Mannheim is a city of 309721 people (as of December 2020) in the southwest of Germany, 70km/44mi south of Frankfurt and 59km/37mi north of Karlsruhe on the French Border (both measurments in linear distance).
Located in the southern part of the city is Mannheim Main Station, which hosts both urban public transport as well as various regional, national and international train connections. While the infrastructure and station belong to the DB (German Railway) international connections are provided by foreign railways also, including the SBB (Swiss), ÖBB (Austrian) and SNCF (French). With one of Europe’s largest shunting and freight yards sitting to the immediate east of it a lot of freight trains also pass through the station, further increasing traffic. Over 100 thousand passengers use the station every day, entering and leaving over 650 trains, making the station a major railroad hub in the area.
The trains involved
On the day of the accident EC (Eurocity) 216 was approaching the station from the east, planning to stop in Mannheim before continuing to Saarbrücken. EC 216 ran in reverse, being pushed by a locomotive controlled by the driver in a control cab at the other end of the train. Pushing the train that day was DB Series 101 number 067–7, a four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive weighting 84 metric tons at 19.1m/63ft in length. Introduced in 1996 the series 101 is capable of 220kph/137mph, enough for the express trains it was designed to pull.
EC 216 consisted of 9 Intercity/Eurocity passenger cars, weighting a total of 488 metric tons (empty). The rear car, a second class passenger car, was a control car with a driver’s cabin in an aerodynamic end-section, allowing the trains to operate efficiently with the locomotive pushing rather than pulling. German intercity and Eurocity-trains are easily identified by their white paint job, making them look more like the high speed ICE (Intercity Express) than the usual red passenger cars.
DGS 40635 was a short freight train running from Duisburg-Harbor (near Cologne) to Ludwigshafen BASF, a small train station on the property of the chemical company, before heading to Hungary. Pulling the train was ÖBB Series 1116 number 074–6, a four-axle 86 metric ton multipurpose electric locomotive made by Siemens (mainly) for the Austrian Railway under the “Taurus”-nickname. The locomotives are set up for international trains, being equipped to work with different electrical systems, and can reach 230kph/143mph. The locomotive involved was owned by RailCargo Austria, the Austrian Railway’s freight branch. The locomotive was pulling 7 six-axle articulated container cars, each carrying two full-sized containers. This led to a total weight of 545 metric tons. Articulated container cars have the same space for containers as two conventional container cars but need two less axles as the halves are hinged on a shared central two axle bogie. In Europe this kind of container car has become standard, bilevel container transport the way it’s known in North America would not fit on European railways due to overhead wires, tunnels and bridges.
On the first of August 2014 at 8:49pm DGS 40635 passes through Mannheim-Käfertal, a smaller station to the north of Mannheim main station. On its way the train was diverted into the left hand, usually oncoming track, being told to watch signals on his left. This is due to damage to the bridge reducing the load-capacity of the right hand track. 5km3.1mi down the line the freight train reaches the eastern end of the main station without incident, a few hundred meters ahead and one track to the right of EC 216. At this point the freight train is travelling at just 16kph/10mph. Approaching the main signals the driver of the freight train looks at Signal 184, to his left, which tells him to proceed. In reality, since he was off the oncoming track he was meant to look at Signal 183 to his right, which showed “stop”.
Passing through the red signal triggers an emergency stop and the freight train comes to a stop without input from the driver 21m/68ft behind the signals. The driver, unaware of his error, has no explanation for his train dumping pneumatic pressure and stopping. Instead of following procedure and radioing the dispatcher he follows procedures for a falsely caused emergency stop, overriding the brake-order before the train has even come to a standstill. He pressurizes the pneumatic system, releasing the brakes. At 8:51:07am, 22 seconds after stopping the train starts to move again. Now the EC has caught up, arriving side by side with the freight train. While the freight train has no one on board except the driver in the locomotive the EC has 150 passengers as its locomotive pushes it towards Mannheim main station. While the freight train is accelerating to 34kph/21mph EC 216 is travelling at 37kph/23mph, slowly inching past the freight train. Unbeknownst to either driver the trains are headed for a set of points which will have the freight train turn left into the track the Eurocity is on, the reason why the freight train was meant to wait. The freight train passes two more signals, both go unnoticed by the driver (presumably because he was still looking for signals on his left, not his right). The signals do not have the same degree of importance as the main signals, so they don’t trigger any sort of alarm or stop. Eventually the freight train reaches set of points meant to turn it left, 445m/1460ft after being stopped. At 8:52:08 an emergency stop is triggered, this was presumably when the driver identified the setting of the points and realized his situation. No more than 2 seconds later the locomotive of the freight-train is forced into the side of the Eurocity’s second car at a sharp angle, tearing off the rear bogie as the car falls on its side, pulling the third car with it. This tears the connection between the control car and the second car, activating the brakes. Only now does the train driver inside the control car realize that something is wrong, seeing pneumatic pressure drop and feeling an odd lifting motion in the rear of his car. He attempts to send an emergency call, but by the time he grabs the radio everything has already happened and he is being contacted by the dispatcher. Five cars of the Eurocity have derailed along with the freight train’s locomotive and first car. Due to the rapid, unusual motions of the derailing freight car the containers fall off the first car. The second container car derails with the first two axles, but remains upright and keeps its cargo. Due to both trains having full braking-force, derailing and only moving relatively slowly they stop within a few meters. 38 passengers are injured as the cars fall over, 4 of which suffering severe injuries. Presumably, this close to a scheduled stop (the platform was only about 100m/325ft away) some passengers had gotten up and were standing in the aisles/near the doors. But that is just an unproven theory.
The first responders reach the site within minutes of the accident, with ambulances arriving by 9:10pm. A notable coincidence is the easy access to the scene for the emergency response train 99970. Stationed at Mannheim main station it’s parked up on standby only a few meters from the scene. In a way, the accident happened in the best possible spot. A slow speed zone, very close to the road, in close proximity to the train carrying special tools and equipment for an accident like this.
When the collision happened the overhead wires were damaged and turned off, allowing for most passengers to quickly evacuate the Eurocity under guidance from train staff. Even when falling over the passenger cars remained structurally intact, making it relatively easy for the passengers in the fallen cars to leave these. No one has to be cut free or rescued from underneath loose interior pieces or luggage. 4 passengers are taken to the hospital, the rest is released after being seen and treated by EMTs on site. Experts from the fire department closely inspect the second fallen container once paperwork shows that it contained hazardous materials (a powerful biocide and chlorinated paraffin). However, while the container was damaged it didn’t loose any of its cargo.
Most responders leave the site around midnight, handing the site over to investigators. The wreckage covers 3 of the station’s 10 tracks, causing a significant disturbance, but investigators decide to not move any part of it until the investigation is done regardless of consequences for the traffic. The first suspicion for the cause of the collision is a problem with the points, usually they’re programmed to prevent a train impacting another’s side just the way it happened here. Looking at the schedules around the time of the accident investigators find an S-Bahn (“S-Train”, urban regional train), numbered 38244, arriving shortly behind the freight train on the northernmost track. The S-Bahn was on track 1, the freight train on track 2 and the Eurocity on track 3. Due to the layout of the tracks and the wiring the switch could only protect track 1 and 2 or 2 and 3 from intrusion, relying on signals protecting the Eurocity (main line) from the freight train (branch line) the paths had been set up to have the points protect the S-Bahn and the freight train from one another. This meant that, automatically, there’d be no physical protection between the freight train and the Eurocity. No-one had expected the freight train to run a red signal, stopping, and the stop then being overridden.
Finding no defect in the trains or the signaling-system attention turned to the driver of the freight train. Despite having attended a seminar on unusual path arrangements, such as using the oncoming track during construction, he had apparently gotten confused at what point he was supposed to look at which signals. Investigators further found that no sufficient knowledge of the route for a solo-trip could be proven and he had not upheld the minimal mandatory rest time between shifts meaning he was potentially tired and/or exhausted during the accident. He would’ve handed the train over to a colleague at the station, him wanting to finally get there and get to go home likely played a role in his negligent behavior after the train had been auto-stopped. Accidents caused by errors in close proximity to the destination of the person in charge have repeatedly happened in both rail and air traffic, creating the nickname “get-there-itis” for an irrational desire to get to the destination causing insufficient attention. In March 2016 Mannheim’s public prosecutor’s office put the driver on trial over charges of negligence endangerment of rail traffic and negligent cause of bodily injury. In September 2016 he was sentenced to 6 months of probation and 100 hours of community service.
The two fallen over passenger cars, which had recently been modernized, are scrapped once the investigation concludes, along with the forward freight car. The locomotive, which only suffers minor damage in the derailment, is towed to Siemens’ factory in Munich and eventually sent to Linz (Austria) to be repaired, re-entering service in 2016. In total, excluding medical bills, the damage amounts to 2.33 million Euros (2.8 million USD).
Things could’ve been far worse, collisions like this have happened a number of times, and it’s not that unusual for them to go worse, often involving puncturing of the impacted cars which can lead to more severe consequences including loss of life. In fact, EC216 would be involved in a similar, fatal accident in 2018.