Fatal Fall: The 1973 Guntershausen (Germany) Train Collision
Guntershausen is a formerly independent town (and now officially district of Baunatal) of 979 people (as of August 2022) in central Germany, located in the federal state of Hesse 9.5km/6mi south of Kassel and 67km/41mi northeast of Marburg (both measurements in linear distance).
Guntershausen has a station (labeled Baunatal-Guntershausen) on the Main-Weser Railway, a 199.8km/124.1mi double-tracked electrified main line connecting Kassel with Frankfurt (Main). Opening between 1849 and 1850 the line is still one of Germany’s most important rail lines, seeing everything from freight traffic and regional passenger trains to long distance ICE high speed services. As an oddity parts of it are also used by Kassel’s tram-trains. Parts of the line are used at up to 160kph/99mph.
The Baunatal-Guntershausen station is set up as a “Keilbahnhof” (“wedge station”, being located between the Main-Weser Railway tracks on one side and the merging Bebra-Baunatal-Guntershausen main line with the platforms being positioned in a wedge-shape between the rail lines. On the northern side of the station the rail line enters an incline of 10 permille towards Kassel.
The trains involved
D453 was a so-called “Interzonenzug” (Multi-zone-train), one of a few selected passenger services connecting cities in Western Germany (BRD) with ones in East-Germany (GDR). Specifically, D453 was travelling from Mönchengladbach in the west to Leipzig in the east. It consisted of eleven four-axle express passenger cars, the rear one being a type Am²⁰² first class compartment car. Introduced in 1953 the Am²⁰²-type first class cars measured 26.4m in length at a weight of 37 metric tons and could carry up to sixty passengers in six-person compartments. They were easily told apart from their second class counterpart by their bright blue paint job.
Pulling D453 was DB (German national railway) 216 023. Introduced in 1964 as the V160 the series 216 is a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive developed as part of the post-war fleet simplification and modernization-effort. Each series 216 measures 16m in length at a service-ready weight of 76.7 metric tons. They can reach up to 120kph/75mph thanks to a Mercedes V16 diesel engine producing 1400kW/1877hp. The series 216 was on the weaker end of locomotives for a heavy express train like that, causing it to take relatively long to get up to speed after stops.
Following behind D453 on its way was DC 973 “Ederland”, an express-train service heading for Frankfurt (Main) that had just been introduced a few months prior to supplement the Intercity-network. It consisted of a row of four-axle passenger express cars pulled by DB 110 243. Introduced in 1956 as the E 10 the series 110 was part of the same program as the V160, becoming the most important locomotive-type in German passenger train services with over 400 units being made within 13 years. Each series 110 measures 16.49m/54ft in length at a weight of 85 metric tons and can reach up to 150kph/93mph thanks to a power-output of 3700kW/4962hp. At the time of the accident two drivers were in the cab of DB 110 243, the reason for this oddity is unknown.
D453 was intended to pass Guntershausen station on the eastern side, branching off the Main-Weser Railway, DC973 was to stay on the Main-Weser Railway and use the western tracks, turning westbound.
On the 5th of November 1973 D453 pulls out of Kassel main station at 2:18pm, 7 minutes behind schedule. DC973 is standing at the same station and the drivers probably saw the series 216 struggle to get the heavy express train moving. Due to the delay DC973 would follow the Interzonenzug at block-distance, meaning they would stay as close behind the other train as the signaling system would allow. It was a rainy late fall day, and several train crews had already reported traction-issues on the wet rails.
Once DC973 is allowed to depart the powerful locomotive has little issue getting the lightweight passenger train on its back to move, quickly catching up to the train ahead. In order to maintain the necessary distance so that the train wouldn’t be automatically stopped the driver had two slow down twice, it is assumed that each time he already noticed reduced braking-power. It is important to know that DC973’s cars were all equipped with an anti-slide system, somewhat similar to the ABS-system in modern cars. If the driver braked hard and locked up the wheels on the train the system would briefly release and re-apply the brakes, lengthening stopping-distance but slowing the development of flat spots on the wheels.
D453 reaches the pre-signal for Guntershausen station at 2:22pm, which instructs him to expect a slow-zone and to decelerate the train to 40kph/25mph. Due to the wet downhill track, which is covered in leaves from the surrounding trees, the train can’t decelerate sufficiently in the remaining distance and thus passes the entrance-signal to the station at more than the dictated 40kph/25mph. This causes the INDUSI train control system (which also controls the signals) to trigger an emergency stop, bringing D453 to a halt at the entrance to Guntershausen station with the rear of the train protruding past the entrance-signal into the previous block-section.
At the same time DC973 passes Baunatal-Rengershausen station (approximately 2.8km/1.77mi up the line from Guntershausen) at 119kph/74mph, upholding the scheduled 120kph/75mph speed limit. The pre-signal for the upcoming “Buchberg”-block section indicates “expect stop”, as the block section after Buchberg was occupied by the back of the stopped D453. The train driver initiates a deceleration, but, falling victim to the same slippery conditions encountered by the train ahead, he experiences a much worse brake-performance than usual, barely losing speed. The problem is expedited by the anti-slide system, which releases the brakes on the train cars in regular intervals, worsening the brake-performance even more. DC973’s driver actually also releases and reapplied the locomotive’s brakes non-stop, trying to find the highest possible braking-force without locking up the train wheels, a taught technique to try and find the “sweet spot” in slippery conditions and/or to keep brakes from overheating on prolonged downhill routes. The “Buchberg” main signal was located about 1300m/0.8mi from the pre-signal, a distance in which the train loses just 30kph/18.6mph.
Passing the red Buchberg main signal triggers an emergency stop, applying full brakes throughout the train and taking control away from the driver. The locomotive’s wheels lock up in an instant, bringing no improvement to the brake-performance. DB 110 243 slides along the rails for 1580m/5183ft before, having slowed to 40kph/24.8mph, it slamms into the back of the stationary D453 with a deafening crash. The rear passenger car of the stopped train is compacted to a fraction of its size before DB 110 243, missing much of its front end, mounts the destroyed train car and pushes it further into the stopped train as its own leading train car crashes into the rear of the locomotive. 13 people die in the wreckage, including all but one passenger of D453’s the rear passenger car, another 66 are injured.
At the time of the accident Mister Norwig, a local resident of Guntershausen and train driver himself, is laying down new tiles on his terrace just under 200m/650ft linear distance from the rail line. He hears the trains crash on the nearby rail line and starts running over, spotting the front end of DB 110 243 towering above the wreckage before he reaches the site as one of the first people to do so. He can see a man move inside the locomotive and attempts to climb up to the locomotive, but fails to make it all the way up. The man he sees is the second driver who had been “riding shotgun” on the locomotive and who retreated into the pathway between the cabs at the last second. His coworker who had driven the train got pinched between the driver’s desk and the rear wall of the cabin, he’s soon cut free by arriving firefighters but dies on the way to the hospital, becoming the fourteenth victim.
In the following minutes more and more professional responders arrive at the site, working their way through the train rescuing survivors and recovering the dead as the wreckage is cut apart piece by piece. A simple system is established, with survivors being evacuated from the train on one side while the dead are collected on the other side. The data-logger from the trains are confiscated and investigators start examining the trains the moment all survivors are evacuated from it. They discover flat spots on 110 243’s wheels that go up to 1.5 millimeters deep, where sliding on the tracks ate away the metal as the train tried and failed to stop. It’s no secret that conditions at the time of the accident were far from ideal, with wet rails, sustained rain and fallen leaves covering the rail line. And with the train eventually getting forced into an emergency stop flat spots were almost guaranteed, even if their severity points to the wheels locking up before the INDUSI triggered an emergency stop.
It is something else that makes the investigators stumble. Modern trains carry reservoirs with sand which, at the push of a button, is shot through small tubes ahead of the locomotive’s wheels to increase grip for acceleration and braking in slippery conditions. As they pull the reservoirs off 110 243 they discover that they are filled to the brim, apparently the driver didn’t use the system once as he fought with the train and track. With the route of the train and the conditions present they should have been three-quarters empty. Reviewing the data-logger and interviewing the surviving second driver (who had no control-input) paints a picture of a largely attentive driver who upheld speed limits and for the most part reacted properly when problems started to arise.
It has to be noted that, in a way, technology worked against him as things got dire, though. It’s known among train drivers that “a shorter train is harder to slow down”, especially in an emergency and/or low-grip conditions. In simplified terms, if a 10-car train has the anti-slide system trip on 3 cars at once you lose 30% of your brake-force. If the system trips on 3 cars of a 4-car train you lose 75%. As such it takes more skill and focus to keep a shorter train/one with less cars at the ideal point of the highest possible deceleration without “overbraking” (locking up the wheels) or overheating the brakes. Simply “stomping on the brakes” as one might in a car for maximum deceleration doesn’t work with trains due to the different behavior of steel-on-steel traction. Drivers have to carefully increase and reduce brake-application, sometimes briefly releasing brakes completely, to try and find the ideal deceleration.
The more the investigation looks into the minutes ahead of the accident the more clearly does blame shift to the deceased driver of DC973. He didn’t do anything wrong in the way of breaking rules, but his behavior was still far from ideal for the conditions he was working in. He’s not to blame for D453’s departure being delayed, reducing distance between the two trains. But seeing the heavy express train depart with only a series 216 on the front of it should have cued him in to the issues that train might encounter. And he almost certainly knew about the adverse conditions both from other train drivers and from his way into Kassel main station.
After departing Kassel he caught up to D453 up ahead twice, being forced to slow down as signals in front of him went from green “continue ahead” to yellow “slow down/expect stop”. But each time the signals went back to green he sped back up, instead of just keeping it at a steady speed below the speed limit, trading a slight delay for increased safety (and arguably a less stressful trip). He knew the train ahead was going to divert at Guntershausen and he could speed up just fine after that, but either simple impatience or over-prioritizing punctuality made him try to return to the maximum allowed speed at every opportunity.
Lastly, it can be argued that the driver was inexperienced with the train cars’ anti-slide system, so while he did everything technically right by the time he was told to slow down at Buchberg he might have been surprised by how little braking he got from the train cars due to the system kicking in again and again. The investigation speculated that he might have been distracted by his coworker in the early phase of the deceleration, and/or that, in his growing panic over not getting the expected feedback, he might not have thought of sanding, simply forgetting it, especially once the INDUSI took control from him. Completely stopped wheels on an unsanded, wet and dirty rail essentially doomed the train. Reducing his speed to 70–80kph/43–50mph and staying there would have kept him at a safe distance and significantly reduced braking-distance, and had he properly used the sanding-system from Buchwald onwards he likely would have managed to maintain control also.
The investigation ends up blaming the accident on human error by the driver of DC973, calling it a “lack of distributed attention” meaning he failed to focus on several things a little bit, instead becoming “locked in” on one thing, the train’s excessive speed.
Most of the two trains is eventually repaired and returned to service, even the severely damaged series 110 locomotive gets fitted with a new cab and returns to service. DB 110 243 stays in the DB’s services until 2010 before being retired and scrapped by 2011. It outlives the locomotive of D453, which is retired and scrapped in Summer 1995 at the beginning of the series 216’s retirement. The last series 110-locomotives were retired by the DB around 2014, a handful remains in service today (2022) with private rail service providers.
The accident affects both survivors and responders for years after it happens. A local newspaper interviews some of them in 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the accident. Mister Norwig recalls how the day of the accident was the hardest of his life, but he still had to go back to work the next day, driving a freight train. He recalls that, when he climbed onto the locomotive to start the journey, his hands were badly shaking because of what he had witnessed the previous day. But at the time there was no system in place to help responders, you couldn’t take days off work to seek therapy. And so Mister Norwig still has the images present in his head 40+ years later.
The newspaper also interviewed Miss Hohmeister, the sole survivor from D453’s rear car. She survives the accident at 38 years old but suffers severe injuries, spending almost 3 years in the hospital undergoing over 30 surgeries. She loses one leg, the other can no longer bend. In the interview she admits that there is anger, not at the train driver but at fate itself, at her having to suffer those injuries, anger at the phantom pain and at the insurances which her and her husband have to battle in court even still by the time of the interview.
The DB draws its own consequences from the accident. The speed limit on the section between Rengershausen and Guntershausen is reduced to 80kph/50mph, only trains who carry magnetic track brakes as additional means of slowing down are eventually allowed to reach 110kph/68mph. The line is also regularly covered by maintenance trains who blow dirt and leaves off the rails. In addition, teaching drivers about train-handling in adverse condition was emphasized. Apart from the trains being replaced with modern counterparts not much has changed at the site of the accident, there appears to be no memorial anywhere in Guntershausen.
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