Not Turning Back: The 2011 Münchenstein (Switzerland) Tram Derailment
Münchenstein is a municipality of 12104 people (as of December 2019) in the Canton Basel-Landschaft in the far northwestern corner Switzerland, located near the German and French border just 4km/2.5mi south-southeast of Basel and 14km/8.75mi west of Rheinfelden.
Münchenstein lies on the Line 10 of the Baselland Transport AG (BLT), one of the local public transportation providers. First opening in 1902 the Line 10 has since been extended to almost 26km/16mi, making it the longest in the area and one of the longest in Europe. Today the tram runs in double-track configuration partially on normal gravel ballast and partially in the road’s tarmac, and is one of very few tram lines in the world to cross international borders as it partially runs through France. The site of the accident is also the site of a turning-loop which branches off the main line and lets trains turn around in a tight 180° loop to head back north.
The train involved
Running southbound on Line 10 at the time of the accident was a five-car tram consisting of the leading three-car Be 4/8 number 250 and the following two-car Be 4/6 number 113.
At the time of the accident the end-cars were 36 years old, with the low-floor middle car of number 250 having been added 13 years later. The complete train had an overall length of 46.14m/151ft at a weight of 57.5 metric tons. The numbers in the model-names refer to the number of driven axles and overall axles, meaning the train on the day of the accident ran on 14 axles of which 8 were driven. The train had a capacity of 103 seats with space for another 252 standing passengers, but due to the time of the accident it only carried around 30 passengers.
On the second of November 2011 BLT 250 stops at Münchenstein Dorf Station” at 11:30pm, loading and unloading some passengers on its southbound way through Basel’s suburbs. As he waits at the station the driver is positioned in front of a signal just beyond the platform which indicates if the upcoming points (W108) are set to go straight or are set for the turning loop. Depending on his route and the setting of the points he can either press key S in his control desk to set the points for the main line, making the signals indicate a speed limit of 65kph/40mph, or he can press key W to set the points for the loop and be indicated a speed limit of 10kph/6mph while the intersection with the left hand track requires a speed of just 5kph/3.5mph. There is no system displaying the speed limit in his cab or limiting the train’s speed, the driver has to watch the signals and maintain the correct speed himself. The points had just been replaced 3 years prior, allowing them to be passed in a straight line at higher speeds.
At last the driver closes the doors and starts to pull out of the station, quickly picking up speed. He plans to head right past the turning loop and continue southbound towards Arlesheim just a few hundred meters down the tracks. 17m/56ft before the train reaches the points, already travelling at 55kph/34mph, the driver sees that the points are set for the turning loop. And he’s going 10x the speed limit. He triggers an emergency stop, but it’s too late to get to a standstill. At 11:35pm BLT 250 reaches the points at 38kph/23.5mph and immediately derails the moment the leading wheels are forced to the left. The train mows down an overhead catenary pole, goes through a trackside fence, rams a parked SUV aside and at last crashes into the front wall of the adjacent residential house where it finally comes to a stop. The two trains making up the composition separate, with the front train going completely off the tracks and buckling severely, causing the middle car to end up at 90° to the tracks, while the rear train derails, runs into the leading train and comes to a stop largely aligned with the tracks.
The driver and six of his passengers are injured in the collision, mostly from being thrown around as the train left the tracks. Three occupants inside the struck house are unharmed. By the time responders reach the site of the accident the train is already empty, with the passengers being treated on site (largely for bruises and grazes) before being released.
Initially a defect on the old train is expected, the old units are at the end of their service life and in the process of being replaced already. At the same time investigators examine the signaling system and tracks, but the former worked flawlessly and the latter show no defect that can be proven to have existed before the derailment. The day after the accident a large crane is brought in to remove the wreckage, the old cars are deemed to not be worth saving and taken to the scrapyard.
It doesn’t take long for investigators to figure out why the tram ran into the front wall of some poor resident’s house: The driver didn’t properly pay attention to the signals. Whether he thought that the points were set to “straight” because they usually were or because he thought that he had set them (and maybe hit the wrong button in the process) is unknown. Either way he was confident that he could accelerate to 65kph/40mph, only noticing his error when it was too late. There was no speed limit indicator in the cab and no system to override the driver and keep the train slow enough to make the turn.
After the cause of the accident became known the BLT’s CEO, Andreas Büttiker, made an effort to point out that the driver was an experienced and dutiful employee who was struggling to cope with the consequence of his error. The BLT chose to keep him as an employee, however he did receive retraining and never drove a tram again after the accident.
The material damage was listed at 100 thousand Swiss Francs (95 thousand Euros/108 thousand USD), as the train was already scheduled for retirement/disposal it was not included in that calculation. Instead the cost comes from the repairs to the home, the residents’ SUV and to the tracks and overhead wire. After the accident the safety-measures were upgraded, not only are the points now always set to “straight” and only temporarily switch to the turning loop when required, but trains departing towards the points when set to “turn” also give the driver an audible warning which the driver has to acknowledge or the train will trigger an automatic stop. These measures satisfied the SUST (the Swiss institution in charge of accident investigations), who demanded improvements in the safety-system of the tram.
By 2016 the Be 4/8 and Be 4/6 had largely been retired, with only a handful being kept around as spares. Most of the BLT’s traffic is handled by new Stadler “Tango” Be 6/10. In 2021 one of the old Trams was converted into a mobile vaccination-center to fight the Covid-Pandemic, once this usage ends it will not return to regular service, further handing off duties to the Tango-trains.