suffered the accident. The type 21–73 was engineered for services at up to 160kph/99mph, 20kph/12.5mph more than their predecessor. According to different sources the train carried 200–250 people at the time of the accident, crew and passengers combined.

A second-class type 21–73 passenger car identical with those involved in the accident.

The train also included at least one type Bmpz 20–94 “Modularwagen” (Modular car), a type of passenger car for national and international passenger cars only introduced months before the accident. These cars are capable of carrying 78 passengers at up to 200kph/124mph, measuring 26.4m/87ft in length at a weight of 47 metric tons. One of the main improvements over their predecessors (including the type 21–73) was a completely new construction of the body, increasing crash-rigidity. In contrast to the 21–73s the new cars received a black-red livery instead of cream-orange.

An ÖBB Bmpz 20–94 “Modularwagen” identical with those involved in the accident.

In the late afternoon of the 11th of August IC 566 is making its way down the Arlberg Railway towards Bludenz in heavy rain. The heavy and sustained rain has caused the Masonbach, a small creek uphill of Innerbraz, swell up and start to drag more and more soil along its path. A lot of the dirt and debris becomes stuck on a small bridge used by the railway line to cross over the river. At approximately 7pm the weight of the soil and debris becomes too much for the small bridge and it collapses down the side of the hill just moments before IC 566 reaches it. The collapsing bridge takes the railway tracks with it, ripping off the overhead catenary. With the overhead catenary being interrupted the approaching train loses power from one moment to the next, automatically triggering an emergency stop. The data-longer in the rear locomotive registers an application of the brakes for just 50m/164ft before the connection is lost as the train cars separate. The leading locomotive and the first three passenger cars fall into a 35m/115ft deep hole, sliding and rolling in the mud before getting stuck a few feet downhill from the rail line. Car 4 falls on its side as car 3 tears off at the coupler but stops ahead of where the bridge used to be, the rest of the train remains upright, stopping just ahead of the abyss. The train’s driver dies as the impact with the muddy hillside destroys the driver’s cab, 3 passengers are killed as the leading cars fall down the hillside, suffering severe structural damage.

The majority of the wreckage, photographed the morning after the accident.

The alarm goes out at 7pm, but with the hostile weather, several blocked roads and some paths being inaccessible it takes responders almost 20 minutes to reach the site. The local mountain rescue workers are the first responders on site, later describing wading through knee-deep mud and water as they are faced with a site that looks like a child unleashed a mighty tantrum on a model railway. People are screaming and crying all around them, and light is fading. Eventually responders stumble upon the twisted remains of the locomotive, only to be turned away by a surviving passenger saying there’s nothing they can do there anymore. Among the responders is Mister Bargehr, a commander of the fire department, who had been on the train up to Arlberg, the previous stop.

Responders standing next to the leading end of the locomotive.

The search for victims and survivors stretches into the night, worrying that survivors might have wandered off in the dark or been flushed further down the hillside as water came through the busted windows. Search dogs are dispatched all over the hillside, a hydroelectric plant downstream is shut off to check the water-intake for bodies. Any survivor is carried up to the tracks, treated if necessary (with one survivor undergoing surgery at the site) and then carried down the tracks to where helicopters and ambulances can be accessed. By 10:30pm the responders are ordered off the hillside, with on-site management declaring that everyone was accounted for. In total 4 people die in the accident, more than 100 suffer severe injuries.

The wreckage of the leading passenger car in its final position a short distance downstream from the bridge.

During the night the rear part of the train is towed back to Langen, the next morning a heavy duty rail-crane starts the recovery of the wreckage aided by personnel and equipment from the Austrian Army. The ÖBB has 1044 047 stripped of salvageable parts at the site before cutting up the remains for scrap, the same fate befalls the destroyed passenger cars. The military builds a temporary road up the hillside to the wreckage, enabling cranes and excavators to access the site. Any construction equipment that can’t make it up the dirt road is brought in by train. No further victims are found during recovery of the train cars, calming fears of those involved in the recovery.

A crane recovers the Modularwagen (left) and workers installing the temporary bridge 2 days after the accident (right).

A few days after the accident a temporary bridge is installed at the site, enabling the eventual reopening of the line almost 3 weeks after the accident. The temporary bridge is later replaced by a new, sturdier concrete construction which remains in use to this day. Nothing in the area points to the accident today. There is no human fault to this accident, neither a technical one. There was no way to tell that the buildup of debris against the small remote bridge had become critical. Rail lines in the mountains are engineered with the risk of avalanches and mudslides in mind, in the case of the Masonbach no one had expected the small creek to pose a threat to the rail line. Nowadays several bridges on the Arlberg Railway carry clearance-sensors underneath them, if mounting debris or snow touches a pressure-sensitive rod an alarm is triggered that leads to the line being shut down.

A clearance-sensor on a different bridge along the Arlberg Railway.

Today the Arlberg Railway is still a highly important rail corridor, used by up to 120 trains per day. Since the 1995 accident several sections were modified and modernized, including expansion of double-tracked sectors or rerouting (often with tunnels) for safer and faster operation. This work is constantly ongoing, and includes the upgrade of the section at Braz to two tracks by 2026.

Several ÖBB series 1044 were equipped with systems for multi-traction or cab-car operation, turning them into the series 1144 and prolonging their lifespan for a few years as the new Siemens “Taurus” locomotives took over the prestigious express-services and became the new flagship locomotive. The type was intended for retirement in 2018, with the last surviving locomotives going to Turkey, but as those plans fell through a handful of 1144s was reactivated and can be found all over Austria, mostly in regional services or helping pull trains up the steep inclines of the Arlberg Railway, often working with their successor.

The type 21–73 passenger cars were eventually turned into regional passenger cars under the “CityShuttle”-brand, aided by the introduction of cab-cars based on the baggage cars (which were no longer needed). Their retirement started in 2016 as more and more regional services are covered by multiple units, with the last units scheduled to end service in 2025. The Modularwagen are also still widely in service and can be found all over Austria, now carrying a gray livery (except for a few that were configured as sleeper cars, carrying the dark blue “Nightjet”-branding).

A pair of surviving 1144-locomotives pull a freight train in April 2022.

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