Jammed in Traffic: The 2018 Buseck Level Crossing Collision

Buseck is a municipality of 12973 people (as of December 2020) in central Germany, located in the federal state of Hesse 10km/6mi east of Gießen and 56km/35mi north of Frankfurt (both measurements in linear distance).

The site of the accident seen from above, the train came from the southeast (bottom-right of the image).

Buseck lies on the Vogelsberg Railway (Vogelsbergbahn), a 105.9km/65.8mi single-track non-electrified main line connecting Gießen and Fulda. Opening in sections between 1869 and 1871 the line is used almost exclusively for regional passenger trains at speeds of up to 120kph/75mph. Only 13km/8mi of the line is on level ground as it runs through several inclines and detours to connect a number of towns along it’s way. Over 100 level crossings are dotted along the line. One of these is access-road to an industrial area just east of Grossen-Buseck which is used by over 1000 trucks per day

The location of Buseck in Europe.

On the day of the accident a semi-truck carrying compressed bales of plastic was driving northeast-bound on the “Edekastraße”, named after the supermarket-chain who’s logistics-center is located on that road. The exact make and model of the truck are unknown, but photos and videos of the aftermath show a standard cab-over semi truck (opposed to the long hood design more common in the Americas) and an enclosed black trailer. The type of trailer used measures 13.68m/45ft in length at a weight of approximately 8 metric tons empty, the weight of the cargo on the day is unknown.

A semi-trailer very similar to the one involved in the accident.

DPN-G 24796 was a regional passenger service from Grünberg to Gießen, provided on the day of the accident by HLB VT 303, a Siemens Desiro Classic. Introduced into service in 2000 the Desiro Classic is a two-car diesel multiple unit in use with various national and private rail service providers in Europe and North America. Each unit measures 41.7m/137ft in length at a weight of 68 metric tons. Powered by two MTU diesel engines producing a combined 550kW/738hp the trains can carry up to 110 seated and 110 standing passengers at as much as 120kph/75mph. The HLB (Hessische Landesbahn), a local passenger rail service provider, owns 6 Desiro Classic at a purchase price of 1.2 million Euros/1.36 million USD each. VT 303, the unit involved in the accident, was delivered to the HLB in December 2005 and enjoyed a spotless safety record.

HLB VT 305, identical with the train involved, photographed in late 2017.

On the 25th of November 2018 a truck driver steers his truck off the L3128 main road into the Edekastraße and finds himself at the end of a traffic jam just a few feet past the intersection. Heading northeast (as the truck does) an intersection is located just ahead of the level crossings along with a dedicated paved “turning field” (similar to a small roundabout without an island in the middle) for buses, both of which complicate the traffic-situation even more. By 8:28am he has advanced just 85m/279ft past the intersection and is standing right on the level crossing. At the same time HLB VT 303 is approaching the level crossing from the southeast, carrying a driver, a conductor and 30 passengers. The train is travelling at 108kph/67mph as it passes a sensor 1.3km/0.8mi ahead of the level crossing which activates the closing-sequence of the barriers by turning on the yellow lights at 8:29:37am. At this point the driver, who has already eased up on the throttle ahead of an upcoming station, gets confirmation that the crossing is working and he is clear to approach.

The truck driver realizes the danger he is in just before the barriers start to lower at 8:29:49am. Still jammed in by other vehicles behind and in front of his truck he abandons the driver’s cab of the truck and distances himself from the crossing, fearing the imminent impact by the train. At 8:29:59am the level crossing’s control system recognizes that one barrier can’t lower completely and thus revokes the approach-signal. Too late, as the approaching train has already passed it. Coming around a bend the train driver spots the truck in his path and triggers an emergency stop approximately 250m/820ft from the crossing. The train dumps air pressure and starts to slow down, but the collision cannot be avoided.

At 8:30:23am the train crashes into the side of the semi-trailer at 97kph/60mph as timed by both an occupancy sensor being tripped and feedback from the second barrier being cut as it’s uprooted by the trailer. The impact rips the trailer off the semi-truck and tears it to pieces, throwing pieces of the trailer and it’s cargo all over the place. Part of the trailer mounts the train’s frame, partially crushing the driver’s cab. It takes another 300m/984ft for the train to come to a stop, well past most of the truck’s wreckage. The truck driver is unharmed, but the train driver, conductor and 18 passengers are injured, 3 of which severely.

Pieces of the truck’s cargo spread out along the path of the train.

While most passengers can leave the train on their own or with minor assistance the train driver is pinned in his cab and has to be cut free before being flown to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. Upon questioning by the police the truck driver says that he had accidentally pulled into the level crossing during the traffic jam, only realizing the danger he was in when other drivers warned him as the lights at the crossing turned on. The fault for the accident is soon pinned on him, even more so when investigators fail to find any defect in the level crossing or the train. Furthermore, once the wreckage of the train was recovered and workers cut the data-logger out of it investigators saw that the driver had not done anything wrong that contributed to the accident, proving that sole blame is on the truck driver. Driving school for both cars and trucks involves the simple lesson that you don’t drive into a level crossing, even with the lights off/barriers up, if you can’t be sure that you can quickly and completely proceed to the other side. It has to be assumed that the driver acted on simple negligence, prioritizing gaining a few feet over safety. By the time he rolled into the crossing the collision was unavoidable and the people on the train, including the driver, had no hand in the following accident.

Looking south towards the crossing, showing the wreckage of the trailer.

The level crossing is a known bottleneck in the area, having to handle over 2500 vehicles per day. Cars heading westbound down Edekastraße who plan to turn left immediately after the crossing (instead of proceeding to the main road) tend to roll into the crossing as well when trying to find or wait for a gap in the eastbound traffic. Another problem are the buses who leave the main road, turn around to the immediate west of the crossing and then leave for the main road again. Illegally parked cars in the designated turning-area as well as cars waiting to turn into the Edekastraße from the adjacent northern Zeppelinstraße can cause buses to have to wait outside the turning-circle or move back and forth several times, obstructing either or both lanes of Edekastraße to the immediate west of the crossing.

Graphics from the report showing how turning buses block the road (left) and how eastbound traffic blocks westbound cars turning left (right).

This wasn’t the first time a train had hit a truck at the crossing, in fact it was the third instance in six years. The risk was well known, and after an accident injured 26 people in 2013 alternatives were considered. First it was planned to create a new intersection to the south, connecting the industrial park directly to a larger main road (B49) and completely ignoring the L3128, going underneath an elevated rail line in the process. However, the high cost of the project and uncooperative land owners ended this plan. Another proposed route that eliminated the need for a crossing by heading north and onto L3128 after it crossed the rail line had to be cancelled when an endangered butterfly-species was found in an area the new road would’ve cut through. As such, at the time of the accident, there was no alternative to routing the traffic over the level crossing, despite the obvious drawbacks at the site. After the 2018 accident the signage along the southbound lane of Edekastraße was changed, reducing the risk of southbound vehicles ending up stopped on the tracks due to backed up traffic or buses.

A cameraman filming next to an axle which had been torn from the trailer.

As of today (June 2022) the level crossing is still in use the way it was prior to the accident, except for a temporary but indefinite slow speed zone having been established along the affected stretch of track intended to give train drivers more time to react, trains a better chance to slow down and, if an accident is unavoidable, lessen the consequences. According to the DB (German national railway, the owner of the infrastructure) the slow zone will remain in place until a permanent technological solution is found and put in place. The truck driver was apparently never put on trial for his role in the accident, his behavior having been found to be negligent but not criminally negligent.

The damaged level crossing lights photographed after the accident.

HLB VT 303 has not been spotted in service since the accident, with the report listing damage to the train at 750k Euros/847k USD it was most likely scrapped. The HLB’s remaining Desiro-units are still in service on the line, along with the similar Alstom “LINT” multiple unit. In the future the rail line will see a little more freight traffic with a local timber company starting the use of it’s new loading-track in April 2022.

HLB VT 303, the train involved in the accident, photographed a year before the accident.

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