Gramatneusiedl is a municipality of 3697 people (as of 2022) in the far east of Austria, located in the federal state of Lower Austria 17km/10.5mi southeast of Vienna and 42km/26mi west of the Slovakian border at Bratislava (both measurements in linear distance).
The municipality has a train station on the Ostbahn (“Eastern Railway”), a double-tracked electrified main line connecting Vienna with Bratislava in Slovakia and Hegyeshalom in Hungary. Opening in 1846 the line has since become part of two main European railway corridors, being used for the connections between Paris and Bucharest as well as Paris and Istanbul. The line sees everything from freight trains and regional passenger services to international express trains, allowing speeds of as much as 140kph/87mph.
The Trains Involved
Z75173 was a freight train from Vienna shunting yard to Götzendorf, consisting of 29 freight cars of different types pulled by ÖBB (Austrian national railway) 2016 097. The ÖBB series 2016 “Hercules” is a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive made by Siemens between 2002 and 2011 as the EuroRunner 20 (ER20). Each series 2016 measures 19.28m/63.2ft in length at a weight of 80 metric tons and can reach up to 140kph/87mph thanks to a power output of 1750kW/2347hp in freight-configuration. The train was entered into the official paperwork with a weight of 830 metric tons at a length of 480m/524yd and had a scheduled top speed of 90kph/56mph. The report lists cars 19–26, the cars actively involved in the collision itself, as empty four-axle tank cars.
Coming the other way was Z2618, a regional express passenger service from Neusiedl am See to Vienna Southern Station. The train consisted of four bilevel passenger cars with ÖBB 1116 071 pushing from the back. Introduced in 1999 the ÖBB series 1116 “Taurus” is a four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive set up for operation under different electrification-systems to allow international services without swapping the locomotive. The type is part of the Siemens EuroSprinter-family, the electric counterpart to the Eurorunner-family which the series 2016 comes from. Each series 1116 measures 19.28m/63.2ft in length at a weight of 88 metric tons and can reach 230kph/143mph.
The train pushed by ÖBB 1116 071 consisted of four ÖBB series 26/80 bilevel passenger cars made by Siemens as the Viaggio Twin. With the locomotive pushing from the back it was remotely controlled by the driver in the cab-car, a special type of passenger car which features a driver’s cab at one end at the price of slightly reduced capacity. So-called push-pull-trains with cab-cars are popular in regional passenger traffic as they allow reversing direction of the train without having to shunt the locomotive to the other end. A standard series 26 bilevel car measures 26.8m/88ft in length at an empty weight of 48 metric tons, with the cab-car version (type 80) being 3cm/1.2in longer and 1 metric ton heavier. The series 26 was introduced into service in 1998 and can reach a top speed of 140kph/87mph. According to the report the regional train measured 128m/ft in length at a weight of 322 metric tons and carried approximately 72 people at the time of the accident.
Since the city of Vienna (“Wien” in German) had helped the ÖBB finance some of the bilevel cars a five-car set had been painted in a special livery with “Wiener Szene” (“Vienna’s scene”) labels to thank the city for their support. The train involved in the accident consisted of that set, be it reduced by one middle-car to four cars total. Other train sets received financial support from Lower Austria and were painted with a Weasel instead of the “Wiener Szene”-design on the sides.
On the 26th of July 2005 freight train Z75173 is approaching Gramatneusiedl station from the northwest at 11:26am, travelling at 40kph/25mph and running 18 minutes ahead of schedule. At the same time the regional service from Neusiedl am See to Vienna Southern Station has finished loading and unloading passengers, leading to the conductor giving the train driver an “all clear”-signal. The driver checks the door-monitor (a system which ensures all doors are closed prior to departure), looks back at the platform via the cab car’s rear-view mirror, and lastly puts the train in motion at 11:27am. Prior to stopping at the platform the train had passed the pre-signal for the station’s exit signal, which had displayed “attention/slow”. Despite that the driver still accelerates as if there was no restriction, disregarding the 40kph/25mph speed limit imposed by the pre-signal.
The Taurus pushing the regional train is designed to handle trains of much higher weight, giving it little difficulty to quickly pick up speed with just 4 bilevel cars. The driver of the oncoming freight train later actually recalls seeing the regional train start moving, but suspects that the driver is just pulling up to the exit signal. To be fair, there wasn’t much he could have done at that point.
The driver of the regional train later admits that he saw the freight train, but likely assumed they would be running on adjacent tracks. It’s only when he gets surprised by the red exit signal that he triggers an emergency stop, at which point his train has already reached 107kph/66.5mph. The train dumps air pressure, applying full brakes 27m/88.5ft ahead of the exit-signal. Extremely late for a 40kph/25mph speed limit, just about useless for the speed the train is actually going at. The cab car runs into the side of the freight train’s 20th car, an unloaded four-axle tank car, at 11:28am. Both the cab car and the tanker car derail, severing the pneumatic lines of the freight train and triggering an automatic stop. The leading two cars of the regional train fall onto their side as the collision forces them to the left, sliding along the tracks for a short distance before the cab car rams a support pole for the overhead catenary, crushing the cab from the windshield upwards as the train comes to a stop. The leading 3 cars of the regional train derail, suffering severe damage, as do 7 of the freight train’s cars. 45 people are injured in the collision, 8 of which severely.
The freight train’s driver only notices that something is wrong when his train automatically dumps air pressure and applies the brakes, looking out the side-window of his locomotive reveals the carnage further back along his train. Similarly, the dispatcher in charge of the station is surprised by the system suddenly reporting several tracks as occupied, right before power is automatically cut due to the catenary coming down. He knows that something went wrong, only getting clearance when a shunting assistant who rode aboard the freight train calls him, at which point he raises the alarm and notifies emergency services. A fleet of ambulances and firetrucks descends on the scene within minutes, supported by four rescue-helicopters who take the worst-injured survivors to hospitals.
Passengers in the rear two passenger cars can leave the train largely on their own, being assisted by the train drivers or other passengers, while those in the forward cars have to wait for firefighters to help them as the only available doors are now 2.8m/9ft off the ground, vertically above the passengers. The driver of the regional train survives with minor injuries, he fell from his seat as the car rolled over which put him out of harm's way when most of the cab was destroyed.
Within the day investigators take over the site, examining the trains, signaling system and records along with interviewing the dispatcher as well as people from both trains. There wasn’t the slightest thing wrong with the trains or signaling system, and the dispatcher is soon cleared of wrongdoing too, as is the driver of the freight train. In the end the report, which is published in March 2006, places sole blame on the driver of the regional train.
The report points out that he passed a signal ahead of the station which announced a 40kph/25mph speed limit once he pulled away from the platform, which the driver acknowledged with the push of a button on his control desk. He then stopped at the platform, allowing passengers to enter or leave the train, until the conductor signaled that passenger movement had ended and the doors were closed. At this point the driver was intended to either remain at the platform or slowly pull up to the exit signal, which stood a short distance beyond the end of the platform, while obeying the speed limit.
Instead the driver made use of the Taurus’ full potential, utilizing most of the locomotive’s 6400kW/8583hp and thus quickly picking up speed. The report doesn’t give a precise reason for this, but gives the probably assumption that the driver had forgotten about the low speed limit and wanted to quickly get going to try and reduce the 2 minute delay his train had accumulated. He triggered an emergency stop when he saw that the exit signal was red rather than the expected green, putting the train just 27m/88.5ft from the exit signal he was meant to stop in front of. Braking late and from more than twice the intended speed made the emergency stop a futile undertaking, there wasn’t nearly enough space between the signal and the points where the regional train’s track merged into the freight train’s track to bring the train to a stop. For the last few seconds of the regional train’s journey the driver could do nothing but watch the disaster unfold.
It can be argued that, somewhat luckily, the oncoming train was an empty freight train. Nothing leaked from the ruptured tank cars (which had been carrying Methanol earlier) after the collision, and since it wasn’t a passenger service nobody aboard that train was injured by the side-impact, which is a known weak spot in train’s crash protection engineering.
The ÖBB changed driver guidelines after the accident, now train drivers are to assume that an exit signal is red unless they can see that it isn’t. This is meant to ensure that a driver who’s unsure about what a pre-signal indicated won’t “flip a coin” and make a wrong decision. Instead they are always to depart at a speed that allows safe stopping ahead of the signal, should it end up being red, and only accelerate to the scheduled speed once the signal is confirmed to be green.
The report further recommended evaluating the installation of further signaling system components to observe a train’s speed between a station’s platform and exit-signal. These components, which are essentially electromagnets with a specific frequency, require drivers to acknowledge a signal-setting and/or check a train’s speed, which would reduce the risk of a driver accidentally breaking the speed limit. In the case of the accident at Gramatneusiedl the driver acknowledged the pre-signal ahead of the station, but then the next magnet was located at the exit signal, by which point the emergency stop was already triggered. It’s unknown if the ÖBB followed the report’s suggestion.
The entire bilevel train, except for the locomotive, was written off after the accident and eventually got scrapped, as were several of the tank cars. A “Weasel”-set was re-wrapped with the “Wiener Szene”-livery after the accident to regain a full five-car set in the livery, only for that sets’ cab car to suffer another accident when it ran into the side of a commuter train and derailed in July 2019. This time, at least, the bilevel car could be repaired. Most of the 325 bilevel cars made are still in service today, having undergone a modernization process in the late 2000s. A retirement-date for the type is not in sight.
ÖBB 2016 097, the locomotive pulling the freight train, derailed itself in fall 2014, slipping off the rails on a faulty set of points. The locomotive was re-tracked with a crane and returned to service after minor repairs. The type is still an important part of the ÖBBs fleet, running a variety of services on unelectrified routes. Siemens does offer a successor in the form of the Siemens Vectron DE, a diesel version of the EuroSprinter’s successor. However, the ÖBB has chosen not to adopt the type.
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