Missed the Dune: The 2013 Saßmannshausen (Germany) Level Crossing Collision

Saßmannshausen (pronounced Sassmannshausen, with emphasis on the ss) is a town of 186 people and part of the city of Bad Laasphe in western Germany. The town, incorporated into Bad Laasphe (along with several other small towns) in 1975 is located in the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia, 99km/61mi east of Cologne and 32km/20mi northwest of Marburg (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Saßmannshausen in Europe.

Saßmannshausen lies on the Kreuztal-Cölbe railway, a single-track non-electrified main line connecting various towns in the area. Opening in 1883 and expanding to its current length in 1888 the line is nowadays exclusively used by regional passenger trains at speeds of no more than 80kph/50mph. The line is owned and operated by the “Kurhessenbahn” (KHB), one of several regional subsidiaries of the DB (German railway) founded to ensure sufficient services on different low-volume lines. At the time of the accident the Bundesstraße 62 (Country Road 62) crossed the rail line twice within 500m/1640ft in/near Saßmannshausen, once right inside town and a second time just to the southeast of the town, going in a straight line as the rail line goes through a sprawling turn.

The site of the accident seen from above in 2007. The train came from the right, the truck from the top/left of the image.

Approaching Saßmannshausen from the east was RB 23156, a regional passenger service from Marburg to Erndtebrück carrying a driver and 30 passengers. Providing the service was DB series 628 number 244, a two-car diesel multiple unit. Introduced in 1974 (prototypes/testing) and entering regular service in 1986 the DB series 628 are considered successors of the classic rail buses, offering reliable low-cost service for branch lines and low-level main lines. Measuring 45.4m/149ft in length at a weight of 66 metric tons the trains can carry up to 82 people in a two-class configuration at up to 120kph/75mph. However, their low power-output of just 410kW/550hp gave them a rather sluggish character, creating the nickname “Wanderdüne” (“shifting dune”). Each train consisted of a motor car numbered as 628 and an unpowered cab car numbered 928, which could only be separated at the maintenance facility. At the time of the accident the involved unit was running in reverse, with control car 928 244 leading the train. The unit had been delivered to the DB in December 1988.

DB 628/928 244, the train involved in the accident, photographed in 2010.

Travelling eastbound along Bundesstraße 62 from Erndtebrück to Bad Laasphe was a semi-truck with a dump trailer. It consisted of a two-axle Iveco 460 semi-truck weighting around 8 metric tons and a three axle dump trailer of unknown make/model. Comparable trailers (going by images) weight about 7.5 metric tons empty and could carry around 30 metric tons of cargo (the amount of cargo the truck carried is not listed in the report).

A semi-truck with a dump trailer near-identical to the one involved in the accident.

On the 22nd of June 2013 at approximately 9:25 RB 23156 is approaching Saßmannshausen from the east with cab car 928 244 leading the unit. The train is running east to west while the track-kilometers are marked west to east, so it will reach the level crossing at km 47.418 before it reaches the one at 47.010. At 9:27am the train triggers a sensor in the tracks, closing the two level crossings at Saßmannshausen. Both crossings are secured by saltires and flashing red lights that turn on when a train approaches, but do not feature barriers. The train passes the first crossing without incident and enters the left hand turn towards Saßmannshausen at 51kph/32mph with the turn reducing it to 49kph/30.5mph.

The level crossing within Saßmannshausen as shown in the report, looking eastbound.

At the same time a 55 years old truck driver is approaching the level crossing at km 47.010 from the northwest, tests later show that the flashing lights had turned on by this time. The truck driver disregards the warning signs and drives into the crossing regardless, just as 928 244 reaches it. The train’s data-logger records an emergency stop being initiated at 9:27:49am. The stop-command comes hopelessly too late, before the train can be slowed down at all it hits the truck at full speed right behind the driver’s cab. The train mounts the frame of the truck, ripping it off its trailer in the process. The impact deflects the train off its path to the left, crushing the truck’s driver’s cabin. The trailer gets pinched against a lamppost to the right of the tracks as the truck is destroyed under the weight off the train, getting pushed onto a meadow to the left of the tracks. The resistance from the impact lifts 928 244’s rear end off the track, derailing it and thus the following 628 244 to the right. The train comes to a stop just 25m/82ft past the point of impact, with the severely damaged leading car sitting atop the mangled remains of the truck. The two drivers suffer severe injuries and are trapped in their vehicles, all 30 passengers aboard the train suffer injuries, 2 of which severe ones.

Alarmed by the deafening noise of the crash local residents call the emergency services at 9:30am before rendering first aid to the passengers of the train, without specialized equipment they can’t access the drivers. A few minutes after the accident the first professional responders reach the site of the accident, over 120 people from various institutions get involved in the rescue effort. The fire department manages to rescue the drivers by means of cutting and bending their way through the mangled vehicles, both men get airlifted to hospitals with severe to life-threatening injuries. The train driver eventually recovers, but the truck driver succumbs to his injuries, becoming the sole victim of the accident.

Responders examining the remains of the truck, the whole cabin got separated from the frame.

After the accident the THW (Federal agency for technical relief) unloads the box of the dump trailer before starting to cut the trailer into smaller pieces for removal. In the meantime the investigators examine the train and what’s left of the level crossing’s safety-measures, but fail to find any trace of a defect or malfunction with either. Neither do they find any evidence of behavior by the train driver that may have caused the accident, such as excessive speed. It becomes fairly clear that the deceased truck driver is the sole person at fault for the accident. Witnesses back up this theory, stating that the truck did only approach/enter the level crossing after the warning system had turned on. The report notes poor visibility between the approaching trains and road vehicles, the truck and train headed right for one-another until the truck entered the crossing in a sharp right hand turn, yet still the two drivers couldn’t see each other’s vehicles until the truck was in the crossing. While the report notes that it has to be considered that clear lines of sight might also make drivers feel more confident about “beating” the train to the crossing if they can see it (subjectively) a safe distance away repair workers at the site don’t bother waiting for results and cut down a number of bushes to increase visibility a little bit.

A wider look at the wreckage, the train literally went through the middle of the truck.

A few days after the accident relatives of the truck driver publish an article in a local newspaper, asking for two small plush animals the driver had had in his cab to be returned. They had been with him at the time of the accident but couldn’t be retrieved afterwards, sparking the theory that someone stole them from the scene or from the remains of the truck when it was hauled off for scrap. It’s unknown if they ever got the animals back, although one certainly hopes so.

The truck and train are written off after the accident, with the train being sent to the scrapyard in November 2015 after the investigation concludes. A few months after the accident construction crews arrive at the site of the accident (which had been repaired after the wreckage was cleared away) and construct a new routing for the Bundesstraße 62, by the time they finish it now runs north of the train tracks, eliminating one of the two level crossings and reducing the other one’s use to only serving a few commercial properties in the town. In addition the remaining level crossing (sitting at the site of the accident) now includes barriers in addition to the lights and saltires. Had he done the trip today the truck driver wouldn’t have had to cross the railway line at all. Barrier-less level crossings are an ongoing problem in Germany, with their presence on low-volume lines often making it hard for the DB to justify the cost of a replacement/upgrade. As such the handling of the situation at Saßmannshausen can be noted as being very good, quickly signing off on extensive construction (in cooperation with the new road being built) and a new level crossing for the small town.

The new level crossing with barriers for pedestrians (left) and cars, now only serving a low-traffic road.
The rerouted Bundesstraße at the site, no longer crossing the train tracks, seen from above.

By the time of writing this (2021) the DB has largely retired the series 628.2 (the type involved in the accident), with the only remaining regular service for them being a chartered shuttle for the employees of BASF, a chemical company, in Rhineland-Palatine. A handful of the later versions are still in use all over Germany, but their days are likely numbered. A couple of trains have been exported to various countries, including Canada, Poland and Romania, and in March 2015 the very first 628.2 was gifted to the DB’s historic fleet and subsequently restored to its original condition. The Kreuztal-Cölbe railway is now served by more modern DB series 646 diesel multiple units.

DB 646 213, one of the multiple units replacing the series 628 in the area, photographed near the site in 2018.


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