Bramberg am Wildkogel (“Bramberg by the Wildkogel”, referring to the nearby 2225m/7300ft mountain) is a town of 3957 people (as of January 2021) in western Austria, located 34km/21mi west of Zell am See and 20.5km/13mi south of Kitzbühel (both measurements in linear distance).
Sitting at an elevation of 819m/2687ft in an east-west valley the town is connected to its neighbors by the Bundesstraße (“Federal Road”) 165, which is used by private individuals and Busses, as well as by the narrow gauge “Pinzgauer Lokalbahn” (Pinzgau Local Railway, named after the part of Austria its located in) which connects to the regular-gauge ÖBB (Austrian National Railway) in nearby Zell am See since 1898. The railway is constructed at a track width of 760mm/29.9in (“Bosnian gauge”), little more than half of the regular 1435mm/56.6in.
Stretching to 52.6km/32.7mi in length the Pinzgauer Lokalbahn connects over 30 towns and municipalities between Zell am See in the east in Krimml in the west, being an important provider of both passenger and freight services (the latter having been ceased in 2019). While the railway is used by a lot of tourists it is by now means a pure leisure-offering but an integral part of the area’s infrastructure. Originally meant to be electrified this was never actually done, leaving (apart from the stations) a single-track non-electrified railway, with services provided by diesel locomotives and multiple units at up to 80kph/50mph, while 3 historic steam locomotives are maintained in operational condition for special occasions.
The trains involved
Travelling westbound from Zell am See to Krimml Station was Regional Train (RZ) 3310, consisting of 3 passenger cars and a special bicycle transport car, pulled by Series 2095 Number 003–6 (coded 2095.003–6), coming in at a weight of 89 metric tons and an overall length of 61m/200ft.
Coming the other way was RZ 3313 from Krimml Station to Zell am See, consisting of 3 passenger cars and a bicycle car as well and being pulled by the near-identical 2095.002–8. The report lists RZ 3313 at 60m/197ft in length and 92 metric tons in weight.
Introduced in 1958 the ÖBB 2095 (at the time the Pinzgauer Lokalbahn belonged to the ÖBB) is a 10.4m/34ft four-axle multipurpose narrow gauge diesel locomotive made to replace the last steam locomotives in regular service on various Austrian narrow gauge railways. Powered by a V12 diesel engine the locomotives put out 440kW/600hp at just 1500rpm, enough to propel the 10.4m/34ft long 31 metric ton locomotives to 60kph/37mph. A characteristic feature are the short connecting rods on the outside of each bogie, with the engine only powering the outer axles these rods transfer power to the inner ones also.
Since the railway line is all single-track outside the station there are scheduled “meetings” at specific stations where one train can pass the other. There is no signaling system the way you may find it on other modern railways, signals are set individually by the dispatchers who keep track of the trains by arrivals and departures along with radio communication. A block-system that automatically keeps trains apart by operating the signals and creating blocked zones does not exist.
On the 2nd of July 2005 at around 11:45am RZ 3313’s driver receives a phone-call by the dispatcher, clearing him to proceed through Bramberg station (the next stop on his line) and continue on to Mühlbach instead of waiting for the oncoming RZ 3310 at Bramberg as scheduled. The dispatcher will later insist that he did not clear the train for Mühlbach, telling the driver to wait for the other train at Bramberg before continuing on to Mühlbach. With the unknown misunderstanding in place the driver completes a stop at Bramberg and departs for Mühlbach at 11:52am without waiting for the incoming train. His train is nearly empty, carrying only 35 passengers and a conductor along with the driver. Leaving Bramberg behind as he accelerates to the train’s top speed of 60kph/37mph RZ 3313 rounds a right hand turn as the track follows the bank of the Salzach River when the driver suddenly finds himself facing the headlights of RZ 3310 coming right at him.
At this moment the trains are only a few hundred meters (100m=328ft) apart, travelling at roughly the same speed. There is not a thing on this earth that can avoid disaster now. RZ 3313’s driver triggers an emergency stop moments before impact, obviously a hopeless effort. At 11:57am the two trains, carrying a total of 45 people, collide head-on at a combined speed of 97kph/60mph. Both locomotives’ suffer severe damage, largely eliminating the leading driver’s cabins as both trains derail in their entirety. Several of the passenger cars break open on impact with each other, with the rear section of RZ 3310’s leading car ending up inside the remains of the following car. Most of the train remains upright and somewhat aligned, only RZ 3313’s wooden bicycle car leans to almost 90° as it’s forced off the track. One passenger aboard RZ 3310 is killed in the accident, the train driver initially survives but succumbs to his injuries before he can be rescued. Both conductors and 32 passengers are injured, 7 of which being listed as severely injured.
Survivors call the emergency services, soon followed by calls from the surrounding stations as the trains fail to show up and can’t be reached. The local fire department’s units show up shortly after the accident, knowing full well they’re out of their depth the alarm is soon raised to the status of a catastrophe alerting responders from surrounding municipalities and even federal agencies’ personnel. Over 200 firefighters respond to the alarm, along with over 100 EMTs and eight medical helicopters from Austria and Germany. The first firefighters on site grab axes and saws and cut paths into the vegetation to access the wreckage, once they reach the train cars hydraulic spreaders and other cutting tools allow access to the destroyed train cars. Eight people are trapped in the mangled cars, one survivor loses a leg during the accident. The train cars are older constructions, built when crash engineering was far less advanced. The trains jammed together into one uninterrupted chain of bent metal and splintered wood, responders have to inch their way through the train as they rescue and evacuate survivors. Some survivors likely only make it because the visibility at the sight is just barely above the minimums to use helicopters, just a little worse and they couldn’t have flown survivors to hospitals.
The surviving train driver can be rescued off the train through the engine compartment and rear cab, his colleague on RZ 3310 wasn’t as lucky. The driver is formally arrested before being taken to hospital as police officers also go and question the dispatcher. Late in the evening the rescue and recovery of the passengers and dead driver is finished, after an examination on site the decision is made to move the wreckage off-site for further inspection so that the track can be repaired and reopened as soon as possible. Lacking an adjacent road or even hard surface to bring in heavy cranes the Austrian Army is included in the recovery operation, providing a “Griffon” armored recovery vehicle to pick the mangled trains apart. The “Griffon” is a 22.5 metric ton tracked crane fitted with a crane-arm as well as a strong winch. In the following hours the soldiers manage to remove the train cars one by one with the help of a smaller conventional crane, once a few cuts are placed in the area where they were jammed together the locomotives can be recovered also. The 20 metric ton winch on the vehicle was of particular help, allowing the locomotives to be pulled apart horizontally.
The investigation finds that RZ 3310 was cleared by radio to travel from Uttendorf to Bramberg, where it was to pass the waiting RZ 3313. For unknown reasons the protocol of what orders were given to the train could not be retrieved by investigators, it was presumably disposed of by accident or on purpose. RZ 3313 was cleared to travel to Bramberg from the west not by radio but via a phone call, this order was not entered into the protocols (which showed several gaps). In fact investigators found 6 protocols from different days/connections aboard RZ 3313’s locomotive, none had been filled out the way they were supposed to be. According to other employees the use of phone calls instead of the radio, which sometimes was not even functional on locomotives in service, was not a rare occurrence. At the time of the accident 2095.004 had been in service for 8–10 months without a working radio, communicating only by phone calls. This was fixed by giving it 2095.002–8’s working radio-module.
Presumably because he had misunderstood the orders from the dispatcher 3313’s driver departed Bramberg without permission, the lack of modern safety equipment meant the accident was impossible to avoid. RZ 3313 was fitted with a GPS-based notification-system for important information, but the system had been defective and out of order. Why this defect had not been fixed when the locomotive had been inspected on the 29th of June is unknown. RZ 3310’s 3 minute delay was deemed unimportant, the train driver should’ve known that there was supposed to be a train passing him before departing Bramberg. After the accident Austria’s Vice-Chancellor convoked a special commission to improve the safety-level in railway traffic.
The voice-recorders aboard the locomotives were also replaced/improved, after they’d been proven useless in the investigation, holding incomplete and unintelligible recordings. Furthermore, the ÖBB made it mandatory to check the GPS-systems before departure and to loudly name the date at the start of a day’s service, since the voice recorders did not record the date and time on their own. The train cars were disposed of pretty much immediately once investigators had decided that they played no role in the accidents, while the locomotives sat in storage until being sent to the scrapyard in May 2006.
In February 2008 the legal proceedings were unexpectedly cut short when the dispatcher passed away from unrelated causes, meaning he could neither appear in court nor be questioned to the disappearance of the protocols. With that no one was ever held legally responsible for the accident despite it being largely assumed that the surviving driver had acted in gross negligence. Since the accident there has only been one more notable accident on the Pinzgauer Lokalbahn, when a multiple unit struck a semi-truck at an unsecured crossing in 2009, leaving 15 people injured.
In July 2015 two surviving series 2095 were shipped off to Romania along with a few more locomotives and parts donors, while 2 units running on the Mariazellerbahn (a different Austrian narrow gauge railway) were modernized with new electronics and lights as well as a new livery. Of fifteen locomotives made 13 are still in working condition, 10 in regular service in Austria, 2 in Romania and one as a working museum piece. In Februar 2020 plans were announced to drastically modernize the railway, including finally electrifying it. That also means the acquisition of new rolling stock, likely bringing the end of the series 2095 at least on the Pinzgauer Lokalbahn.
Due to its characteristic design and the long and varied service the 2095 is a popular locomotive for model railways in various gauges, I actually own a G-scale model that I inherited from my Grandfather.