Getting to go Home: The 1981 Tauberfeld (Germany) Train Collision

Max S
9 min readApr 30, 2023

Background

Tauberfeld is a town of 945 people (as of 2017) in southern Germany, located 14.5km/9mi northwest of Ingolstadt and 71km/44mi south of Nürnberg (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Tauberfeld in Europe.

Tauberfeld lies on the Altmühl Railway (Altmühlbahn), a double-tracked electrified main line connecting Ingolstadt with Treuchtlingen on a length of 55.8km/34.7mi. Opening in 1870 and being expanded to double-track configuration in 1892 the line saw top speeds of as much as 160kph/99mph by the 1990s. The line is an important corridor for north-south freight traffic, but also sees a variety of passenger services from regional trains up to ICE high speed trains.

The approximate site of the accident seen from above today. Both trains involved approached from the southeast (bottom-right of the image).

The Trains Involved

Dg 78124 was a freight service from Ingolstadt to Würzburg, consisting of an unknown number of freight cars pulled by DB (German national railway) 150 100. The DB series 150 is a six-axle heavy electric freight train locomotive introduced in 1957 (as the “E 50” before being renumbered in 1968) as part of the DB’s locomotive standardization program, sharing many parts with the E 40 (later series 140) and E 10 (series 110), a lighter freight train locomotive and a passenger train locomotive respectively. Each series 150 measures 19.49m/64ft in length at a weight of 128 metric tons and could reach 100kph/62mph. DB 150 100, the locomotive involved in the accident, had started service as E50 100 in April 1963.

DB 150 100, the locomotive pulling the freight train, photographed in October 1967 before being renumbered.

E 3238 was a passenger express train from Munich to Nürnberg, consisting of five four-axle express passenger cars being pulled by DB 103 125. Introduced in 1970 the Series 103 is a six-axle electric locomotive designed to pull heavy express trains at speeds of up to 200kph/124mph. They were a big step forward for the DB in both technology and image, holding a flagship role in the fleet. Each Series 103 measures 19.5m/64ft in length at a weight of 114 metric tons. Each axle has its own motor, with the combined power output of up to 7780kW/10433hp making them the strongest single-section locomotives in the world at the time of their introduction. At the time of the accident the express train was almost empty, carrying only a driver, conductor and 40 passengers (some sources claim 50) while having a capacity of 408 passengers. DB 103 125, the unit involved in the accident, had started service in February 1971.

DB 103 125, the locomotive pulling the express train, photographed in February 1981, just 12 days before the accident.

The accident

On the sixth of March 1981 Dg 78124 is approaching Tauberfeld station from the southeast under the command of a driver from Munich. At the same time another freight train (Dg 47949) is approaching the station from the north, heading towards Munich under the command of a driver from Würzburg. Both drivers were certified for both locomotives, and thus the dispatcher decided that the trains would stop at Tauberfeld to swap drivers. Having drivers trade places in situations like this was a common occurrence at the time, allowing drivers to make it home by the end of the shift instead of needing to sleep at a hotel.

Dg 78124 pulled into Tauberfeld station at 7:01pm, stopping ahead of a red signal on track 2. 4 minutes later the opposing freight service stopped on track 3, on Dg78124’s left hand side. This left track 1, the right hand (northeastern) track, as a free route straight through the station for passing trains. The two freight train drivers switched places, and the southbound service pulled away by 7:06pm. At the same time the express train was approaching Tauberfeld station from the southeast, travelling slightly below the speed limit at 130kph/81mph as it ran a minute ahead of schedule.

Dg 78124’s driver put his train in motion at 7:07pm, accelerating so abruptly that the data-logger would later show wheelspin. He passed the red signal, which triggered an automatic stop, at 26.5kph/16.5mph. The train needed 85m/279ft to come to a stop, causing it to move past the set of points where track 2 merged into track 1. 150 100 had barely entered track 1 when the express train caught up to it, crashing into the side of the leading freight car and throwing it aside before hitting the locomotive at unreduced speed. DB 150 100 fell over while 103 125 was thrown off the tracks to the right hand side, flying down a 10m/33ft embankment and turning on its side before hitting the ground.

The leading passenger car was turned upside down by the derailing locomotive before breaking off, with the following cars pushing it past most of the wreckage. The second car ended up hanging into an underpass, with cars 3 and 4 derailed but upright on the embankment as car 5 derailed but remained mostly aligned with the track. The driver of 103 125 was severely injured as his driver’s cab was torn apart when the locomotive landed, he was rushed to hospital where he succumbed to his injuries 2 days later as the sole fatality. 31 people* were injured, 9 of which severely.

*Note: Some sources list the dispatcher as a 32nd injured person, as he suffered a shock that put him out of work for two weeks.

One of the passenger cars sitting in the wreckage next to 103 125.

Aftermath

Emergency services were notified by 7:15pm, with the responders reaching the site by 7:24pm. Over the next few minutes 23 ambulances, a Medevac-helicopter and several firefighters got involved in the rescue-operation while police officers also locked down two roads near the site to ensure a free path for the ambulances as they headed to nearby hospitals. 103 125 had suffered severe damage, including losing most of the leading driver’s cab due to its high speed impact with the soft ground while being almost completely upside down. The passenger cars’ damage was largely limited to superficial damage in the passenger area and some compression-damage near the doors. No survival space was lost, increasing chances of survival for the passengers. The fact that the train was barely occupied also limited the severity of the collision’s outcome.

According to a newspaper article published the day after the accident most survivors, once aided in leaving the train cars, even managed to make their way to the waiting ambulances on foot. The driver of 150 100 had also survived the accident with minor injuries, falling against the inside wall of the cab as his locomotive fell over. After running three separate search-parties through the train cars the wreckage was declared clear late into the night following the accident.

The underside of 103 125 as it sat in the wreckage next to the tracks.

A 150 metric ton crane was brought in the day of the accident, being used to clear the rail line by pulling train cars 2–5 and the leading freight car off the embankment. It was decided to break 103 125 and its cars up for scrap/spare parts at the site, while 150 100 would be repaired as it suffered relatively limited damage. The investigation soon announced that the trains and signaling system had worked as intended, with the freight train’s driver causing the accident by departing without permission. The express train’s driver had no chance to avoid the accident, which happened in fading light while his train was travelling at high speed in an area without trackside illumination. In fact, moments before impact the train had left the illumination of the platform-mounted lights at the station, possibly making visibility subjectively worse as the driver’s eyes had to adapt to the darkness. The data-logger recovered from 103 125 showed that the driver triggered an emergency stop when he spotted the freight train in his path, but the initiation came too late to have any influence on the speed.

The leading cab of 103 125 during disassembly, showing the control desk pushed up against the rear wall of the cab.

There is no record of a statement by the driver of DB 150 100, which might be because of a memory-gap around the time of the accident. The investigation found that the most likely cause was that he, seeing his colleague depart in the other freight train, expected a green signal as he looked ahead, and saw one. Except the one he saw was the one for track 1, meant for the express train overtaking him, not for him. By the time he reached the signal a few seconds later the freight train had picked up enough speed for its weight to push the locomotive right through the adjacent points into the path of the incoming express train, even with full brakes applied. Had he departed a few seconds earlier the express may have ended up flatly rear-ending the last car, a few seconds later and the express train would have whizzed past right in front of him. The investigation took simple driver error as the most likely cause, finding no evidence of intentional ignorance regarding the signal or a medical emergency. The driver expected a green signal, glanced ahead, saw one, and departed. He had just looked at the wrong one out of two signals.

A photo from a newspaper published a few days after the accident, showing workers standing on the destroyed rail line.

It’s unknown what happened to the driver of the freight train, as there is no report of a trial or other legal consequences to be found. After the accident the spacing of departure-signals relative to merging points was reviewed, intending to ensure that passing a red departure-signal would not as easily cause a train to end up on the other track. Nowadays sidings merging into main line tracks also often use safety-points, which, unless a train is supposed to enter the main line, are intended to derail the unauthorized train in order to keep it from entering the other track. Had such points been present at Tauberfeld, a derailed freight-train locomotive would have been the extent of the consequences.

DB 150 100, photographed during repairs in April 1981.

DB 103 125 was the second locomotive of the type to be retired, following 103 106 which suffered a fatal derailment at Rheinweiler in July 1971. The series 103 left regular service in late 2017, with all but 17 units being scrapped. Sixteen survivors are in private hands in varying condition, while 1 is being used by RailAdventure to ferry other locomotives and train cars. DB 150 100 reentered service a few months after the accident and remained in service until 2002 when the type was retired in favor of newer freight train locomotives. Today only 2 units (of 194 made) remain as museum pieces.

DB 150 100 photographed in August 2001, shortly before its retirement.

Immortalization

Being the flagship of the DB’s fleet at the time put the series 103 in various ads, onto stamps, into books and on tv. One of the locomotives getting the such honors happened to be 103 125, which was featured in the children's’ educational TV-program “Pusteblume” (“Dandelion”) in an episode on how rail traffic works. Scenes were shot in winter 1980/1981 and first aired less than a month before the accident. Some rumors claim that the train driver in the episode is the one who suffered fatal injuries in the accident, but this is generally assumed to be highly unlikely as the episode likely would not have remained in circulation if that were the case. Scenes filmed around/on 103 125 can be found at 18:55 at this link.

DB 150 100 saw a different kind of immortalization, having several scale models designed after it, including at least one in H0-scale (1:87) showing it as it looked at the time of the accident.

Roco 4140A, a scale model of 150 100, showing the locomotive as it looked at the time of the accident.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.