Negligently Noted: The 1984 Heilbronn (Germany) Train Derailment

Background

Heilbronn is a city of 126.458 people (as of December 2020) in the southwest-German federal state of Baden-Württemberg, located 26km/16mi north of Ludwigsburg and 58km/36mi east-northeast of Karlsruhe.

The location of Heilbronn in Europe.

Heilbronn lies on the Franconia Railway (“Frankenbahn”), a 180km/112mi mostly double-tracked electrified main line connecting Stuttgart with Würzburg. Opening in several stages between 1846 and 1869 (making the oldest part one of Germany’s oldest rail lines) the rail line was an important corridor for over 100 years, seeing everything from freight services and regional trains to long distance express trains at the time of the accident. Ahead of reaching Heilbronn from the south the Franconia Railway passes through Heilbronn’s freight yard in the “Böckingen” district, when the freight yard was at capacity in the 1960s and couldn’t be expanded further a group of sidings was constructed near the “Klingenberg”-suburb referred to as the “Vorbahnhof” (“pre-station”).

The site of the accident seen from above today, the train came from the left side of the image.

The train involved

D890 was an overnight express train from Stuttgart to Hamburg, carrying singular cars (“through coaches”) from as far south as Lindau (on the border with Austria) and ones meant to continue from Hamburg on other trains as far north as Westerland on the Island of Sylt (the island holds Germany’s northernmost point). All nine cars were four-axle sleeper or couchette cars, each measuring 26.4m/87ft in length and weighting around 54 metric tons. At the time of the accident the cars had been in service for around 20 years.

A German type WLABmh 174 sleeper car, identical to one of the sleeper cars in the train.

Pulling the train was DB 110 109, a four-axle express train locomotive. Introduced in 1952 the series 110 (then called the DB E10) was one of the new standardized electric locomotives (Einheits-Elektrolokomotiven) developed after WW2 to simplify the fleet by means of a common platform to reduce cost, ease maintenance through shared parts, and speed up the retirement of steam locomotives. The series 110 measures 16.49m/55ft in length at a weight of 85 metric tons and could reach 140kph/87mph.

DB 110 109, the locomotive involved in the accident, photographed in 1990.

The accident

On the 12th of August 1984 at approximately 9:10pm D890 is sitting at Lauffen station with around 200 passengers, waiting to depart northbound for Heilbronn. The driver is 60 years old and scheduled to retire by October, he was very experienced and had passed his last health-examination with flying colors in December 1983. He was certified to drive on the line since 1975 and had last driven the route on the same connection the prior week.

Just north of Lauffen station the usual northbound (right hand) track had been closed for an overnight construction site, scheduled for the current and next weekend. Trains departing Lauffen northbound were routed onto the oncoming track past a red signal, for this they were handed a hand-written permission by the dispatcher which necessitated the irregular stop at Lauffen station. The trains were to travel a short distance north of the station at 40kph/25mph due to the shortened distance between a level crossing’s sensors and the trains on the “wrong track” before the following section would be permitted at slightly higher speed before bringing the trains back down to 40kph/25mph before entering Heilbronn-Klingenberg’s Vorbahnhof. The driver had a printed-out list of slow-speed zones with him (as was standard at the time) and had additionally noted the relevant ones down on a little “cheat sheet” to make them easier to keep track of.

After leaving Lauffen station with a two-minute delay the driver adhered to the 40kph/25mph speed limit for the level crossing and then sped up to approximately 70kph/43mph as he passed the construction site, staying well below the 100kph/62mph speed limit. Only after the construction site was behind him did the driver bring the train up to 95kph/59mph, holding the speed all the way to the Klingenberg suburb. Passing the pre-signal Va, positioned to the right side of the right hand track, the driver should’ve started decelerating to 40kph/25mph. But he didn’t. At 9:31pm D890 reached the pre-signal of Heilbronn-Klingenberg Vorbahnhof, 600m/1969ft from the points that were set to lead him back into the right hand track. At this point the train was meant to travel at 40kph/25mph to make it through the points onto the right hand track. Instead the driver accelerated further, speeding up to 110kph/68mph. A moment later, 200m/656ft from the points, the driver realized his error and triggered an emergency stop. A desperate attempt to slow the train that came too late to work.

At 9:33pm D890 enters the points at 103kph/64mph, 2.5 times the speed limit. The points directed the train to the right at a 300m/984ft radius, with the centrifugal forces on the leading cars being so high that the right hand wheels must have lifted off the track. The suspension system pushed back against the weight of the car, right as the opposite points (radius: 500m/1640ft) produced centrifugal forces in the same direction. All nine cars derailed as the locomotive ripped off the train, its higher weight keeping it from derailing. The leading four cars rolled over as they fell down a 5m/16.5ft high embankment, with car four mowing down an overhead catenary support pole in its path. Cars five and six swung back to the left and fell over onto that side while the remaining three cars remained upright but derailed.

A sketch of the wreckage of D890.

The locomotive came to a stop 200m/656ft past the wreckage, upright and nearly undamaged. Immediately after the locomotive came to a stop the driver radioed dispatch, saying he missed something and went 120kph where he should’ve gone 40, ending with “it’s my fault, it’s my fault”. Behind him, 3 people had died and 56 were injured, 35 of which severely.

Part of the wreckage photographed the next morning during recovery.

Aftermath

Soon after the accident over 200 responders were involved in the rescue effort, working their way through the destroyed train cars and trying to keep less injured or unharmed passengers from wandering off into the night. The site looked almost like an accident on a model train layout, like some kid had kept increasing the speed until the train was flung out of the turn. The utter destruction of the forward cars along with the right hand rail ahead of the wreckage being bent outwards almost 90° were clear signs of the forces involved.

The leading sleeper car after being uprighted, a large part of the interior was completely crushed.

While the injured survivors were quickly taken to various hospitals in the surrounding cities the DB (German national railway) later got criticized for leaving almost 150 uninjured passengers at Heilbronn station for hours without any staff to take care of them as they tried to arrange hotels or other trains to continue their journeys. The driver had to be treated for shock but was otherwise unharmed, by the time the police came to interrogate him he used his right to remain silent. Investigators combed through the train for traces of a defect or sabotage, but as far as they could tell the train had been in pristine condition right up until it derailed. The wreckage was cleared the day after the accident to make way for repair crews, with the investigation focusing on human error once the signaling system turned up no sign of a malfunction either.

Cars 2 and 3 being lifted out of a meadow next to the tracks.

The train driver had been experienced, sufficiently certified and not been under the influence of any drugs or medication at the time of the accident. Furthermore, he went above requirements with specific notes on the slow-speed zones relevant to his train. So how come that someone with almost 10 years of experience on that line go several times the speed limit by accident? The routing of the train on the night of the accident had certainly been unusual and had drawbacks, like relevant signals now being further away (on the right side of the right hand track rather than on the right hand side of the track the train was on), but the arrangement had been up to the requirements at the time and had been performed countless times with no incident.

The bent rail at the site of the accident, giving an idea of the forces involved as the train tipped over.

2 years after the accident the driver was put on trial for negligent manslaughter in combination with 35 cases of negligent cause of bodily harm. The investigation had decided that he was soley responsible for the fatal chain reaction of the night, even if they couldn’t completely explain how or why he ended up entering the points at vastly excessive speed other than that it certainly wasn’t on purpose. During the trial, which contained 25 witnesses and 6 independent experts, even the driver couldn’t explain his actions. One of the most likely theories was that he confused the Heilbronn-Klingenberg freight yard (kilometer 49.2), which usually didn’t matter on this route, with the station’s entrance-signal (kilometer 48.2) leading him to mis-judge his position and try to adhere to the local speed limit of a different location. The other theory that was circulated the most suggested that he had forgotten to note down the entrance-signal in his “cheat sheet”, which only showed the main signal of Heilbronn main station (kilometer 50.5). This would’ve meant that, again, he thought he was at a different position, seeing himself already past Heilbronn when he had barely reached the outskirts of the city. In July 1986 he was found guilty on all charges, being sentenced to eight months in jail which were set out to probation for two years. Having been placed on leave after the accident meant the night of the accident was the last time he ever drove a train. Furthermore, he had to pay 5000 German Mark (2590€/2911 USD in today’s money) for a charitable organization.

One of the sleeper cars sitting in storage in late August 1984 before being scrapped.

After the accident lacking safety-equipment for detours via the oncoming track were criticized, specifically the section of the railway were the accident occurred had no signals to announce the upcoming points and also no train control system (Indusi) that could control trains going the “wrong” direction, something that could’ve kept the train from breaking the speed limit set for the nightly diversion. In February 1985 the Indusi-system was upgraded, with the DB promising to further increase the safety of construction site detours. The insufficiency of these attempts was painfully marked by the 2000 Brühl train derailment, where a nightly express train derailed due to excessive speed during a diversion at a construction site. The accident claimed 9 lives.

The wreckage at Brühl in 2000, painfully similar to the one at Heilbronn.

The DB retired dedicated sleeper trains by 2017, with a selection of routes in Germany being taken over by the Austrian ÖBB while the rest was just cancelled. By that point it had been 16 years since the Franconia Railway lost its last long-distance express service, which moved to newer and faster rail lines, nowadays it only sees regional passenger trains and the occasional freight train, with the former being largely provided by private rail traffic companies.

The series 110 locomotives started being retired by the turn of the millenium, being around 50 years old now, relatively inefficient and lacking the ability to be remote-controlled from a cab-car, something that had become standard in German regional traffic (their sole field of service at the time). In April 2016 the last series 110 in DB ownership was scrapped. Only a small handful survives in private hands along with a few museum pieces, leaving about two dozen survivors out of 384 once existing E10/series 110 locomotives, most of which are later/modernized versions.

E10 121, a restored early E10/series 110, photographed in 2018.

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Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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