Destructive Drive-In: The 2019 Achenlohe (Austria) Level Crossing Collision
Achenlohe is a town of 97 people in northern Austria, located in the municipality of Munderfing 28km/17.5mi north-northeast of Salzburg and 120km/75mi east of Munich (Germany) on the other side of the German border 30km/18.5mi to the east of Achenlohe (all measurements in linear distance).
Achenlohe lies on the Mattig Valley Railway (Mattigtalbahn), a non-electrified single track branch line connecting Steindorf and Braunau on 37km/23mi. Opening in 1873 the line has been in operation since then with only a minor interruption in the late stages of World War 2. Nowadays it’s used for regional passenger services provided by both the DB (German national railway) and the ÖBB (Austrian national railway) and regional as well as international freight trains, the latter choosing the Mattig Valley Railway over the nearby Innkreisbahn (named after the local river) due to the former allowing longer trains. The maximum speed trains can travel at on the line is just 80kph/50mph, making it relatively unattractive for any national or international express trains. Furthermore, the single-track character limits capacity as trains have to wait for one another in a handful of sidings.
The vehicles involved
Travelling southbound on the day of the accident was a freight train provided by the ÖBB, consisting of fourteen empty four-axle tank cars in service with the Chicago-based leasing company GATX. Pulling the train was ÖBB 2016 079, a four-axle diesel locomotive. The series 2016 “Hercules” is part of the Siemens “Euro-runner”-family, specifically the Siemens ER20. The ÖBB was the first customer for the locomotive, taking delivery of the first units in 2002. Each “Hercules” measures 19.28m/63 feet in length at a weight of 80 metric tons and can reach up to 140kph/87mph. They’re used for both passenger and freight services. All the ÖBB’s 100 units are equipped for both passenger and freight trains (there is a special freight-version of the ER20 in service with other providers), including the ability to be remotely controlled from a cab car. They’re powered by a 76.2l V16 diesel engine producing 1600kW/2175PS for a generator, supplying one motor on each axle with power.
Leaving Achenlohe westbound towards Oberweißau was a four-axle Volvo FH dump truck pulling a four-axle flatbed trailer with a 23 metric ton Volvo excavator on it. At the time of the accident the truck’s bed was empty except for the excavator’s shovel being stored in it. The truck alone weights 14.9 metric tons, the weight of the trailer or the shovel is unknown.
On the 4th of March 2019 at around 4:20pm the elderly couple living in the former station building at Achenlohe are sitting in their living room, drinking some coffee. They’re not bothered by the approaching freight train, having lived in the house for 62 years they’re very much used to the noise of trains rattling past. The 83 years old husband of the couple used to work for the railway, even, until his retirement.
At the same time a 27 years old truck driver is leaving Achenlohe westbound, driving an empty dump truck and towing a midsize excavator on a long trailer. His route out of the town requires him to cross a barrier-less level crossing right next to the former station building. It’s unknown if he doesn’t see the freight train to his right or if he chooses to try and make it across the tracks ahead of the train. The driver of the approaching freight train, travelling at 80kph/50mph, sees the truck enter the level crossing moments before his train reaches it and initiates an emergency stop. The train dumps air pressure and the brakes apply, but before it can even slow down the locomotive slams into the broadside of the truck at full speed, ripping it off its trailer. Having been hit off-center to the rear the truck spins around and hits the station building, breaking through the northern wall at the corner and only coming to a stop halfway down the house’s length, jammed between the now-stopped train and the house’s living room. A whole corner of the house is missing and part of the roof has collapsed onto the truck.The driver of the truck is pinned in his cab and severely injured, his 28 years old counterpart on the train survives the collision with minor injuries. The occupants of the house, being missed by the truck by a few feet, survive physically unharmed but need to be treated for shock.
Achenlohe’s volunteer fire department is based just 175m/574ft (linear distance) from the site of the accident, so they’re on scene almost immediately, soon being joined by more responders from the police and surrounding fire departments. The occupants of the house are evaluated and taken away from the site as the house is deemed unsafe without a quarter of its exterior walls, a little later the truck driver is rescued from his severely damaged vehicle and flown to a hospital in Salzburg. The locomotive and ten of the (luckily empty) tank cars are damaged in the collision, but none of the tanks suffer a leak. However, a large amount of diesel fuel from the truck’s ruptured fuel tank seeps into the soil before it can be contained.
It’s far from the first time a road vehicle has been struck by a train on the line, the numerous barrier-less level crossings make these accidents a nearly regular occurrence in the area. But with the relatively low speed and good visibility the ÖBB had been hesitant to invest in expensive upgrades. Also, usually the cars or trucks involved ended up in a field and not in some poor resident’s living room. As the truck is recovered from the site investigators still go over the train, but find that it had worked flawlessly up to the impact. There was really nothing the train driver could’ve done differently. After the wreckage is cleaned up engineers examine the house, in the end they have no choice but to condemn it. The couple won’t return to it, instead moving into a flat provided by the municipality, with the house eventually being torn down.
By the time the truck driver is released from the hospital he is little help to the investigation, he doesn’t remember the accident and can’t explain why he didn’t yield for the approaching freight train. The accident does fuel ongoing discussions over lacking safety along various railway lines in Austria, at the time of the accident the Mattig Valley Railway has 48 level crossings without barriers or even lights. The ÖBB explained on inquiry that upgrading a level crossing can cost over 500 thousand Euros (567.6 thousand USD) all in all, and turning them into under- or overpasses can be similarly expensive plus involving lengthy procedures to get permissions from the local governments, the national government and the owners of the adjacent land. Since 2014 the ÖBB has been running a refurbishment-program for the line, investing millions in new tracks, renovating station buildings and modernizing the signaling-system. The upgrading or replacement of level crossings is not explicitly part of the program. The severity of this accident, endangering random residents and taking away a couple’s home of over 60 years might be seen as a strong push towards adding them.
Apart from the old station building being gone nothing at the site points to the accident today, with the debate over upgrading the level crossings on the line still ongoing as of January 2022. There are also voices demanding an electrification of the line as part of the S-Bahn Salzburg (so far only a small section of the line has been electrified as of January 2021). The main argument is that this would increase attractiveness over cars and also reduce emissions by retiring diesel traction from the line. The electrification of the section near Salzburg also saw the upgrade of three level crossings and whole removal of two, linking back to the discussion about lacking safety.
The truck was a full loss and had to be scrapped after the investigation concluded, meanwhile the locomotive was repaired and returned to service in 2021. The “Hercules” is still a much needed part of the ÖBB’s rolling stock, despite more and more multiple units taking over passenger services. In 2018 the ÖBB took delivery of the first Siemens Vectron locomotive (the ER20’s successor), but while a diesel Vectron exists the ÖBB so far only bought the electric version, fielding them as the series 1293. Should the Mattig Valley Railway be fully electrified it’s likely that the Hercules’ era on it is at an end, although it can’t be said which locomotive will replace it.