By want of a Year: The 2003 Gsteigwiler Train Collision

Background

The location of Gsteigwiler in Europe.

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.

The type of rack rail used on the BOB’s steepest sections.

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 site of the accident seen from above.

The trains involved

Unit 313 pulling a train identical to the one involved in the accident, photographed in 2017.

*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.

ABeh 4/4 I number 305, the unit pulling the southbound train, photographed in 1988 wearing the old beige-brown livery similar to the one used at the time of the accident.

The accident

A photo from the report showing the double-track section. The northbound train came from the left hand track while the points were set up to direct a train into the right hand track.

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.

Aftermath

B 273, the northbound train’s leading car seen from the inside (left) and outside (right).

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).

ABeh 4/4 I number 305 in the aftermath of the accident (left) and after repairs and a repaint in 2017 (right).

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.

One of the new ABDeh 8/8 three-part multiple units photographed in May 2020. These trains have effectively taken over all services on the BOB’s network.

_______________________________________________________________

Join the discussion about this post on Reddit!

The index of all my posts on Reddit.

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.