Hopelessly Heatwavy: The 1981 Erfurt-Bischleben Derailment

Bischleben (pronounced Bish-leben) is a town of 1633 people (as of 2016) in the center of Germany on the former territory of the DDR/GDR (East Germany), located 192km/119mi west of Dresden and 165.5km/103mi north of Nuremberg (both measurements in linear distance). It’s considered part of the city of Erfurt despite being located approximately 5.5km/3.4mi linear distance to the southwest of the city itself.

The location of Bischleben in Europe.

The town lies on the Halle-Bebra railway, an electrified double-track main line that is part of the main routes connecting Berlin and Leipzig with Frankfurt (Main), Germany’s financial capitol and home of the German stock exchange. Opened in 1849 the railway sees everything from regional services to long-distance express trains and freight services.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The train came from the south (bottom of the image).

D 1453 was an express train running from Düsseldorf (far west of Germany) via Erfurt (GDR) to Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz, also GDR). The train consisted of 10 eastern-German four-axle passenger cars (the exact types are unknown) and carried mostly retirees who had made one of the rare trips to the west and were now returning home. The stop at the inner-German border (necessary for extensive luggage- and ID-checks) was also when the locomotive was replaced, with the train now pulled by DR (the GDR’s national railway) 132 009. The series 132 (later renumbered 232 after integration into the DB (western German national railway)), nicknamed “Ludmilla”, is a heavy six-axle diesel locomotive adapted from the near-identical series 130 specifically to pull passenger trains, possessing the systems for electric heating of a passenger train. Weighting 124 metric tons at 20.8m/68ft long these locomotives reached up to 120kph/75mph, enough for even heavy express trains. Like most heavy diesel locomotives of the era the 132 was made in the Soviet Union and the GDR had to buy them, pretty much.

132 009 photographed with a very similar train in August 1985.

The 11th of July 1981 was a scorching hot summer day, as D 1453 approached Erfurt temperatures outside climbed to around 30°C/86°F. Regardless, many of the passenger wore thick coats or jackets as the train went along its tracks at 120kph/75mph. The prolonged heat caused the tracks to expand, poor construction and engineering that didn’t account for this created a warp in the tracks inside Erfurt-Bischleben station near the station building. Approaching the warped section at full speed the train driver spotted the defect and initiated an emergency stop a short distance ahead of it, but it was too late to stop the heavy train. The locomotive reaches the warped track at 4:19pm and (presumably thanks to its high weight) passes right over it and keeps going. The first three cars get shaken increasingly violently as their suspension systems fight to keep them on the track before the fourth car derails, tearing off the coupler. It pulls the following cars off the track with it, causing cars 4 and 5 to fall down an embankment while car 6 comes to a stop in the gravel to the right of its track. Car 7 has the worst fate, striking the signal box nearly at its full width. The impact compresses the body of the train car to approximately half its length, ripping open one side of the car. The rear three cars derail but stay largely aligned with the tracks, suffering minimal damage, while the forward part of the train stops a few hundred meters down the tracks, essentially undamaged. 14 people die in the derailment, most of which in car 7, while 93 passengers survive with injuries (other sources list 102 injured passengers).

Responders working on car 7, having it pulled away from the signal box.

Having happened in the middle of a town during the afternoon responders (both volunteers and professionals) were quickly on scene to tend to the survivors. Several nurses and doctors recall cutting injured survivors out of their sometimes suspiciously thick clothes and being met with bundles of German Marks (western-Germany’s currency) falling out of the layers. Some of the mostly elderly passengers are said to have worn up to four coats, like the money those were most likely presents from relatives in the west meant to be smuggled past the controls at the border (western money was worth a lot more than the GDR’s currency).

Tanks from the GDR and UDSSR pulling the wreckage apart.

The GDR’s traffic minister Otto Arndt visited the site of the accident a few hours after the derailment to see the progress of the recovery effort, the next morning tanks from the GDR’s military and the Soviet Army helped to pull the wreckage apart and off the tracks. By the afternoon the first trains could pass the site again, be it on the other track. The statement from the train driver that he had seen a warp in the tracks caused some uproar in the population, with a rumor claiming military vehicles to have illegally crossed the tracks and thus caused the damage. This did happen a few times in the GDR, especially at or near military bases when tank crews didn’t want to take a long detour to an appropriate level crossing or require a flatbed truck. But since the warp had been located near the station building and not somewhere a vehicle could have crossed the most popular theory became lackluster built quality of the tracks that didn’t account for expansion from summer heat and might have even caused excessive tensions in the track from the start, made worse by the heat. The public prosecutor’s office in Erfurt started investigations against employees of the DR (the GDR’s national railway, not to be confused with the pre-war DR), but those were eventually cancelled as the derailment had caused too much damage to the track to point out the precise cause of the warped tracks. An important factor was that the GDR wanted to make the accident forgotten as fast as possible as an international train had been involved, especially one from the “other Germany”, and the government feared a negative impact on the GDR’s image. It’s unknown if any of the passengers faced legal consequences for smuggling in money or goods from the west.

The damaged track after the derailment (left) and one of the cars being recovered by a crane (right).

Most of the train cars were recovered, some even being towed away on the tracks, but car 4 and 5 had suffered too much damage as they rolled down the embankment by the side of the tracks to be saved or towed away. Deciding that it would be too difficult to recover the remains of the train cars they were cut apart and burned on site. Some rumors circulated that some of the smuggled goods were burned along with the cars.

Today nothing at the site points to the accident, and precise information on it is relatively scarce (something typical for incidents in the GDR). After German reunification the series 132-locomotives became property of the DB (German national railway), being renumbered as series 232 as 1XX was the designation for electric locomotives. 232 009 remained in service until September 1995, being retired and eventually scrapped in 1999. A small number of series 232 locomotives is still in service with the DB today, almost exclusively pulling freight trains, with another few having found a new home with various private rail service providers.

A series 232 pulling a freight train for the DB in February 2021.

Even if the government of the GDR was happy to quickly make the accident forgotten, some locals didn’t agree. At some time in the early 1990s Erfurt’s model railway club built a diorama depicting the aftermath, which was on display (latest I could find) until 2010 in the foyer of Erfurt’s main fire station.

Two photos from the H0-scale (1/87) diorama taken in 2010.

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