Navigation to Nowhere: The 2015 Freihung (Germany) Level Crossing Collision

Max S
12 min readSep 24, 2023

Background

Freihung is a municipality of 2577 people (as of 2022) in the southeast of Germany, located in the federal state of Bavaria 61km/38mi east-northeast of Nürnberg and 40km/25mi south-southeast of Bayreuth (both measurements in linear distance). The town sits on the edge of the Grafenwoehr Training Area (GTA), the USA’s largest military training facility in Europe, which has a strong influence on the town’s culture, not in the least due to a high amount of US-citizens living off-base in Freihung.

The location of Freihung in Europe.

Freihung has a station on the Neukirchen-Weiden rail line, a 51km/32mi single-track non-electrified main line. Opening in 1875 under the Royal Bavarian Railways the line remained in operation as a branch line until being upgraded to main line status by 1973. The upgrade raised the speed limit on the line to 120kph/75mph for general traffic, while special tilting trains (see “The Vehicles Involved” below) are allowed to reach 160kph/99mph. The line is mostly used for regional passenger services along with the occasional freight train.

The site of the accident seen from above. The truck navigated the crossing from the south (bottom of the image) while the train approached from the west (left side of the image). Note the large industrial complex on the bottom-left.

The Vehicles Involved

A semi-truck with a long low-loader trailer was travelling through Freihung on the night of the accident, coming from Romania and heading to the GTA. The truck, which apparently belonged to a private Romanian logistics company, was transporting a damaged M1083, a three-axle military truck belonging to the US military which was to be taken to the GTA for repairs. The M1083 measures 7.27m/24ft in length and 2.83m/9ft in height at a weight of 11.3 metric tons.

A US Army M1083 similar to the one carried on the truck involved in the accident.

The military truck was standing on a special three-axle oversized low-loader trailer hooked up to a three-axle truck via a so-called gooseneck coupling. The trailer was capable of being lengthened and had adjustable ride-height, which was adjusted from a panel on the side of the trailer near the coupling. The report notes that, at the time of the accident, the trailer was adjusted to its shortest setting. The rig had a total length of 19.65m/64.5ft at a weight of 38.8 metric tons. This put it slightly beyond Germany’s maximum length for regular trucks (15.5m/51ft), requiring a special permit for the transport, but not by enough to require the company to have an escort for the truck or to have the route approved by local authorities ahead of time. The make and model of the truck pulling the trailer are unknown, with the report only listing a 3-axle truck with a single driven axle and a two-man crew made up of Romanian citizens.

An (somewhat basic) sketch of the truck and trailer involved in the accident, featuring lengths in metric units. This sketch is from the official report, sparing you the sight of my drawing skills.

RE 3535 was a regional express passenger service from Nürnberg main station to Weiden (Oberpfalz), provided on the night of the accident by DB (German national railway) 612 060. The series 612, nicknamed the “RegioSwinger”, is a two-car diesel multiple unit measuring 51.75m/170ft in length at a weight of 116 metric tons. The type was developed specifically for services on older and/or curvy routes and features a special tilting suspension system which allows the body of the train along with the frame to lean into turns at up to 8° depending on input from sensors at the leading and trailing axle. This changes the forces inflicted on the train, track and passengers and allows a 30% faster operation compared to regular trains. This leaning-system is the reason for the RegioSwinger nickname, as the train supposedly “swings” through corners, even if the actual motion is more comparable to a motorcyclist.

Each series 612 is powered by two Cummins inline-six diesel engines (one per half) producing 563kW/755hp each, and can carry up to 146 passengers in a two-class configuration at speeds of up to 160kph/99mph. The rear car of each unit is numbered 500 higher than the leading car, so 612 060 was paired with 612 560. At the time of the accident the train carried 30–40 people (depending on which source you trust) including the driver.

DB 612 060, the train involved in the accident, photographed in 2010.

The Accident

On the 5th of November 2015 an oversized transport carrying a US Army truck from Romania to the GTA for repairs is heading westbound through Grafenwöhr towards the silica factory west of the town of Freihung. An unnamed “municipality road” crosses the rail line just east of the factory, connecting to the perimeter road of the GTA whose property begins just 95m/312ft north of the rail line. While the road does allow access to the military base it is not intended to be used as such and doesn’t carry signage for the military base, being mainly meant for access to the factory south of the rail line. By 10:00pm the truck reaches the final turn ahead of the level crossing, a tightening right hand curve on uneven pavement.

The truck did actually fit down the relatively narrow road along the rail line for over a kilometer (1km is 0.62mi), but the approach the crossing itself is too much to ask. The low-loader trailer becomes beached on the uneven asphalt, taking weight off the truck’s sole driven axle which leaves the whole thing stranded with the driver’s cab on the train tracks. All of the truck’s wheels still touch the ground, but without sufficient pressure to pull the trailer free. The passenger, realizing that their situation has rapidly deteriorated and has potential to get far worse still, gets out of the cab and heads over to the control panel on the trailer, attempting to raise the ride height and maybe enable his coworker to pull the trailer free after all. He reaches the control panel just as the lights and bell at the level crossing turn on, soon followed by the half-width barriers lowering. The northern barrier closes ahead of the truck, while the southern barrier happens to slot right in between the military truck and the gooseneck coupler. The truck’s passenger, who has just started the process of raising the trailer, climbs onto the trailer ahead of the cargo and tries his best to push up the barrier, intending to force it open.

The crossing had been activated by the approaching RegioSwinger passing a sensor as it travels eastbound at approximately 150kph/93mph. The train was already decelerating when it passed the sensor as it was meant to stop at Freihung station. Some fog hangs over the track that night, limiting visibility, which is further impacted by bright floodlights from the silica factory creating haze in the fog and making the surroundings beyond the factory appear even darker. The train driver spots the obstacle in his path moments before impact and triggers an emergency stop, with the train dumping air pressure and applying full brakes 37m/121ft ahead of the crossing. Obviously, the train isn’t going to stop in time.

The RegioSwinger slams into the left hand side of the truck 1 second after initiating the emergency stop, travelling at 145kph/90mph. The truck driver is killed on impact as the truck gets torn off the trailer along with the gooseneck also being sheared off the low-floor section. The train’s coupler punctures and flattens the truck’s left hand fuel tank, releasing a cloud of fuel which immediately ignites on sparks caused by the train dragging the truck’s remains along the rails. The impact with the truck, resistance from the truck being dragged along and the derailed leading wheelset rapidly slow the train down, bringing it to a halt 460m/1509ft past the point of impact. The truck’s driver and train driver both die in the accident, with another 19 people, including the truck driver’s assistant, being injured, 4 of which severely.

Aftermath

A truck driver who had just departed from the silica factory witnesses the burning train grinding to a halt next to his truck and places the first call to emergency services, while another driver travelling in the opposite direction comes across the just stopped train moments later and spots a fire underneath the front end. He runs over and manages to open the forward right hand door of the train, climbing into the smoke-filled interior to look for survivors. Around this time, no more than 4 minutes after the collision, an off-duty police officer riding on the train places the second call to emergency services and confirms that there are no more passengers in the leading car. He retrieves two fire extinguishers and empties them into the fire without effect before retreating and heading to the level crossing, where employees from the silica factory are doing their best to round up survivors and administer first aid.

The first firefighters also arrive around that time, finding the leading 10m/33ft of the train in full burn. The truck’s surviving passenger is originally mistaken for the driver, once it’s figured out who he was it becomes clear that the truck driver had had no chance to survive the collision. Firefighters eventually manage to put out the fire and examine the inside of the burned train, confirming that there are no passengers to be found inside. The driver is listed as “missing” at that time, it remains that way until a firetruck’s winch can be used early in the morning to slightly un-crumple the remains of the driver’s cab, allowing his remains to be discovered and removed from the train. The body of the truck driver had previously been found by the side of the tracks while searching for survivors who may have wandered off, he was presumably thrown from the truck during the accident.

The destroyed cab of the train, sitting atop what was left of the truck.

Over 300 responders were involved with the rescue and recovery effort during the night, including a unit from the US Army’s military police who observed the handling of their truck at the site. The fire departments withdrew from the site the morning after the accident, leaving it to the investigators. A civilian towing company was tasked with removing the severely damaged low-loader, assisted by US soldiers. At one point hydraulic fluid sprays from the trailer’s torn hoses during the preparations, proving that the system had been operational and in the process of raising the trailer when the accident occured.

The report explains that the road along the rail line connects to the silica factory’s loading dock in a straight and relatively level way, while the “added on” approach to the level crossing leans to the left and has a slight crest ahead of the rail line which is barely noticable when driving over it even in broad daylight. The road then steeply heads downhill for a short distance once it crossed the rail line, creating a second, much stronger crest where a low, long wheelbase vehicle could get stuck. Had the first crest not beached the trailer, it likely would have become stuck there with the trailer right in the path of the train.

A photo from the report showing the level crossing after the accident. The photo is meant to show the uneven nature of the approach, but even in it the crest is very hard to see. Note the “seam” at the puddle in the bottom-left, from there the road ascends up to a crest about where the officer is standing before almost leveling out, especially on the left hand side.

The shape of the road had never been an issue in the past, as guidelines demand that, when scrapes on the tarmac around a level crossing are found during inspections, the road surface would be evaluated and possibly redone. It appears that the truck involved in the accident was the first to noticeably bottom out on this road, and unfortunately it became completely stuck instead of just leaving scrapes on the ground for inspectors to find. To make matters worse, the trailer’s design allowed both barriers to fully close as if the truck wasn’t there. Usually, when a modern level crossing’s barriers are prevented from closing, an alert is sent out which leads to the approaching train receiving a stop order.

A photo taken shortly after the accident, showing the southern barrier fully closed without touching anything.

Investigators eventually managed to recover the data-logger from the mangled, burned remains of the truck, and were able to extract some data from it. The recovered data showed that the driver had obeyed the legal driving- and break-times, and there was no sign of speeding or other unusual behavior either. His passenger explains during his questioning that they had been driving a route provided by a GPS navigation device installed in the cab, which had led them down the municipality road along the rail line. The device could not be recovered from the remains, so the claim can’t be proven or disproven. Why the GPS system would send the truck down the small road headed for the perimeter road rather than directing them to the main entrance at the town of Grafenwöhr (where the perimeter road ends up too) is unknown. It can be argued that the system didn’t know it was installed in a truck, much less an oversized one, but even with a normal car the route was very odd. There is a gate on the southeastern side of the base, 2.75km/1.7mi linear distance from the crossing, but it’s accessible from a main road the truck must have left to end up where it did. It’s unknown what exactly the driver typed into his GPS, but it’s unlikely that he would have chosen one of the two remote southern gates (numbered 4 and 5) rather than any of the main structures or the base’s main address.

An annotated map of the area. The truck was coming from the east (right side of the image), meaning at the very least the driver must have left the main road (yellow line) which would have taken him to Gate 4 and/or the main entrances/infrastructure further north.

Accidents from people having excessive trust in their GPS-devices are far from rare, but they usually range from funny (“Retiree trusts GPS, becomes stuck on hiking path”) to somewhat infuriating (“Trucker trusts GPS, destroys bridge and several signs”), they rarely have consequences this tragic. The report expressively points out that the train driver had no chance to avoid the accident, he did everything as right as he could and wasn’t even driving as fast as he would’ve been allowed to. The truck’s passenger could have objected to the driver’s intend to obey the route, but especially as a foreigner it’s understandable that he didn’t, and probably wasn’t familiar with the area. At least not enough to object to the navigation system. The level crossing was up to the requirements for crossings like it, and the road was fit for a semi-truck in general. The fact that the truck and its cargo where shaped so that, once the truck became stuck, the barriers could still lower uninhibited is nothing but tragic bad luck. That leaves only the truck driver to blame, if anyone, and with him dying in the accident nobody could ever be held responsible for the accident.

Firefighters cover the front of the train in fire suppression foam as they gain the upper hand on the blaze.

DB 612 060 was removed from fleet lists immediately after accident, along with its rear car which suffered extensive damage from smoke contamination. Both halves were stripped for parts before being scrapped in April 2016. Obviously, the truck was well and truly beyond saving too, with the truck itself being obliterated and the low-loader trailer being torn in half. The only vehicle to survive the accident, if you will, was the damaged military truck loaded onto the trailer.

DB 612 060 is recovered from the site a few days after the accident.

History Repeated Itself

Long-time readers of this blog might wonder why this whole article felt somewhat familiar. There is a simple reason for that. The accident at Freihung was a near-identical repeat of an accident which occurred in June 2001 at Vilseck, just 3.2km/2mi to the west of the 2015 accident. There, a DB series 612 (the same type involved in the 2015 accident) struck a truck belonging to the US military, killing both drivers and bursting into flames. The only difference was that the truck involved in the 2001 accident (a large five-axle container carrier) had driven into the crossing under its own power as the driver ignored the warning lights. The truck’s passenger also tried to force the barriers open by hand, actually exerting enough force for a warning to pop up in the dispatch center. However, the alert came too late to warn the approaching train. 3 people died and 20 were injured. The accident at Vilseck was the subject of an early installment on this blog (Number 7, to be precise). In case you decide to revisit it, allow me to use this opportunity to apologize for the slightly “rough finish” of the early article:

Firefighters look at the wreckage from the 2001 accident, which happened 3.2km/2mi up the line from the 2015 accident.

_______________________________________________________________

A kind reader is posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

--

--

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.