Fatal Field Trip: The 1954 Abenheim Level Crossing Collision

Background

Abenheim (technically Worms-Abenheim since June 1969) is a subdivision of 2400 (1954) respectively 2502 (2014) people belonging to the City of Worms, located in the southwest of Germany 55km/34mi south-southwest of Frankfurt and 25km/15.5mi north-northwest of Mannheim (both distances measured in linear distance).

The location of Abenheim in Europe.

In the 1950s Abenheim was located on the Worms-Gundheim Railway, a single-track non-electrified dead end branch line connecting a couple of towns with the city itself at 11.3km/7mi long. Opened in 1903 the was never extended to the intended full route and remained a minor regional traffic route running regional passenger services and the occasional freight train. Most trains would depart Worms to the northwest, make their way to Gundheim, have the locomotive move to the other end of the train and pull the train in reverse back to Worms. This system was the norm for any dead-end route that had no way to turn around locomotives, especially until modern locomotives with a driver’s cap on each end became the norm.

The approximate route of the (since removed) railway, with the site of the accident marked in red.
The approximate site of the level crossing, with the bus coming from the right and the train from the top of the image. The roads were arranged differently in 1954.

The vehicles involved

Pulling P3912, a small regional train from Gundheim to Worms was DB (German national railway) 74 850. The series 74 had been adopted into service in 1902, then as the Prussian T12. Made over 1000 times these small steam locomotives were mostly used for regional passenger services, being constructed to offer a decent acceleration that allowed relatively high speeds despite stations being close together. The locomotives weight 65.9 metric tons at 12m/39ft long and can reach 80kph/50mph, enough for the intended purpose. Being a tank locomotive, meaning water and coal are carried aboard the locomotive and not in a separate tender, also made it easier to operate in reverse (“tender first”) as it improved visibility for the driver.

A different Series 74 pulling a regional train similar to P3912.

On the day of the accident the furniture factory “Schramm & Möller” from Hochheim (now also part of Worms) had invited it’s employees on a field trip to the nearby Eiswoog lake. To facilitate this the company had chartered 3 buses, each carrying around 30 passengers. The exact type of bus isn’t known, but from the remains in the wreckage it was most likely an MAN MKH4 bus with a body made by Hubertia. These rear-engined midsize buses were made in 1953, so the bus was brand new at the time of the accident.

An MAN MKH4 bus with a Hubertia-made body, most likely the model involved in the accident.

The accident

In the morning hours of the 24th of July 1954 the employees of the furniture factory departed from the factory in three buses, planning to spend the day at Eiswoog lake 29km/18mi linear distance to the southwest of Hochheim. For unknown reasons the buses don’t depart at once but one by one, so far apart that they’re out of each other’s sight. The bus involved in the accident was carrying 28 passengers and a driver as it approached Abendheim just a few minutes after departing. At the same time P3912 is departing Abendheim station, travelling southbound towards Worms. A few meters outside the station the tracks are crossed by a road at an unsecured crossing, with no lights or barriers only warning signs tell drivers to look out for the slow regional trains. Even at full acceleration the train wouldn’t reach more than around 30kph/18.5mph before it got to the crossing. Waiting at the crossing were (from the track to the east) a motorbike, a car and a row of cyclists, whom the bus was now approaching. Approximately 60m/197ft from the crossing passengers on the bus warned the driver of the approaching train, but instead of stopping he went to overtake the waiting vehicles and accelerated. The train driver later testified to have seen the bus and initiate an emergency stop 50–75m/164–245ft from the crossing, trying to do something to avoid disaster. His attempt was unsuccessful, and the train struck the bus behind the forward wheel at nearly 90°, ripping the body open and dragging the wreckage for another 43m/141ft before coming to a stop.

The rear of the bus after the accident, the entire center section between the wheels was destroyed.

Aftermath

Happening right outside Abenheim it didn’t take long for responders to arrive, but there was little they could do for most people on board. 18 people died on impact, including the driver, another 8 were recovered alive and taken to the hospital where they died from their wounds. Three people on the bus survived the accident with injuries, as did the driver and stoker on the train. Witnesses at the site later testified that they saw no brake lights, and no skid marks were found to indicate even an attempt to stop. During the recovery of the wreckage responders found the speedometer of the bus among the debris, it had been pinned by the collision and read 69kph/43mph. Since the driver died in the collision his motive was never found out, the most likely theory is that he was trying to not drop too far behind the other buses and didn’t want to wait for the train to pass. Perhaps (no proof) he overestimated the acceleration of the new buses, thinking he could clear the crossing just barely ahead of the train. Thousands of mourners attended the funeral for the victims, among them Peter Altmeier, Rhineland-Palatine’s prime minister at the time. All the victims were buried in one graveyard, which necessitated an addition to the main cemetery in Worms-Hochheim.

The coffins lined up at the funeral, surrounded by mourners.

A few months after the accident Abenheim’s hometown-association (“Heimatverein”) funded a wooden cross at the site of the accident. After six years it was replaced with a cross made of stone, which again was replaced with a larger cross and an explaining plaque in 1986. When the area was repurposed the memorial was moved a few meters aside, now being located close to where the wreckage came to a stop after the accident.

The memorial in 2019, after some landscaping.

The section of the rail line north of Abenheim was retired in 1973, a year later the track there was removed. In 1984 the remaining tracks were removed when new roads were built to connect Abenheim to the nearby Autobahn A61. Today a 5km/3mi stretch of the former railway line, going from Worms to Abenheim (and passing the memorial) is a bicycle path. The last DB series 74 was retired in 1966, remaining in service in Poland until 1971. 3 locomotives survive to this day (two in Germany, one in Poland). In 2018 the inspection-cycle for the last operational one expired, meaning it’s currently only on stationary display in Berlin. Another one in storage at a museum in Bochum needs a new boiler to be returned to operational condition.

74 1230, the best-preserved Series 74, on display in Berlin in 2019.

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Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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