Hesitating Halfway: The 1959 Lauffen (Germany) Level Crossing Collision

Lauffen am Neckar (from here on just referred to as Lauffen) is a city of 11838 people (as of December 2020) in the southwest of Germany, located in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg 32km/20mi north of Stuttgart and 65km/40mi southeast of Mannheim (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Lauffen in Europe.

At the time of the accident the city lay on two railway lines. Firstly the Zabergäu Railway (“Zabergäubahn”), a 20.3km/12.5mi long branch line connecting Lauffen with the town of Leonbronn. The line opened in sections between 1896 and 1901, at the time as a narrow gauge railway with a track width of just 750mm/29.5in. The trains reached a top speed of just 25kph/15.5mph, which played a large part in the DB (German railway) finding the railway to no longer fit their desired image after WW2. As such the DB started running a bus line on the same connection in 1954 and thinned out the schedule planning to eventually shut down the slow old narrow gauge line.

The second railway line at Lauffen is the Franconia Railway (“Frankenbahn”), a 180km/112mi mostly double-tracked electrified main line connecting Stuttgart with Würzburg. The rail line opened between 1846 and 1869 and sees mostly freight trains and regional passenger trains. At the site of the accident the two tracks of the Franconia Railway ran parallel with the single track from the Zabergäu Railway.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The dotted line shows the approximate position of the level crossing.

E 867 was an express train from Tübingen via Stuttgart to Würzburg on the Franconia railway. It was usually pulled by a DB series 38, a midsize three-axle passenger train steam engine introduced back in 1906 as the Prussian P8. These locomotives measure 18.58m/61ft in length at 70 metric tons empty and can reach 100kph/62mph thanks to a power output of approximately 868kW/1165hp. It was this locomotive that the Franconia Railway’s scheduling was calculated on. However, sometimes these locomotives were replaced by the DB series 01.10, as was the case on the day of the accident with DB 01 1094 pulling the train. The series 01.10 is a heavy express train steam locomotive introduced in 1939, measuring 24.13m/79ft in length at an empty weight of 99.6 metric tons. These locomotives can reach 150kph/93mph thanks to a power output of approximately 1728kW/2317hp. The higher power-output also meant that they could accelerate a lot faster than the series 38.

A preserved series 01.10, identical with the one involved in the accident, photographed in 2019.

The bus-line supplementing/replacing the narrow gauge railway consisted of various chartered buses, the bus on the day was of unknown make/model and belonged to the local bus tour provider Ernesti. The buses were a poor replacement for the trains, with the poor road conditions slowing them down to the point of taking longer than the trains. This also meant their arrival-times were poorly matched to the trains on both the narrow gauge railway and the Franconia railway, the bus involved in the accident was scheduled to arrive at Lauffen station at the same minute as E 867 was meant to depart the station. In practice bus drivers often managed to arrive a minute or two ahead of schedule, which is likely due to rather reckless driving whenever the road conditions somewhat allowed it. Last but not least the buses were often overcrowded, the one involved in the accident was permitted to carry 59 passengers but carried 71 at the time of the collision.

A preserved Mercedes Benz O 6600, a bus similar to or identical with this one was involved in the accident.

On the 20th of June 1959 at approximately 5:20pm the DB’s chartered bus service is approaching Lauffen station from the south. A few hundred meters from its destination the road crosses both the main railway line and the narrow gauge Zabergäu Railway on a three-tracked level crossing. The crossing’s barriers are operated by a crossing guard, who lowers them via a hand-crank after being notified of an approaching train by the surrounding dispatchers via telephone. Closing the barriers took approximately 12–15 seconds while the trains needed just under two minutes to reach the crossing from the next station to the south (Kirchheim am Neckar). As E 867 passes through Kirchheim am Neckar’s station the local dispatcher calls the crossing guard and notifies him of the approaching train. For reasons that could not be determined the guard hesitated to start lowering the barriers for a few minutes. As he started lowering them he saw a car approach from one side of the crossing and the bus, a little further away, approaching also. The guard hesitated for a moment, with the barriers only partially down, which the driver of the car saw as permission to pass through the crossing. The bus driver likely saw the car pass through and, liking to avoid the lengthy stop, went into the crossing also just as the express train was approaching. The driver of 01 1094, which was approaching the crossing at 90kph/56mph, saw that the barriers at the crossing weren’t fully down when he was 180–150m/590–490ft from the crossing. He triggered an emergency stop and sounded the locomotive’s whistle, trying to warn people at the crossing of the approaching steam train. Upon hearing the whistle the crossing guard resumed his work and continued to lower the barriers, but it was too late. The near barrier struck the bus on the roof just past the windshield, a moment later, at approximately 5:31pm, the steam engine hit the bus squarely in the side at 80kph/49mph. The impact tore the bus to shreds as it got dragged down the tracks for over 400m/1300ft. Debris flying up from the collision damaged the overhead wires, creating an outage which stopped the following train from departing Kirchheim. 36 passengers and the driver died in the collision or in the next few hours, eight more would succumb to their injuries in the following weeks. 27 passengers were injured, 26 of which severely.

A section of the bus wrapped around the front of the locomotive, you can see the steering wheel on the left.

In minutes local residents are at the wreckage trying to rescue survivors, a few minutes later they are joined by professional responders along with US-soldiers who are stationed nearby. Pieces of the bus and dead bodies are strewn all the way from the crossing to the final position of the wreckage, the large bright blue and white bus has been turned into a barely recognizable bundle of steel and fabric. A local silo factory’s employees bring their welding-equipment and start cutting the wreckage apart, creating better access to survivors and victims. Some of the firefighters, unable to do much else, stand guard with fire extinguishers should the remains of the interior or the passengers’ clothing start to burn. Soon the grass on the side of the track is lined with covered bodies, ambulances and private cars shuttle between the site and the local hospital. The last patient starts receiving treatment at the hospital at midnight. A moment of hesitation led to the worst bus-accident in the history of post-war Germany. Statistically, at the time, 100–140 people died every year in collisions between road vehicles and trains, the collision at Lauffen providing a third of that drives home the scale of the tragedy.

A (censored) photo by a witness, showing US-soldiers help in the rescue effort.

The public prosecutor’s office files charges against the crossing guard for negligent cause of death and negligent cause of bodily harm as well as dangerous interference with rail traffic. The guard is sent to a psychiatric facility right after the accident, while the reasoning isn’t known for sure it’s likely to avoid him harming or killing himself. The driver of the car that crossed the tracks ahead of the bus is also put on trial for dangerous interference with rail traffic as well as failure to render aid as he drove away after the train struck the bus behind him. The trial unveils serious flaws in the DB’s operation and safety-measures. The crossing-guard had no precise clock at his disposal, and the one at Kirchheim station and at the control center for the overhead wire were displaying different times as well. Supposedly mandatory equipment to automatically record train-movements or other operations like the setting of signals and crossing barriers were defective or inaccurate. Furthermore investigators found that there actually was no guideline saying how the barriers have to be down for before a train reaches the crossing. Even worse, when it turns out that the crossing guard failed to close the barrier once before the DB explains that this needs to happen 3 times for a crossing guard to be removed from his position. Until then they only get internally fined, with sums as laughable as five German marks. In the end the crossing guard is relieved of criminal guilt, as is the driver of the car. The following year Germany’s federal court of justice (comparable to the supreme court in the US, for example) overrides the sentence and sentences the crossing guard to jail time before a third trial in 1961 reduces the sentence to 9 months of probation for negligent manslaughter. The driver of the car is never charged or sentenced again.

A newspaper scan showing the local newspaper’s front page two days after the accident.

After the accident the public pressure mounts on the DB to move traffic back to the Zabergäu Railway and increase the attractiveness of the line. Today the accident is seen as the event that led to the DB replacing the 750mm narrow gauge track with regular gauge (1435mm/56.5in) track. This, along with the removal of several barrier-less crossings along the route doubles the line’s operational top speed and cuts travel-times in half. It remains the only time the DB retracked an entire railway from narrow to regular gauge. In the 70s and 80s ridership on the line declines until the DB shuts down traffic on the line entirely by 1995, ripping out the track in the following years. 20 years prior to that does the DB retire their last 01.10 locomotive, despite an annual mileage of more than 3.5 million kilometers/2.17 million miles. Only a handful remains today, mostly in private hands, a few of which still pull historic trains. Similarly, while they’re long gone from commercial services, a small enthusiast community has formed around historic buses keeping some operational or at least presentable.

A preserved DB 01.10 pulling a historic express train in late 2019.

Today the road-layout at the site is different from the status back then, a large bypass road keeps most of the traffic out of Lauffen itself and the level crossing was replaced by an underpass. Today the DB no longer uses crossing guards, all level crossings are automated and close as soon as approaching trains trip a sensor a safe distance from the crossing. Level crossing collisions still happen, but usually due to defects in vehicles or at the fault of the driver.

Survivors have to deal with consequences of the crossing guard’s negligence for the rest of their lives. Mr. Schaber, who survives with severe injuries and spends several months at the hospital, says in a 2009 interview that he still gets an “uncomfortable” feeling every time he drives over a level crossing.

A few years after the accident a memorial is erected near the site, a simple rock with a cross and a metal plaque surrounded by hedges.

The memorial near the site of the accident, photographed in 2021.

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