Gsteigwiler is a municipality of 404 people (as of 2019) in central Switzerland, located in the Canton Bern 4km/2.5mi south of Interlaken and 38km/23.5mi north of Brig (both measurements in linear distance.
Gsteigwiler has no connection to the Swiss railway network, relying on nearby Interlaken for railway services, but is passed on its western edge by the rail line from Interlaken to Zweilütschinen owned by the Berner Oberland-Bahnen (“Bernese Highlands Railway”), often referred to as the BOB. Starting operations in 1890 the BOB provides passenger services in the Bernese Highlands by means of an electrified narrow-gauge rail network stretching 23.69km/14.72mi. The track is built in the common “Meterspur” with a track width of 1000mm rather than the standard gauge of 1435mm.
To handle the elevation-increase of approximately 500m/1640ft some sections of the network hold inclines of as much as 12%/120‰, these sections are fitted with a type Riggenbach rack and pinion system to keep trains from stalling as they go uphill. The system works by a cogwheel under the locomotive “grabbing” into rack rail in the middle of the track, pulling the train uphill or slowing it on the way down.
Like other Swiss narrow gauge railways the BOB isn’t just a tourist attraction but a serious component of the Swiss railway infrastructure that carries over 3 million people per year.
The trains involved
Running northbound from Zweilütschinen to Interlaken was BOB train 132 consisting of the leading ABeh 4/4 II number 313 (christened “Lauterbrunnen”), six four-axle passenger cars, a supporting locomotive (ABeh 4/4 I number 307*) and another six four-axle passenger cars. The ABeh 4/4 II is a 17.06m/56 feet long four-axle electric narrow gauge rail car introduced in 1986 specifically for the BOB. Weighting 44.7 metric tons each unit can carry 36 people in a two-class configuration at up to 70kph/43.5mph in normal use and at 35kph/22mph in cogwheel-mode. Usual for rail cars in Switzerland the ABeh 4/4 II is engineered to be used as a locomotive, usually both carrying passengers and pulling a train at the same time.
*Note that the report lists unit “367” as being in the middle, which doesn’t exist. Presumably a typo occurred.
Travelling in the opposite direction was train 1147, consisting of ABeh 4/4 I number 305 (christened Gündlischwand) with 4 four-axle passenger cars as an additional service during peak demand. The ABeh 4/4 I is a 17.02m/55.5ft long four-axle electric narrow gauge rail car introduced into service with the BOB in 1965, allowing the railway to retire conventional locomotives (which were from 1914) from service. The first generation ABeh 4/4 weights 44 metric tons and can carry 44 passengers at speeds of up to 70kph/43.5mph in normal use and at 30kph/19mph in cogwheel-mode.
On the 7th of August 2003 at approximately 9:45am BOB train 132 is travelling northbound through the Canton Bern, having just departed Zweilütschinen a few minutes ago. The train runs on a double-track section along the river Lütschine (note: “sch” is pronounced “sh”) at approximately 65kph/40mph. The train is supposed to stop outside the town of Gsteigwiler, at the end of the double-track section, to let the oncoming relief train 1147 pass. The BOB does have modern signals, but at this point the ZSI-127 system, which would keep trains from running a red signal, is only in the process of being installed. Presumably due to forgetting about the unusual stop the driver of unit 313 speeds right past the red pre-signal, only realizing his error when the points uniting the two tracks are set up wrong and get forced open by his train. It’s at that moment, at 9:48am, when he realizes that he went past a red signal and triggers an emergency stop. At the same time train 1147 is using the single track section north of Gsteigwiler at 58kph, slowly heading uphill on its southbound journey. The driver runs under a green signal, he has no reason to believe that anything is wrong.
Having triggered an emergency stop immediately after his train forced the points open the heavy passenger train starts to loose speed, eventually coming to a stop 500m/1640ft into the single track section. The driver has already radioed dispatch, telling them to warn any oncoming trains. The dispatcher manages to grab the radio and attempts to contact train 1147, but he gets no reply. The driver of train 1147 didn’t respond as he had already spotted the stationary train in front of him. He too initiates an emergency stop, but it’s too late to avoid a collision. At 10am a loud bang echoes through the valley as the southbound train strikes its stationary counterpart at 38kph/23.5mph, pushing the heavy train back by 20 feet. The southbound locomotive buckles in the middle as its own train runs into it, the leading locomotive and leading two cars of train 313 suffer severe damage and derail. 12 passengers are severely injured, 61 passengers and the two drivers suffer minor injuries.
Residents from nearby Gsteigwiler are the first to arrive at the site, soon followed by firefighters, doctors and police officers from the surrounding towns and cities. REGA, a private non-profit air rescue service is also alerted soon after the accident, sending 4 helicopters to the site. With the first professional responders arriving the locals let them take care of the rescue operation, focusing on tending to lightly injured or uninjured passengers and keeping them from wandering off in shock. A paramedic on site later compliments the discipline of the passengers, saying they had reacted ideally and helped one another after the collision without creating a panic. One severely passenger is flown to a hospital at Interlaken where he dies despite the responders’ best efforts, becoming the collision’s sole victim.
With investigators giving the okay an employee of the BOB eventually disconnects the helping ABeh 4/4 I number 307 and the undamaged rear six passenger cars from the northbound train and uses them to take a number of survivors who don’t require further medical attention back to Zweilütschinen, while others leave by bus. It doesn’t take long for the cause of the accident to be determined, with the northbound train’s driver admitting that he ran a red signal by accident. However, it was decided that he didn’t act criminally negligent, and as such he never faced legal consequences for the accident. The BOB’s insurance footed the bill for 4 million CHF/3.65 million Euros/4.41 million USD (excluding medical expenses) in damage to the BOB and a further 25 thousand CHF/22800 Euros/27550 USD for damage to passenger property and other costs (like plane tickets, taxis, etc).
Despite severe damage to the locomotives the BOB couldn’t go without them, instead repairing both of the severely damaged units and returning them to service. They remained in full service for several more years until new multiple units were acquired in the late 2010s. The Mark 1 units were, except for 2 preserved units, all retired and scrapped between 2017 and 2018, while the three Mark 2 units were pulled from regular service but remain in working condition to help out if one of the new trains breaks down. The upgrade to the signaling system was finished a few months after the accident, and a year after the accident the new ZSI-127 system was online, making a repeat of the events impossible.