Into the Wall: The 1988 Hochspeyer (Germany) Train Collision
Hochspeyer is a municipality of 4622 people (as of December 2020) in the far southwest of Germany, located in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatine 44km/27mi west of Mannheim and 7km/44mi east of Kaiserslautern (both measurements in linear distance).
The municipality lies on the Mannheim-Saarbrücken Railway, a 130.5km/81mi electrified mostly double-tracked main line opening in sections between 1847 and 1904. The line is one of Germany’s most important railway corridors, connecting Germany and France. Today the line is set up for top speeds between 160kph/99mph and 200kph/124mph and sees everything from local, national and international freight trains as well as regional services and long distance express trains.
Located just to the west of Hochspeyer is the Heiligenberg-Tunnel, one of 12 tunnels on the line. The 1347m/4419ft long single-bore tunnel opened in December 1848 in single-track configuration before gaining a second track (in the same tube, which had been constructed for two tracks from the start) a few years later. The landscape around the eastern portal required the construction of a deep trench for the railway line to run in, supported for several meters ahead of the portal by brick walls to either side of the track to restrain the mountainside’s soil.
The trains involved
Gdg 57607 was a freight train travelling eastbound from Saarbrücken to Mannheim, consisting of 21 open hopper cars carrying coal. According to reports the train had a total weight of 1134 metric tons. Pulling the train was DB 140 633. Introduced in 1957 as the E40 the DB (German national railway) series 140 was developed as one of the DB’s new standardized electric locomotives (Einheits-Elektrolokomotiven) developed after WW2 to simplify the fleet by means of a common platform to reduce cost, ease maintenance through shared parts, and speed up the retirement of steam locomotives. The series 140 was developed specifically for freight services, being a smaller version of the six-axle series 150. Each series 140 measures 16.49m/55ft in length at a weight of 83 metric tons. They can reach a top speed of 100kph/62mph, enough for the intended purpose of midsize freight trains, which was bumped up to 110kph/68mph in 1969 when the locomotives also saw service with passenger trains. Between 1957 and 1965 879 series 140 were made, making it the most common of the standardized electric locomotives. DB 140 633, the locomotive involved in the accident, had been made in 1967, having been in service for barely 20 years at the time of the accident.
Coming the other way was D 2754, an express train from Heidelberg to Saarbrücken. It consisted of four four-axle passenger cars, different versions of the UIC-X platform which measure 24.5m/80ft in length. Running behind the locomotive was a second class car carrying twelve compartments for six people each. It’s unknown how many people were on board the train at the time of the accident.
Pulling the train was DB 110 104, a four-axle express train locomotive. Introduced in 1952 the series 110 (then called the DB E10) was also one of the new standardized electric locomotives (Einheits-Elektrolokomotiven), in this case specifically meant for express trains. The series 110 measures 16.49m/55ft in length at a weight of 85 metric tons and could reach 140kph/87mph. DB 110 104, the locomotive involved in the accident, had started service with the DB in February 1957. Somewhat ironically it wore a blue-black livery, while the train cars it pulled shared their beige-blue livery with the series 140. By 1988 the DB had started painting the series 110 beige-blue, but 110 104 never got to wear that livery before it met its end.
In the afternoon of the 28th of June 1988 the area around Hochspeyer was dealing with a severe thunderstorm including heavy rainfall, some of which started to accumulate between the 140 years old brick wall outside the Heiligenberg-Tunnel’s eastern portal and the soil behind the wall. This caused a localized increase in lateral pressure on some of the bricks, eventually causing part of the wall to collapse onto the eastbound track with mud, gravel and other bits of mountainside following along. By approximately 3:05pm the eastbound track was effectively blocked by soil and bricks.
At 3:15pm Gdg 57607 passed the western portal of the tunnel in an eastbound direction. Due to poor visibility both inside and outside the tunnel the driver only recognizes the blockade approximately 150m/490ft ahead of it and triggers an emergency stop. Regardless of his best efforts, the train strikes the obstruction at 75kph/46.6mph. The locomotive and first two freight cars derail, moving ever so slightly to the left as they do. With the heavy train pushing the derailed cars and locomotive along they scrape and push the material off the track, keeping the remaining train from derailing.
At the same time D 2754 passes through Hochspeyer station without stopping at 113kph/70mph, shortly after which the driver notices the voltage of the overhead catenary dropping. He suspects the ongoing thunderstorm to have caused lightning to strike the catenary nearby. A moment later his locomotive rams the nearly stationary derailed freight train head-on, as 140 663 protruded into the oncoming train’s path and also leaned over towards the oncoming track as it rode up onto the dirt blocking the tracks. The express train’s series 110 strikes the freight train’s locomotive right above the latter’s frame with both its cab front and frame, ripping the freight train locomotive open all the way down its side. The impact pinches both drivers in their respective cabs, but they survive. It takes the express train 120m/393ft to come to a stop, grinding against the northern support wall, while Gdg 57607 comes to a stop approximately 115m/175ft past the point of derailment. The leading passenger car has buckled 1/3 down its length and torn off the rest of the train, passenger cars 2–4 run into one another and fall against the freight train. One passenger in the leading car dies in the collision, 28 people (including the two drivers) are injured, 10 of which severely.
At 3:32pm the DB was notified of a train collision outside Hochspeyer, by the time the first responders reached the site 13 minutes later the level of alarm had been raised to that of a catastrophic event, dispatching hundreds of responders from various surrounding cities to the remote site. The responders’ vehicles could only get to within 400m/1312ft of the site, which was in between up to 12m/39ft high walls, rescue helicopters couldn’t land anywhere nearby at all. As responders reached the wreckage on foot they expected a mass casualty event, DB 140 633 showed over 2/3 of structural destruction (in easier terms, its body got largely crushed), and the series 110 didn’t fare that much better. It must’ve been a shock to the responders when, out of the torn and twisted metal heaps, they heard the drivers reply to their shouting.
Seeing that they couldn’t carry the injured survivors all the way to the waiting ambulances and helicopters responders did their best to treat them on site while waiting for the DB to send a catenary maintenance train from Kaiserslautern on the western side of the tunnel, loading the transportable survivors onto the train’s flatbed car (intended for construction materials) and taking them to Kaiserslautern main station from where they were driven or flown to surrounding hospitals. The barely injured or uninjured passengers were walked 400m/1312ft eastbound to a former loading-area for wood and then taken back to Hochspeyer by bus. Despite the ongoing rain and thunderstorm complicating the rescue effort, especially with another small mudslide around 5pm, all passengers and staff were off the affected trains and taken care of by 9pm. By 6am the next day most of the freight train’s cars had been re-tracked and pulled through the tunnel to Kaiserslautern allowing workers to clean up the mud and debris so that the remaining train cars and both locomotives could be recovered from the site with the help of two heavy duty cranes. By the 30th of June the locomotive, most passenger cars and 2 freight cars had been removed from the site and stored at Hochspeyer station.
By the first of July at 5am repairs had progressed enough to open both tracks at a reduced speed, observers were placed along the wall to watch for any sign of another impending collapse. 4 days later the investigators finished their examination of the remains of both trains, finding no sign of any defect that could’ve played a role in the derailment. Some people argued that the freight train’s driver didn’t declare an emergency fast enough, but it’s assumed that he was jostled around the cab of his derailing train so violently that he was busy holding on to whatever he could grab instead of reaching for the radio. Initially rumors started spreading that the drivers had died too, at least the freight train’s driver as his locomotive carried far worse damage, later a rumor said he had been off the train and walking to a track-side phone to notify his superiors. In the end the investigators clarified that neither thing had happened, he didn’t have time to do anything after the derailment and before the collision as his train was still moving forwards when the oncoming express struck it, which is backed up by the severity of the damage but also the unusually short distance it took for the trains to stop. In the meantime the DB decided that both locomotives were beyond saving, leading to them eventually being taken to Kaiserslautern to be broken up.
On the 27th of October the DB presented their temporary findings to the federal state’s parliament, at which point one of the members, Mister Sondermann, brought up the theory that the wall must’ve been in disrepair/visibly damaged prior to the collapse. He claimed that the ongoing reduction of employee-numbers had led to excessively long maintenance-intervals which could’ve caused significant damage to go unnoticed. His theory was shot down by one of the engineers involved in the investigation, saying none of the cut positions had been in the responsible departments, there was nothing to inspect about an ancient brick wall (like a drainage system more recent constructions may have), and the wall was simply constructed when the engineering and the importance of rainwater moving through soil weren’t where they were by 1988. A follow-up statement demanding that all similar support-walls along the Neustadt (Weinstraße) — Kaiserslautern rail line should be examined was shot down with reference to the prior explanation, the ongoing regular visual inspections were deemed sufficient. It would cause undue problems to close down the tracks and de- and reconstruct the walls just to take a look at the soil behind them. In the end no one was personally blamed for the accident, and the wall was rebuilt by 1989, a few months before the investigation concluded with no legal consequences. It had really just been a random accident that no one could have avoided, it was a chain of “wrong place wrong time” coincidences that were impossible to foresee or avoid.
While 110 104 was disposed of entirely 140 633 was actually reconstructed, although it’s unknown how much of the original locomotive was reused. It was last spotted in service around 2007. The series 140 was finally completely retired from the DB’s fleet by 2016 (with the first non-damage-related retirements happening 17 years prior), some of the last retired locomotives had racked up around 10 million kilometers/6.214 million miles during their service-life. 3 locomotives of the model are already in museums, while several more are still in service with various private rail service providers. The oldest still running unit is 140 070, which was introduced into service back in April 1957.
The series 110 lost its express services around 1990, being pushed into branch line and regional services. Early 110.1 locomotives like the one involved in the accident were the first to be retired as early as 2001 as they were incompatible with cab-cars for push-pull operations. By 2014 the last 110 was retired. 18 locomotives are preserved in mostly private hands in varying conditions as museum pieces (including some operational ones), while 3 remain in regular service with private rail service providers.
The site of the accident looks a lot like it did at the time of the accident, except for some of the woods south of the portal having been cleared away and at some point a concrete wall was constructed on top of the southern retaining wall. Should another accident occur at the tunnel today responders could drive or fly right up to the portal and use cleared area where trees previously prohibited helicopter landings or access by car.