Mistook 2 for 1: The 2018 Aichach Train Collision.

Background

The town lies on the Ingolstadt-Augsburg-Hochzoll railway (nicknamed the Paartalbahn”/”Paar Valley Railway”), a 63km/39mi single track unelectrified main line opened in 1875. After being important for military transports in World War 2 (that is until a bridge in the middle of it got blown up) usage of the line declined in the following decades, with freight traffic by the DB (German national railway) being ceased in late 2000 and passenger services being handed off to private providers in 2009. By that point the railway had been upgraded several times, allowing a top speed of as much as 130kph/81mph. The entire railway was equipped with PZB (“Punktförmige Zugbeeinflussung”/”Punctual train influencing”), a train protection system that can automatically stop trains running a red signal and that is used in a number of European Countries as well as Israel and one railway in Canada.

The entrance-signal to Aichach station.

Aichach station, a 3-track (main line, second track and a dead-end siding) small town station, was the only station on the line still using old semaphore signals instead of modern ones that work with colored lights. Controlling operations at the station was an old mechanical signal box from 1949, still running signals and points off cables and relying on visual verification (a nice term for saying the signal box worker needed to look out the window to check what was going on). At the time of the accident passenger and freight services on the line were in private hands, but the infrastructure was still owned by the DB, who also staffed the signal box. The northern entrance to the station comes in a long straight, while the southern one goes around a slight bend between the entrance-signal and the station’s entrance.

The site of the accident seen from above, you can see the tracks go through a slight curve.

The trains involved

VT 215, the LINT involved in the accident, photographed in 2013.

Waiting at Aichach station was DGS 98907, one of the few freight trains using the railway. Running as a private charter for a sawmill in nearby Unterbernbach the train consisted of 20 four-axle flatbed “stake cars” to transport wood. Pulling the train was a Vossloh MaK G 1206 rented by K-Rail, a freight service provider from Freilassing in southern Bavaria. The MaK G 1206 is a four-axle diesel locomotive engineered for heavy shunting work or freight trains and weights 84 metric tons at 14.7m/48ft in length. Powered by a 1500kw/2012hp V12 diesel engine from MTU or Caterpillar. Introduced in 1997 over 300 MaK G 1206 have been made for various European customers. Including the empty flatbed cars the 483m/1585ft long train came in at a weight of 647 metric tons.

A Vossloh MaK G1206 identical to the one involved in the accident, photographed in July 2015.

The accident

At this point the dispatcher should have applied blockades to the levers controlling the points at his station, as track 2 was obviously occupied and not to be used for any other train. However, he neglected to do this, enabling him to set the path for the incoming passenger train on the usual path because he had forgotten about the freight train. Now the points would direct the incomming train right into the parked freight train. Protocol demands that, in addition to the other safety-measures (which the dispatcher neglected to follow) he has to visually verify that the track he chose for the incoming train is clear. He fails to do this as well and turns the signal green right away. At 9:08pm BRB 86696 leaves Dasing station and picks up speed. Shortly after the regional train passes the town of Obergriesbach (4.8km/3mi down the tracks from Aichach) the dispatcher realizes his fatal error as he remembers the freight train parked on the chosen track. He turns the entrance-signal to “stop” and attempts to radio the train, but by that point the train is past the signal and it’s too late to avoid the accident. Even an emergency stop command sent to all surrounding trains comes too late to have any effect.

Coming around the slight right hand curve into Aichach station the driver of BRB 86696 spots the freight train in the distance. Travelling at 90kph/56mph he triggers an emergency stop at 9:16:30pm, desperate to shave off as much speed as possible. 130m/426ft later the lightweight passenger train crashes into the parked freight train head-on at 57kph/35mph. The heavy freight train is shaken but barely moves as the passenger train breaks apart on its nose, the locomotive suffers damage to the buffers and handrail while the passenger train’s driver’s cabin is obliterated. The driver dies on impact, one passenger dies of severe injuries before any responders arrive. 13 passengers survive with injuries, two of which suffering severe injuries. The driver of the freight train is treated for a shock but otherwise unharmed.

Aftermath

Two photos from the report, allowing a comparison of damages.

The investigation would later determine that the crash engineering of the LINT did work to some extend, reducing the forces excerted on the passenger compartment and keeping the passenger train from becoming wedged underneath the freight locomotive. But at nearly twice the speed the crumple zones were engineered for and with such a massive obstacle it couldn’t be expected to maintain the entire structure of the train. The LINT was and is a rather safe vehicle, but, similar to modern cars, any crash engineering can be overloaded. With no defect found on either train or the signaling system and the autopsy of the driver revealing no sign of intoxication or medical emergency (backed up by the LINT’s data-logger showing proper operation down to the emergency stop) attention turned to the dispatcher. Records showed that he had started the shift early, falling short of the minimum rest period between shifts. He cooperated extensively with the investigation, and flat out admitted that he had forgotten about the freight train and was thinking of the path any other train on that route usually took. On the day of the accident alonTe 19 trains had gone through Aichach in the northbound direction, BRB 86696 and one other train at 6am had been the only ones requiring the detour via track 1 rather than staying on the main track. As the dispatcher had started his morning shift at 6:16am he had not worked when the other train required the detour at 6:11am, presumably contributing to him falling into false confidence of the routine path. The dispatcher soon finds himself arrested, but in part due to his cooperation he’s not deemed a flight risk and is released from custody until the trial.

The LINT is scrapped some time after the accident, while the freight train locomotive is repaired and soon returns to service. The material damage is listed at 5 million Euros/6.07 million USD and is paid by the three involved company’s insurances, while the DB’s insurance takes care of medical bills and similar costs. After the accident the quick and efficient response is praised, along with the cooperation by local residents who helped in the rescue and/or let responders use the adjacent houses and garages. Locals and employees of the BRB privately collect money to help the driver’s family, but soon after the accident things at the site are largely back to normal. There is no sign, memorial or other reminder of what happened.

An aerial photo of the crash site, BRB 86696 was supposed to go around the freight train on the track in the foreground.

The accident shines a light on gaps in Bavaria’s railway safety standard, Aichach was the only station on the line without sensors reporting if a track is occupied and the only one not yet using modern light-based signals, almost symbolizing its outdated status. A year before the accident at Aichach a similar collision had occurred at Leese-Stolzenau in Lower Saxony, 473km/294mi linear distance to the north of Aichach. There, two freight trains were sent on a collision course because the dispatcher forgot about one of them and there were no occupancy sensors in place. That time no-one had died, partly because it were two relatively similar trains with “matching” structures.

The wreckage at Leese-Stolzenau, showing clear similarities to the Aichach-one.

While the dispatcher was found to be at fault for the accident the BEU (“Bundesstelle für Eisenbahnunfalluntersuchung”/”Federal Authority for Railway Accident Investigation”) repeated its demand for an upgrade of all signal boxes in Germany to have axle-counters and occupancy sensors, especially on railway lines with a single track. The system would replace the manually installed blockade on the levers to set a path unless as many axles left a track as entered it, giving a safety-level clearly higher than visual verification and radio conversations. In the meantime the 24 years old dispatcher was sentenced to 10 months in jail, set as probation, in January 2019, being found guilty of negligent homicide in 2 cases, negligent cause of bodily injury in 13 cases and negligent endangerment of rail traffic. It could never be proven that he was too tired to focus sufficiently, as such the cause of his errors was declared as simple negligence and over-reliance on routine.

One of the responders standing next to the wreckage the morning after the collision.

In early 2020 Mister Scheerer, the son of the dead passenger, gets involved in the push for improved safety. He starts a petition to force the DB to invest more into expansion and upgrading of their safety systems. His petition would force the DB to modernize over 1000 signal boxes by reducing the maximum age of operational signal box technology. The petition also lists plans to modify the DB’s entire mode of operation, changing them from a company with stocks that are publicly traded to one that is no longer operated as a for profit company, also separating the federal railway authority from the traffic ministry. In Scheerer’s words there is now a trend of lacking safety causing accidents, with his mothers’ and the drivers’ deaths being very much avoidable. The petition fails, reaching just 650 of the required 50 thousand signatures, but his proposal is still introduced for consideration by the German parliament. The DB had also announced shortly after the accident that they were going to invest 90 million Euros/109.3 million USD into their signal boxes, upgrading 600 signal boxes until 2023. The rest will be upgraded too, but for the time being there is no more money available. It is that claim that upset Mister Scheerer and made him start the petition, he says the DB should take a loss if it means keeping people safe. Aichach receives its occupancy sensor system in Summer 2020, starting its use in June. Scheerer’s proposed changes are not accepted, the DB remains a for profit company and is not forced to invest more at once into the safety systems. Scheerer expressed that he can forgive the dispatcher, as anyone can make an error but there is technology that could have prevented the horrific consequences.

Video

German news report aired a few days after the accident as the dispatcher got arrested, showing footage of the rescue and recovery.

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