Osterath (pronounced as “Osterat”, without the h) is the westernmost district of the city of Meerbusch in western Germany, loosing its status as an independent town in 1970. It’s situated in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in the far west of Germany, 42km/26mi north-west of Cologne, the federal state’s largest city, and 12km/7.5mi west-northwest of Düsseldorf. The border to the Netherlands is located just 30km/19mi to the west (all measurements in linear distance). Osterath has 13022 residents as of December 2016 and is separated from the rest of Meerbusch by the A57 Autobahn running north to south just east of Osterath.
Meerbusch-Osterath has a station on the Lower Left Rhine Railway, a 120km/75mi mostly double-track main line which connects Cologne Main Station with Kleve on the Dutch border (which it used to cross until 1999). Opening in 1866 the line was later electrified on its southern 55km/34mi and is used for both freight services and regional passenger trains at up to 160kph/99mph. Meerbusch-Osterath station is located on the electrified double-track section and is served by two regional express services, RE 7 and RE 10 at a half-hour (weekdays) or hourly (weekends) schedule.
The trains involved
On the evening of the accident a freight train by the rail service provider “Rheincargo” was running northbound towards Krefeld, listed in the schedules as train number 95307. This train was not physically involved in the accident but its existence, especially its number, were a contributing factor.
Following in the same direction was freight train GM 48714, heading for Rotterdam (Netherlands) with a number of empty type Falrrs 152 ballast cars used to transport ore. These six-axle cars are always coupled in pairs of two, for a combined length of 30.1m/99ft at a weight of 70.5 metric tons per empty pair.
Lastly, travelling behind the ballast car train was RE 7 (named the “Rhein Münsterland Express”), a regional express service from from Rheine south to Münster and then back up north to Krefeld, with Meerbusch-Osterath being its third-last stop. Since 2015 the service is provided by the National Express Holding under their National Express Rail brand, using a white and blue paint scheme to separate them from the bright red DB (German national Railway) trains. The company uses a double-traction of Bombardier’s Mark 2 “Talent”-trains, affectionately nicknamed “Hamstercheeks” by fans due to their unique nose design looking like a hamster with filled cheek pouches. Introduced in 2008 the Talent 2 is a modular electric multiple unit consisting of two to six cars. National Express Rail uses five-car units, each of which measures 88.4m/290ft in length and can reach 160kph/99mph despite a weight of 173 metric tons. The exact configuration of the trains involved isn’t known, but the five-car trains can carry 255–280 passengers in a two-class configuration. Bicycle stands, more or less space for strollers/luggage/wheelchairs or onboard snack-machines can alter the amount of seats on a train. The unique front design comes from the trains featuring state of the art crash protection, with crumple zones, a stiffer survival cell for the driver and anti-climb elements being meant to keep any obstacle the train might run into from moving above the floor and into the interior of the leading car. National Express Rail owned 35 Talent 2, mostly five- and three-car units.
The traffic control system in the area functions by the traffic supervisor putting in the train-numbers and letting the system automatically set tracks and points to ensure safe operation, this is meant to eliminate the risk from forgotten or wrongly set points and signals.
On the 5th of December 2017 at 7:09pm the traffic supervisor, working from Neuss-Weißenberg (7km/4mi linear distance south of the site of the accident), is meant to enter the Rheincargo freight train into the traffic control system. By accident, she dials in 66365 instead of 95307. Because of this error, the system now tracks the train under the false number when in fact, there is no train number 66365. But since the tracking is still working, this alone is not the cause for the tragic events of the night. 3 Minutes later the system registers a train of that number elsewhere and, attempting to correct the error, moves the marker from track-section 700 all the way to section 201. Now, nothing indicates the position of the freight train still travelling in sector 700 as the system assumes it was an erroneous entry.
Noticing the inexplicable disappearance of the train from the screens the supervisor again enters 66365 for section 700 at 7:15pm. The system, unable to handle two trains on the same number in two different places, displays an error code for what in reality still is the Rheincargo-train. The supervisor then proceeds to delete the error-code from section 700 and dials in 4817, the number for the empty ore train. This does two things automatically: The system deletes the marker from section 200, despite the section being occupied by that train, and gives the number to what really is the Rheincargo-train. The system still shows section 200 as occupied despite no tracking-marker for a train being visible, since the system still knows there is a train, it just doesn’t know which one as it was told it isn’t the one that was entered (and then deleted).
Suspecting a technical error the supervisor contacts the dispatcher at Meerbusch-Osterath station, asking her to check if the train has passed through. However, her request is inaccurate, since she fails to give the exact number of the train she refers to. Referring loosely to “the freight train” the dispatcher in Meerbusch-Osterath falsely reports the track as being clear, referring to the Rheincargo-train having passed through. Apparently both of them have forgotten about the ore train still travelling from Neuss-Weißenberg towards Osterath. At 7:22pm the ore train stops at the end of sector 201 just south of Osterath, obeying a red signal.
Meanwhile, RE 7 (numbered 32547 in the system) is travelling northbound on the same track, slowly closing in on the stopped freight train. Led by train number 861 the two five-car units carry 155 passengers and 2 crew members, meaning the train is not nearly at full capacity, which would be over 500 people. Two minutes after the freight train comes to a stop RE 7 enters section 200, seeing a red signal as the system still rightfully registers a train in the next section.
Assuming this to be an error and the section to be safe to proceed into the supervisor radios the driver of RE 7, permitting him to proceed into section 201 instead of stopping. Usually running a red signal would automatically trigger an emergency stop, but the supervisor uses a replacement signal (code Zs1, meant to maintain operation during technical errors) to override this function so that RE 7 can keep moving. Normally the supervisor would have to inform the driver that an error in the system has occurred and he is to proceed “on sight”, meaning to drive slow enough to still stop when an obstacle comes into sight, or at no more than 40kph/25mph. In the conditions, between fields at night, he’d have had to drive much slower. For unknown reasons, the train driver does not receive that information from the supervisor. The driver sees the white replacement signal light up and, obeying the instruction, proceeds past the signal and accelerates his train to the scheduled speed of 120kph/75mph.
At this point the rear car of the ore train, which has just started moving again, comes into sight. The driver immediately triggers an emergency stop before leaving the drivers cabin to the rear, warning passengers in the leading car of the imminent impact. At 7:27pm the RE7 strikes the rear of the nearly stationary freight train at 85kph/53mph.
The impact inflicts severe damage on the rear two cars of the freight train, ripping them off the freight train and throwing them into the adjacent field. This breaks the freight train’s pneumatic system, automatically applying the brakes. With the rear two cars gone and the brakes applied the passenger train ends up stopped by the third-last car of the train, running into it without budging the freight train. The crash-structures in the nose of the passenger train take the brunt of the impact’s forces, but transmitted forces are still high enough to buckle the leading car in the middle. The leading car derails and goes a short distance off the rails, pulling the following car along before coming to a stop largely aligned with the track. The remaining cars run into one another, suffering relatively minor damage as energy absorbing structures at the end of each car cushion the impacts and keep the cars from telescoping (climbing onto/through the car in front). Despite severe damage the crash engineering of the Talent 2 works, the driver’s cab remains intact as the crumple zones are destroyed. One person suffers life-threatening injuries, eight suffer severe and 41 minor injuries. Everyone aboard the trains survives.
The impact is so loud that residents living over 500m/1640ft away from the site hear it, people all over town call the emergency services reporting suspected car crashes or explosions. A few minutes after the accident passengers on the train start calling the emergency services also, finally providing clarity to what happened and where. With the information “passenger train collision” a mass casualty event is declared (in this case referred to as a mass injury event), setting pre-planned and trained procedures in motion to handle a large number of patients at once. However, the first responders to reach the site find themselves unable to do much. The collision has destroyed the overhead catenary, the hanging wires could cause fatal electric shocks if someone even only gets too close to them. Protocol says that no one can approach or leave the stricken train until the DB confirms that the damaged wires are grounded and safe. It takes 105 minutes for the DB’s emergency crew to arrive and ground the wires, one can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for responders to stand around and wait or how difficult it must have been for the train staff to keep passengers calm and inside the train. In the meantime relatives and journalists are directed to a nearby fuel station in an effort to keep them from wandering onto the site (or get lost in the dark).
When responders finally get to tend to the passengers the damage to the lead car makes the rescue very difficult as the forward doors are inoperable, by the time the train is empty and every survivor registered and treated or taken to a hospital its nearly midnight. It is pointed out that the crash protection systems on the train did all they could, but the speed of the train on impact into an essentially immovable obstacle just overwhelmed the engineered structures, creating the buckle further back behind the reinforced driver’s cab.
In the meantime it took until the 16th of December for the wreckage to be cleared and the damaged infrastructure to be repaired, a task for which the DB had to bring in their largest railroad crane. The three damaged freight cars were lifted into the field next to the track and cut up for scrap right there. The rear Talent 2, numbered 374, was returned to service while 861 was taken away on flatbed trucks to be closely examined. By the end of the investigation unit 861 was written off, stripped for parts and scrapped.
Investigators soon found that neither train showed any sign of a defect, and neither did the signaling system. This led them to turn their attention to the dispatcher and traffic supervisor on duty at the time of the accident. They both saw themselves charged with several cases of negligent cause of bodily harm and negligent interference with rail traffic, in March 2019 both separately avoided a trial by agreeing to pay an undisclosed fine. According to colleagues both the supervisor and dispatcher were “lateral entry employees” who had started the job a short time before the accident after a six months training while the usual training for the job takes three years. The practice is popular and widespread as it helps with a chronic personnel shortage, but has been criticized, saying the distilled training is sufficient for routine work but doesn’t prepare employees enough for complex or emergency situations.