Fatal Field Trip: The 1971 Dahlerau Train Collision
Dahlerau (population in 2011: 3350) is a suburb of the city of Radevormwald in western Germany, located in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia 12km/7.5mi east-southeast of Wuppertal and 40km/25mi northeast of Cologne in the valley of the river Wupper (both measurements in linear distance).
At the time of the accident Dahlerau was connected to surrounding towns by the Wupper Valley Railway (“Wuppertalbahn”), a 20.7km/12.9mi single-tracked branch line opened in 1910. Built mainly to support the increasing number of factories along the river Wupper the line’s use declined sharply after the second World War, loosing traffic and eventually (by the early 1960s) seeing branches, factory-connecting sidings and just sections of the line itself being retired in favor of faster and cheaper transport of goods and people on the surrounding roads.
The trains involved
NG 16856 was a small branch-line freight train servicing various companies and factories along the line, delivering and picking up materials and products. Pulling the train was DB (German railway) series 212 030. Introduced in 1958 as the V100, the series 212 and its 3 nearly identical siblings (all running as V100 also, later being numbered series 211, 213 and 214) are a group of four-axle diesel locomotives meant to finally retire the last steam locomotives still running on branch lines in both passenger and freight services. The 212 (previously V100²⁰) is the most powerful version of the V100 family, producing 993kw/1331hp from a four-stroke V12 diesel engine. This allows the series 212 to reach 100kph/62mph despite weighting 62 metric ton at 12.10m/40ft in length.
Eto 42227 was a chartered passenger train booked by the local “Geschwister Scholl Schule”, a secondary school (“Hauptschule”) at Radevormwald 3km/1.8mi linear distance to the south. Providing the service was a two-unit DB series VT95 rail bus, consisting of a leading motor car and an unpowered trailing car. Introduced in 1952 to keep otherwise unprofitable branch lines alive these small (13.2m/43ft long, 3.25m/11ft 6inches high) and light (13.2 metric tons for the motor car) two-axle buses soon became the backbone of branch line passenger traffic, with over 3306 units being made. They were powered by a Büssig diesel motor providing 150hp at 1900rpm, the same engine used for some city buses at the time. The light weight meant they could reach up to 90kph, more than enough for their usual services, transporting 63 people per car. The exact price isn’t known, but the DB originally mandated a maximum price per motor car of no more than 50 thousand German Mark (25564 Euros/31 thousand USD). Their cheap operation and high flexibility (units could easily be coupled together or separated) kept a number of lines from being shut down for years, quickly gaining the rail bus (nicknamed “Roter Brummer”/”Red Hummer” due to their characteristic engine sound) a fan base among railroad workers and passengers.
On the 27th of May 1971 a rail bus is approaching Dahlerau from the north, carrying 71 passengers, mostly students of the Geschwister Scholl Schule along with teachers and a few chaperoning parents returning from a class trip to Bremen. As the train bumbled along the tracks it had racked up a thirty minute delay, requiring dispatchers at Beyenburg and Dahlerau to arrange somewhere to let the bus pass a scheduled freight train. The men decide to have the freight train stop at Dahlerau station, with the local dispatcher setting the points to let the rail bus proceed through the station by going around the freight train. The freight train was a regular, scheduled service from Radevormwald to Wuppertal and would usually not stop at the station. The railway line’s equipment is rudimentary, there is no block section system automatically keeping trains apart and no radio.
Like many small town’s stations Dahlerau station only has a two-mode entry signal (“stop” or “proceed”), if the entry signal shows green trains are to stop at an H-board (rectangular white board with a black H on it) unless the dispatcher shows them a green flag or lantern. If the signal shows red they have to wait ahead of the station. At night or in poor visibility a colorless lantern is used for this purpose, with exchangeable lenses in red or green.
As 212 030 approaches Dahlerau station the entry-signal is set to “proceed”, and the driver later testifies to have seen a green lamp being held up by the dispatcher. In his statement immediately after the accident the dispatcher claimed to have done the opposite, going beyond the requirement by holding up a red lantern. Whichever version happened, the result was that the freight train drove right through the station and onward into the woods. The freight train driver had no way of knowing that there was another train, for some reason the chartered service had not been entered into the day’s schedule.
Seeing the freight train roar past his building the dispatcher actually ran after the locomotive for a short distance in a hopeless attempt to get the driver’s attention. When he realized that he was not going to succeed in that plan he ran back to the station and called his coworker at Beyenburg station, 5km/3mi up the tracks, begging him to hold the rail bus after all. However, his coworker had no choice but to tell him that the rail bus had already left. At this point the collision was unavoidable.
At 9:10pm 212 030 slammed into the rail bus head on at full speed while navigating a long left hand turn on an overgrown hillside just 800m/2600ft outside the station. The locomotive alone was five times heavier and 20cm/8in higher than the rail bus, compressing the leading motor car to about half its size as it pushed the lightweight passenger train back by over 100m/330ft. 46 people (41 children, 2 teachers, a mother who chaperoned the trip and two railway employees) died, 25 people survived with severe injuries. A single student was the sole uninjured survivor of what is considered the worst accident in the history of the western German railway (only being surpassed by the 1998 Eschede Derailment years after reunification).
The dispatcher at Dahlerau had notified the emergency services of the collision even before it actually happened, allowing professional responders to reach the site soon after the accident. They found a freight train and one and a half rail buses, standing in a field of twisted and torn metal and splintered wood, with cries and shouts from survivors filling the night. Shortly after the first responders had made their way to the site passerby and local residents filled the scene as well, attracted by the sirens and lights, a few minutes later followed by the first parents arriving at the wreckage after hearing of the accident while waiting at Radevormwald station. It’s hard to imagine their experience, being thrown into such a chaotic and horrific scene with the mangled trains, responders cutting and squeezing their way into the wrecked rail bus, people being revived or receiving first aid by the side of the tracks while a number of onlookers just try to find out what happened at all. While ambulances and private cars soon took all the survivors to surrounding hospitals the responders had difficulties getting a coroner to bring caskets for the victims, reportedly at least two funeral homes in the area hung up when being called because they thought they were being prank-called with an absurd demand. The recovery of the victims took hours, with the caskets being taken to a local school’s gym one by one. There the parents were asked to identify their child, providing both a controlled environment for the tragic task and getting them away from the wreckage. It wouldn’t be until two days after the accident that responders got to declare the wreckage free of any people alive or dead.
Investigators went to work while the rescue effort was still underway, interviewing the dispatchers and the surviving drivers of the freight train. They found themselves unable to track down any mechanical fault on either train, quickly moving their focus to human error. The investigation was dealt a heavy blow when, a few weeks after the accident, Dahlerau’s dispatcher was killed in a car accident. As he was one of the main suspects at the time the accident was thoroughly examined, but eventually a suicide was ruled out. Both the freight train’s driver and his assistant insisted the dispatcher had held up a green light, contradicting the dispatcher’s sole statement before his passing. As the color was decided by swapping out lenses investigators deemed it possible that, being in a hurry to tell the train to stop, the dispatcher grabbed the wrong lens and inadvertently overrode the H-board which, on its own, would’ve prevented the accident. With this putting the dispatcher at fault, who had died, the investigation ended with the probable cause being declared but with no legal proceedings for anyone. The accident did shine a light on the poor state of some German branch lines, blamed on the DB dragging their feet with the rebuild- and upgrade-process 25 years after the war had ended. It didn’t help that investigators found a seal on the levers in the signal box which is designed to tear if a set of points is moved without authorization (by a train driving through it in the wrong direction or someone trying to interfere with a locked path) to be missing entirely. But this was not pursued further in the investigation, as it played no role in the accident.
On the second of June 1971 a funeral was held for the victims, attended by over 10000 people (more people than Radevormwald had citizens). Among the guests was Willy Brandt, the German Chancellor at the time, along with the minister of transport Georg Leber and Hans Koschnick, the president of the German Federal Council. Condolences from various groups and governments as far as France and Great Britain were received too, as news of the horrific accident had spread beyond Germany. The day saw public life in the area grind to a halt, with shops hanging condolence messages in their windows as they stayed closed, the fire department providing an honor guard, taxis being decorated with mourning ribbons and train service being suspended. The accident had had a severe impact on the area, with nearly a full year of students being wiped out at once. Everyone in Radevormwald was affected by the accident or knew someone who was. In a way the accident claimed another victim that day, with the uncle of a victim collapsing at the funeral and dying of a heart attack while several attendees had to be treated for heatstroke and dehydration.
After the accident the DB expedited the installation of block systems and radios on their lines and trains, the Wupper Valley Railway saw its block system system starting service in 1975. Just a year later, in 1976, the section between Wuppertal and Radevormwald was shut down. A small section, including the site of the accident, is in private hands and used for occasional museum trains, while a section west of Dahlerau was submerged when the Wupper Valley Dam was built in 1987. The accident shone a light on the rail bus’ poor structural construction, seeing how the forward half of the motor car had largely crumbled away while only causing relatively cosmetic damage to the series 212. Multiple units having passengers (and drivers) right up front is a common point of criticism, but in this case the engineering was seen as particularly poor. It seemed like getting a cheap and lightweight train had taken priority over proper engineering. The DB listened to the criticism and increased its effort in crash-engineering, with the rail bus’ successor, the series 628 (introduced in 1974), being constructed significantly sturdier/stiffer. The 628’s structure can be compared to that of modern trains, while the VT95’s structure is closer to that of the buses you find on the road.
Regardless of their apparent flaws the VT95 didn’t leave regular service with the DB until 1980, their two-engined sibling (VT98) not seeing retirement until the year 2000. A handful of the “Red Hummers” (ironically not all of which are red) survive to this day as stationary exhibits or in historic service by private operators in Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium. A single VT95 was spotted in regular service in Uruguay in 2012. 212 030 was quickly repaired and returned to service, being parked and partially stripped for parts in the early 2000s before being repaired and upgraded by Alstom (making it a series 214). The modernization left little beyond the original frame and wheel sets, giving the locomotive a new body, new power train and new electronics. After its conversion in 2010 the locomotive was sold to Hannover-based BBL-Logistik, a company mostly providing construction site trains. Renamed BBL 14 the locomotive was last spotted in service in May 2020.