Looking back and moving forward: The 1995 Garmisch-Partenkirchen train collision.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a municipality of 27215 people (as of December 2019) on the southern Border between Germany and Austria, 80km/50mi south-southwest of Munich and 34km/21mi northwest of Innsbruck (both distances measured in linear distance).

The location of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Europe.

Mostly living off of year-round tourism (skiing in winter, hiking and biking in summer) the area is home to various hotels, bed and breakfasts and holiday homes as well as being the main destinations for tourists headed to the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain at 2962m/9718ft. Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s main train station connects to different German and Austrian railways. Most of the traffic comes from regional passenger trains, but especially around the holidays the station also serves long-distance connections to cities as far as Hamburg, Berlin and Bremen, closer to the opposite end of the country. The station was significantly downsized in 2000, going from nine tracks running through it to four.

The approximate site of the accident seen today. Note that the track-layout has changed slightly since the accident.

On the day of the accident the Austrian RE (Regional Express) 3612 from Innsbruck via Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Munich main station was pulled by ÖBB (Austrian national railway) series 1044 235, an 84 metric ton 16.1m/53ft four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive capable of 160kph/99mph top speed. The train had entered the station from the south and would spend a scheduled 10 minute break at the platform before leaving the station to the north.

An identical series 1044 with a regional train at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1986.

Reaching Garmisch-Partenkirchen southbound was DB (German national railway) series 491 001–4 as an irregular chartered service numbered 28827. The 491, then called DR (National Railway of the German Empire (1920-1945)) ET 91, had been built along with an identical twin in 1935 specifically for scenic tours around the alps. The 20.6m long electric multiple units could reach up to 110kph while carrying as many as 70 passengers. To let passengers see as much as possible of the picturesque landscapes around them the upper part of the body including most of the roof consisted of large panoramic windows. This gave them a unique look, coining the name “Gläserner Zug” (“Glas Train”). One of the two, ET 91 02, was destroyed during a bombing raid on Munich’s main shunting yard. Following this the remaining unit was taken to Bichl, a small town in Bavaria, and hidden behind brick walls in the town’s locomotive shed. After the second world war ended it was renumbered 491 001–4 and re-entered service with the DB, being refurbished and repainted in different liveries twice. From 1986 onward it wore dark blue (lower section) and bright white (upper section) paint, while the pantographs on the roof were painted red. It was still popular with tourists and enthusiasts, moving as far north as the federal state of Lower Saxony, and even visiting non-electrified routes (usually by being pushed with a diesel locomotive, to still offer panoramic views out the front).

The glass train photographed in August 1995, 4 months before the accident.

On the 12th of December 1995 at approximately 9:25am the glass train is approaching Garmisch-Partenkirchen station on a single-track line from the north, coming from it’s base in Munich with 28 passengers. It will pass through Garmisch-Partenkirchen and continue onto the scenic Karwendelbahn (“Mittenwald Railway”). One of the passengers is Mr. Luister, who is travelling with his parents after gifting the tickets on his father’s seventieth’ birthday. The day trip has no logistical purpose, no-one takes the train to get from A to B. It’s a decent winter day with temperatures just below freezing and some light snowfall.

The glass train entering Garmisch Partenkirchen station 3 years prior to the accident. This screenshot shows it at the approximate point of impact.

Meanwhile RE 3612 is parked at the platform, with it’s conductor running into the station building to grab a cup of coffee during the train’s usual wait. Any other day the train would wait for 10 minutes before continuing towards Munich. However on this day it’s also supposed to wait for the irregular glass train, extending the wait by 3 minutes. Reaching the coffee desk inside the station the coffee has just run out, so the driver has to wait for a new can to be brewed. While he waits a colleague comes in and tells him that it’s time for his train to depart. The conductor runs back to the train and closes the doors. On his way he can’t see the exit-signals, they’re blocked from his perspective by the train and the platform roof. He later states that he looked at his watch, and the usual 10 minutes had indeed expired. At last he blows his whistle and gets on the train also. The driver hears the whistle and departs the station at 9:32am, looking back at his train as he begins to pull out of the station. Once the train is in motion he sits down, and is suddenly faced with the bright blue historic train in his path, only a few meters away. It turns out that he had departed on a red signal, missing this since he wasn’t looking ahead but back towards his train. He immediately triggers an emergency stop, the same moment the signaling-system auto-stops the train also. But it’s too late. The RE is going too fast, there isn’t enough distance left to stop. At 9:34am the RE, travelling at 47kph/29mph, slams into the historic train head-on, which itself is travelling at 37kph/23mph. The glass train’s big feature, the large panoramic windows, become it’s fatal weakness. The fragile train breaks apart on impact, with the RE stopping the 51 metric ton vehicle and pushing it back several meters.

51 people are injured in the collision, including all 28 passengers and the driver of the Glass Train. Mr. Luister later recalls looking out the side window, then randomly out the front and suddenly seeing the massive red locomotive coming towards him. He thought “what’s that doing there?” before feeling like he got knocked on the back of the head, passing out for several minutes. He awakens in a horrible situation. People are crying and screaming around him, there’s blood everywhere. A whole portion of the front of the train has been compressed, a pile of debris replaces the driver’s area. Upon impact the 60 years old train folded up like a concertina, the forces tore several benches inside loose and threw them through the interior, worsening the injuries of the passengers.

The interior of the Glass Train after the accident, you can see the front of the locomotive on the left and right.

Various people call the emergency services, responders are on site within minutes of the collision, thanks to the location of the station in the center of Garmisch-Partenkirchen the site is easy to access. 70 EMTs and doctors, fifty police officers and the entire local fire department respond to the collision. The focus is on the historic train’s passengers, the passengers on the RE suffered minor injuries at worst. The firemen smash windows on the historic train, bend open window frames to climb inside. One by one they hand passengers off to their colleagues on the platform. A few minutes after they arrive responders pull an unresponsive 58 years old man from Munich out of the wreckage, after several minutes they successfully revive him on the platform before flying him to Munich. He dies later that day, becoming the collision’s sole victim. Mr. Luister and his more severely injured parents are taken into the station’s main hall, which is turned into a makeshift hospital to protect the survivors from the cold and get them out of the way of the responders working on the trains. Helicopters ferry survivors to various hospitals, as the small local one is soon overwhelmed by the event. Later that day the DB’s recovery-crew arrives and the two trains are separated to clear the site up.

A TV-crew captures the Austrian locomotive backing away, it’s front end held up significantly better.

While the historic train isn’t to blame for the collision the DB still receives criticism for using such an old train that was barely acceptable to use when it was made. The train was mechanically sound and allowed to carry passengers, but there’s no doubt that a train made up of 2/3 glass has awful occupant protection in case of an accident. Furthermore, due to the age of the construction, the windows are all regular glass. No safety-glass to avoid shattering, and no emergency exits either. That the safety of the interior was never really questioned only makes matters worse. The cause of the accident is quickly found, the conductor admits that he forgot about the changed schedule that day and thought the train was to depart after 10 minutes like any other day. The driver looking back down his train as he started to pull out only sealed the fate of both trains. The 1044 has a strong acceleration, being meant to handle heavier trains than just an RE, so by the time the auto-stop kicks in (it’s unknown if the signal system or the driver triggered it first) there isn’t enough distance (“overlap”) left in between the trains to stop, with the cold snowy weather increasing both trains’ braking distance.

A few days after the accident the DB takes the Glass Train away on a flatbed truck, it disappears into an undisclosed warehouse in Munich and isn’t seen for years. 1044 235, the Austrian locomotive, is repaired soon after the accident and returns into service. In 2002 it’s modernized and upgraded, turning into 1144 235. Last spotted in late 2018 it’s presumably still in service, although 2020 saw the first locomotives of it’s type retired.

1144 235, the locomotive involved in the accident, photographed in Vienna in November 2018.

The conductor and driver are eventually put on trial, while the conductor is sentenced to 10 months probation and a fine of 9000 German Marks (
4281 Euros/5237 USD) the driver only gets fined 6000 German Marks (2855 Euros/3493 USD).

This episode of “Eisenbahn Romantik”, a German TV-series, shows the Glass Train in use as well as the aftermath of the accident.

In 1997 the Glass Train is taken off the DB’s fleet lists, promoting rumors that it has been scrapped. It reappears in 2005, having been borrowed from the DB by a purposely founded enthusiast group. It’s taken to a train-museum in Augsburg where, financed by charitable donations, it’s slowly being repaired. The group wants to restore it as a non-powered vehicle mostly for display, reconstructing the drive train would be too expensive. By 2010 the damaged end had been completely stripped down, in 2017 the repairs had advanced enough to pull the completed rolling shell out onto the museum’s turntable for the first time. The current status of the repairs is unknown, once the museum reopens the Glass Train will be on public display there looking (at least on the outside) the way it did until that fateful day in 1995.

The visually repaired train on display at Bahnpark Augsburg in 2020.

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