Collapsed like a House of Cards: The 2012 Hosena Train Collision

Background

Hosena is a small town (Population in 2019: 1673 people) in the far east of Germany in the federal state of Brandenburg. Officially a suburb of Senftenberg since 2002 the town is located right on the border with the federal state of Saxony, 39km/24mi southwest of Cottbus and 50km/31mi north of Dresden. The Polish border near the town of Bad Muskau is only 50km/31mi away also (all distances measured in linear distance).

The town’s train station lies on the Węgliniec–Roßlau railway, a 233km/145mi double-tracked electrified main line opened in 1875. Connecting Germany with Poland the railway sees various regional passenger services as well as regional and long distance freight train. On the northern side of Hosena Station a siding splits off for eastbound trains, connecting the nearby quarry to the German railway network. In addition the station serves as the rail-connection for a steel mill and a quartz plant, giving it an oddly large size for such a small town. Another quarry is located at Schwarzkollm, 9.5km/5.9mi linear distance to the east.

The site of the accident seen from above, the siding branches off to the top, the steel mill is on the bottom.

The trains involved

While the infrastructure is owned by the DB (German national railway) and the DB also oversees operation a lot of the freight service is provided by independent companies, among them the ITL Eisenbahngesellschaft (“ITL Railway Company”), a Dresden-based company belonging to the German “Captrain”-group which, in turn, is entirely owned by the SNCF (French national railway). Their locomotives sport a bright white paint scheme with a green ITL-Logo, making them easy to distinguish from the DB’s bright red locomotives. DGS 92505 was an empty freight train consisting of 55 ballast cars (the green cars in the photos of the aftermath) travelling eastbound from Schwarzbach to Hosena to pick up new Cargo at the quarry north of the station. For this the train crossed over into the northern tracks usually used for westbound trains) and turned into the siding. Pulling the train was ITL 285 109, a Traxx F140 DE made by Bombardier as a dedicated diesel-locomotive for freight trains. Built in 2008 the four-axle locomotive weights 86 metric tons at 18.9m/62ft long and can reach 160kph/99mph thanks to an output of 2200kw/2950hp.

ITL 285 109, the locomotive pulling DSG 92505, photographed in 2020.

Coming the other way was DGS 49325, a 39-car freight train carrying 3000 metric tons of gravel from Schwarzkollm’s quarry to Frankfurt (Oder). Pulling the train was ITL 186 140. Built in 2008 the 186 is also a member of Bombardier’s “Traxx”-family, in this case a second generation four-axle electric locomotive made for international services. Using the same body and frame as it’s diesel-powered sibling the series 186 weights 85 metric tons at 18.9m/62ft long and can also reach 160kph/99mph thanks to an output of 5600kw/7509hp.

ITL 186 140, the westbound locomotive, photographed 9 months before the accident.

The accident

On the 26th of July 2012 at approximately 6:50pm the 62 years old driver is coupling 186 140 to the forward of the waiting 39 freight cars he is to take from the Schwarzkollm Quarry to Frankfurt (Oder). As he had arrived at the quarry the ITL’s employee meant to assist with the assembly of trains has gone home for the day and the driver has to do the whole procedure himself. Certainly not something he was excited about, but he had been trained for it so it’s no problem. After hooking the pneumatic system of the freight cars up to the locomotive the driver walked down the length of the 550m/1800ft train inspecting the cars for damage and defects before proceeding to test the brake-system. The test includes charging the pneumatic system controlling the brakes with 5bar/72.5psi of pressure from the locomotive and then closing the main valve to see if the pressure is held or if there is a leak somewhere along the row of cars. The test usually involves walking the length of the train several times to check the correct application and release of the brakes. Running already behind schedule that day the driver rushed the procedure, leading to the main valve between the locomotive and the first car being closed when the driver returned to his cab and reported to dispatch that he was ready to depart at 7:12pm. He’d had approximately 20 minutes for the brake-test procedure, very little if not impossibly little time. He was told that he would have to wait for other traffic to pass before he could depart. At 8:07pm DGS 49325 departed the quarry, headed westbound. The route takes the train slightly downhill towards Hosena, nothing the brake-system on the train can’t usually easily compensate for. The train is scheduled to stop outside the eastern end of Hosena station to wait for an oncoming train to pass through the station into a siding, which involves crossing through the northern (westbound) tracks.

DGS 49325’s path from Schwarzkollm (on the right) to Hosena station 9.5km/5.9mi down the tracks.

Approaching the red pre-signal for Hosena station at the driver applied the brakes, finding no notable response from the train. At the same time ITL 285 109 was approaching Hosena station from the west, pulling a long row of empty ballast cars to be filled at the quarry to the north of the station. Passing the main signal at 54kph/33.5mph causes the safety-system to initiate an emergency stop. A hopeless effort, with the closed main valve the heavy train is effortlessly pushing the locomotive along, despite all four axles standing still from locked brakes at that point. The out of control train speeds through two open level crossings, somehow avoiding a collision with cars, and picks up more speed before it reaches Hosena station.

The driver of the eastbound DGS 92505 later recalled rolling into the siding at approximately 22kph/13.5mph when he suddenly heard screaming over the radio, with (presumably) the 54 years old local signal box worker at the siding desperately yelling at the runaway train’s driver to stop the train. He looked out east and could see the headlights of the locomotive coming towards his train, with smoke emitting from the sides of the locomotives (later traced to excessive heat from the standing and sliding wheels). He knows that a collision is unavoidable, there is no way the heavy train will stop in time and he can’t move his out of the way in time. Travelling over several sets of points upon entering Hosena station slows the train back down to 54kph/33.5mph, but not any more. At 8:20pm 186 140 strikes a ballast car in the rear section of DGS 92505 at a sharp angle, effectively at full speed. The violent impact sends the locomotive flying off the track to the left as the driver’s cab caves in, rotating 180° it comes to a rest torn of it’s train and lying on it’s side next to most of the wreckage. 3 ballast cars are thrown into the base of the signal box, obliterating 3 walls and causing the building to collapse in on itself. Over 20 cars derail, 34 are damaged or destroyed. In some places the forces of the collision stack the freight cars several layers high.

Aftermath

Contrary to claims that he managed to jump off the train and miss all the overhead wire supports the driver is trapped in the destroyed locomotive until workers from the neighboring steel mill head to the locomotive, being the first people on site. With some help from two people who had been standing at the station they gain access to the locomotive and rescue the driver. Comparing the locomotive to what it looked like minutes earlier it is a miracle that he survived at all. A third of the body has caved in during the impact, all 4 axles have been torn off the frame.

The forward end of ITL 186 140 sitting in the wreckage, not even one headlight-pair remained undamaged.

The site looks like something one would expect from a child’s model railway, where someone might set the paths for two trains wrong. But that alone can’t cause a collision like this in real life. Deformed and torn freight cars are strewn all over the site, spilled cargo has created mountains. The track has been bent into surreal shapes as if it were rubber and pieces of metal have been torn off the cars and thrown for several meters. Initially, no one even notices that an entire building is missing from the site.

The piled up wreckage of the two trains seen from the west (left) and east (right).

The signal box has been nearly leveled during the collapse, with several freight cars pilling up around and on top of the debris responders might not have immediately realized what they were looking at.

The debris that used to be the two stories high signal box, you can see part of it’s interior on the right.

Within minutes professional responders arrive on site, supported by the quarry’s and steel mill’s safety crews. The fire department grounds the torn overhead wires as the driver of DGS 49325 is airlifted to a hospital. The other train’s driver survives with minor injuries from his train being jolted back on impact, he’s taken to the hospital but soon released. The THW (German federal agency for technical relief) stabilizes the wreckage, as investigators try to make sense of the sprawling wreckage man trailers, dogs trained to find people, are released upon the pile of debris that used to be the signal box, meant to find the location of the missing employee. They are successful, but when the responders manage to dig their way down to him through the debris 17 hours after the accident they can only recover his dead body. In an endlessly tragic and unfair twist of fate the only fatality to be claimed wasn’t on either train or to blame for the events.

A dog searching the debris of the signal box for a trace of the missing employee.

An initial theory, based off the eastbound train driver’s sighting of smoke on the runaway train, claims that a fire could have broken out aboard the locomotive, disabling the brakes and/or incapacitating the driver. But it soon finds itself disproved as there is not only no sign of a fire to be found, but a torn-off axle also shows flat spots, indicating that the brakes on the locomotive were fully applied for a considerable distance. As they make their way through the wreckage investigators find all the locomotive’s wheels, and all of them show matching flat spots. The freight cars, meanwhile, show no sign of applied brakes.

A photo from the report, marking the flat spot on a torn out axle.

It’s clear that the brake-less train is the cause for the accident, a situation made worse by the slightly downhill path of the heavy train. Investigators find the valve on the back of the locomotive to be closed, and while it’s impossible to prove if this happened during the accident or had been closed since departure it supports the theory of a falsely/negligently performed brake test.

The closed main valve on the back of ITL 186 140 (note that the photo was rotated 90° for the report as the locomotive was on it’s side).

As the train cars start being removed from the site investigators manage to recover the data-logger from the locomotive, it’s data all but confirms the theory of a rushed brake-test, further supported by the records from Schwarzkollm giving an impossible time-frame for a proper brake test. The public prosecutor’s office from Cottbus files charges against the driver for negligent manslaughter and dangerous interference with rail traffic. He needlessly rushed vital safety-procedures, leading to the collision being inevitable by the time he departed Schwarzkollm. The recovery and repairs at the site take over a month, requiring the cancellation of countless trains and needing the local companies to receive and send their materials by trucks instead of trains. ITL 186 140 is one of the last pieces of the wreckage to be removed, having been partially disassembled to fit on a flatbed truck it’s lifted out of the wreckage and taken away in late August 2012. After the end of the legal proceedings the locomotive is deemed beyond saving and disposed of. A temporary signal box system is set up in containers, by September 2014 the DB started operation of a whole new electronic system, no longer requiring a building to be near the siding to operate signals and points. The system alone cost 30 million Euros/36.8 million USD. The official report lists total damage, excluding the new signal box system and medical bills, at 7.2 million Euros/8.8 million USD.

ITL 186 140, lacking the pantographs on the roof due to width-limits, being removed from the site.

In July 2014 the driver of the runaway train is sentenced to nine months in jail, a sentence turned into full probation, and has to pay an undisclosed fine. ITL improves it’s training for drivers, further emphasizing the importance of performing certain procedures calm and focused. While no doubt a tragedy the events could have gone much worse, no-one wants to imagine what would’ve happened had the runaway train struck cars at either of the two open level crossings it passed or if it had struck a passenger train in the station. It’s also lucky that the eastbound train had turned into the siding moments before the collision, a head-on crash had most likely resolved in one or both drivers dying. The new building holding the controls for the signal box system is dedicated to the deceased employee, a bronze plaque on the wall informs of him and the accident. The site of the old building remained empty except for a wooden cross inscribed with “W3” (the number of the destroyed signal box).

A news video showing the aftermath of the collision.

History repeats itself

In November 2013, while the investigation into the 2012 train collision is still ongoing, two freight trains are involved in a rear-end collision just a few meters from the site of the 2012 collision. The driver of the locomotive, this time from the DB rather than an independent company, suffers minor injures after being trapped in the wreckage of his locomotive as his leading car mounts and crushes most of the locomotive’s body under itself. This time the fault is with the signal box crew, allowing the DB’s train to proceed into an occupied track after not properly checking if the previous train had vacated it. An emergency stop came too late to stop the heavy train in time. The crew’s job had become more difficult after the accident in 2012 as a floodlight attached to the destroyed signal box building was no longer there.

The destroyed locomotive from the 2013 collision, you can see a freight car’s axle sit on top of it on the right.

Trivia

By pure coincidence Tillig, a German model railway manufacturer, debuted an H0-scale (1:87) model of an ITL 186 about a year before the collision. The locomotive they chose to replicate: 186 140, the locomotive destroyed in the collision. So, in a way the locomotive lives on in several enthusiasts’ collections.

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Max S

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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