Drunk Driving: The 1911 Müllheim Train Derailment

Please note: As this happened over 100 years and two wars ago information and images are scarce. I did my best to uphold the usual standard.

Müllheim is a city of 19077 people (as of 2019) in the extreme southwest corner of Germany, located in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg 27km/17mi south-southwest of Freiburg and just 4km/2.5mi east of the French border at Neuenburg (German side) and Chalampé (French side).

The location of Müllheim in Europe.

At the town’s station the Müllheim-Mullhouse railway branches off the Mannheim-Basel main line, heading towards France rather than down towards Switzerland. The Mannheim-Basel main line, also called the Rheintalbahn (“Rhine River Valley Railway”) is a 270.7km/168.2mi double-tracked main line opened in its current expansion in 1855. The Mannheim-Basel Railway was an important European railway corridor even back then, rapidly speeding up services for both passengers and freight between (what would become) Germany and Switzerland.

The site of the accident seen from above today. Note the underpass just above the station’s marker.

In July 1911 the schedule listed “D9” as an express service from Mailand/Milano in Italy to Berlin, with “through coaches” (a small group of passenger cars being split off at some point) to Bremen and Hamburg in the north of Germany. D-Trains were express trains introduced in 1892, offering high comfort and the ability to move between cars via gaiter-enclosed corridors (“D” means “Durchgang”, German for “Passage(way)”). At the time most railway cars had doors only on the sides of the train car or maybe unprotected (dangerous) platforms at the ends for staff to move across. The exact configuration of the train is unknown (presumably lost to time), but it consisted of at least 7 express cars, a freight car for luggage and mail along with six passenger cars. The type of express passenger cars used at the time in the area had been introduced in the late 1890s and was a four-axle design measuring 18.8m/62ft in length. The trains had three classes, with each car offering 12–32 seats for first and second class (some cars had both first and second class seating) while third class cars offered 64 seats.

An H0-scale replica of an express train from the era and area, giving an idea of what the train looked like. Top to bottom is first class, second class, third class and the baggage car.

There is no record available of the type of locomotive pulling the train, looking at historic fleet lists the most likely choice was the Series C of the Royal Württemberg State Railways, one of the railways operating in what is now the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. First made in 1909 these 21.8m/71ft long locomotives had a 4–6–2 configuration (2 leading wheels, 6 powered driving wheels, 2 trailing wheels) and put out 1353kw/1814hp, enough to reach 120kph/75mph despite weighting 85.2 metric tons (including the pulled tender) with a heavy passenger train in tow. Being this fast was their main feature, as they were designed and used exclusively for express services including the famous Orient Express.

A manufacturer’s photo of a Series C, dated 1909.

The 17th of July 1911 was a decently hot summer day, raising temperatures in the driver’s cab of D9’s locomotive even higher as it approached Müllheim station after crossing the Rhine River. The same day a construction crew was working on building a pedestrian underpass on the northern end of the station, due to the construction site containing a sharp S-bend and temporary points to navigate a temporary speed limit of 20kph/12.5mph had been established in order to ensure a safe operation of the rail services. Due to the heat the driver had been drinking a lot before and on his shift. Shortly after leaving the previous station (allegedly Basel in Switzerland) at approximately 8:15am and reaching the scheduled speed the driver collapsed at the controls as he had fallen asleep while standing upright. Attempts by the stoker to wake him up were unsuccessful, leaving the train to race towards Müllheim station at around 115kph/71mph. The Stoker stopped feeding the fire and tried to figure out the controls in front of him, eventually managing to close the valves and getting the speed down to 107kph/66.5mph as the train entered the station.

The controls of a similar steam engine, it’s understandable why the stoker needed time to figure them out.

The driver later said he regained consciousness/memory as the train was racing through the station, getting to his feet and attempting to initiate an emergency stop. Initiating is all he had time for, it was too late to slow down or stop. Without any sign of loosing speed the train entered the S-Bend, going more than 5 times the speed limit the locomotive and tender derailed at 8:30am. The momentum and speed keep the locomotive upright for a few meters, as it rumbles over the following points the locomotive actually gets knocked back onto the track while the heavy coal-filled tender falls over on its side. The forward passenger car crashes into the heavy, stiff tender and bursts into pieces, most of the train cars get torn up by the violent forces as they crash into the wreckage that is piling up ahead of them. Most of the wreckage fills the construction pit and covers the tracks of the station from side to side, only the rear restaurant car and luggage car remain largely intact. A local newspaper later quotes a witness saying “suddenly there was a horrid crashing noise, a bang, I saw pieces of train cars, rocks (gravel) and pieces of wood flying everywhere. Heartrending voices, cries and moans of suffering. People had been thrown from the cars, or thrown from the train along with pieces of the cars, many of them died immediately.” The passengers in the forward cars don’t stand a chance as the cars get obliterated in the crash, 9 people die during the derailment with 5 initial survivors eventually succumbing to their injuries. 37 people survive the derailment with severe injuries. How many people suffered minor injuries or even were on the train at all is unknown, it’s assumed that the train was far from full as it was an early morning service and only at the halfway point of its journey.

The wreckage as it is shown in a newspaper the day after the accident, looking towards the rear of the train.

Due to the accident happening right in the town center responders are on site in seconds, consisting of firefighters, a garrison of soldiers stationed nearby and doctors from surrounding cities along with civilians who had been at the station or going about their day in Müllheim’s center. The driver, his stoker and the construction workers, who had gone on break minutes before the accident, survive uninjured, as do a number of passengers who were having breakfast in the restaurant car at the back of the train. Police officers soon arrest the driver after he was caught staggering around the site visibly intoxicated, it turns out that he was not only suffering from a lack of sleep but had also consumed large quantities of beer and wine. At the time the effects of alcohol were well known, yet still beer and wine were considered refreshment-beverages similar to lemonade today. While other railways in (today’s) Germany had banned alcoholic drinks while on duty the prior year the driver’s employer hadn’t done so, so the choice in itself was nothing that could have legal consequences. However, the degree of his intoxication and him falling asleep at the controls (not a very comfortable place) were still sufficient for legal consequences, and thus he was charged with negligent homicide, negligent cause of bodily injury and endagerment of transport. He was eventually sentenced to two years and four months in jail, with the trial revealing a history of disciplinary actions for improper conduct. The conductor of D9 was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to initiate an emergency stop after, as the court saw it, having to have noticed that the train was going too fast and probably even having seeen signals telling the train to proceed slowly.

A photo from the recovery-operation, the men in the background are presumably looking into the construction-pit.

The cause of the accident started a lengthy public dispute over the risks of alcoholic beverages on duty, despite the known effects and their problematic influences there was a lot of opposition to banning alcoholic drinks/being intoxicated outright. While most to all the train cars were presumably scrapped the locomotive was repaired and returned to service. After world war one 4 of the 41 Series C locomotives made were given to France and Poland, the remaining survivors became the Series 18.1 when the DR (German Reichsbahn) was established. 23 locomotives made it all the way through the second world war, with the last scheduled train being pulled by the last surviving Series C/18.1 in February 1955 from Immendingen to Ulm. A few months later the locomotive (18 133) was scrapped. No Series C survives in any form, all we have are photos and scale models.

An H0-scale model of a Pre-WW1 Series C, showing the characteristic green paint job that was later replaced by black.

The construction of the underpass was finished some time after the accident, it is still in use today. The Mannheim-Basel railway was repaired soon after the war, with the allies seeing its importance and practicality. Between 1955 and 1958 the whole line was electrified, in the late 80s work started on expanding the entire railway from 2 to 4 tracks as it was running above capacity with the increasing European interaction being predicted to cause a further increase in traffic. While being scheduled for 2008 the four-track conversion is scheduled to be finished by 2030. The railway is one of Europe’s main railway corridors, regularly carrying trains from 3 different countries at up to 250kph/155mph. Operations have been fairly safe for decades, until a construction site accident in April 2020 caused the death of a train driver.

The site of the accident in 2017, the entrance to the underpass is on the left.

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