Ebenhausen is a town of 825 people in the far southeast of Germany, located in the federal state of Bavaria 73km/45mi northeast of Füssen and 19km/12mi south of Munich (both measurements in linear distance).
Ebenhausen has a station (Ebenhausen-Schäftlarn) on the Isartalbahn (“Isar River Valley Railway”), an electrified partially double-tracked branch line. The line opened in sections between 1891 and 1898, only to be cut back to its current expansion from Munich to Wolfratshausen in 1995. The line is mostly used by trains of the Munich S-Bahn (an urban and sub-urban rapid transit system) along with a low volume of regional freight traffic at speeds of up to 120kph/75mph.
The Trains Involved
The trains involved in the accident were the same type, providing a northbound service (S6785) from Wolfratshausen to Aying and a southbound service (S6776) with the same termini respectively, as part of Munich S-Bahn’s line S7. The services were each provided by a double-traction of DB series 423, a four-car electric multiple unit introduced in 1998. The trains were developed specifically for Munich’s S-Bahn, but also provide S-Bahn services at Cologne, Stuttgart and Frankfurt (Main). Each four-car train measures 67.4m/221ft in length at an empty weight of 105 metric tons. The trains have a capacity for 192 seated and 352 standing passengers and can reach a top speed of 140kph/87mph despite their focus being on strong acceleration. At the time of the accident the trains carried a combined total of 93 passengers and 2 drivers.
The two opposing services running between Aying and Wolfratshausen on the afternoon of the 14th of February had originally been scheduled to pass each other at Icking station, but that plan had been scrapped when the southbound service (S6776) collected a 10 minute delay due to a faulty level crossing near Pullach. The dispatcher, located in the signal box at Wolfratshausen, thus decided to let the northbound service (S6785) proceed from Icking to Ebenhausen-Schäftlarn station, 3.2km/2mi up the line.
Ebenhausen-Schäftlarn station, one of two stations in the municipality of Schäftlarn, enabled trains to pass each other on the otherwise single-tracked section of the rail line, which continued north of the station in the form of a long left hand curve lined with trees. The driver of the northbound train decides to depart the station at 4:33pm, despite sitting in front of a red departure-signal. The signaling system detects the train running the red signal and forces an emergency stop, bringing the northbound train to a stop at the exit of the station just as the southbound train approaches the pre-signal for its entrance-signal to the station. The pre-signal switches to red as the northbound train runs its red signal, which the southbound train’s driver spots at the last second, leading him to initiate an emergency stop of his own which brings the train to a stop some 400m/1300ft outside the station.
The northbound train’s driver released the brakes on his train in the meantime and started accelerating again, “driving open” a set of points set for the southbound train (meaning passing through a set of points in the opposite direction and not from the track they were set to). He reaches 67kph/41.5mph, just short of the local 70kph/43.5mph speed limit, before the stopped southbound train comes into view. The driver of the northbound train triggers an emergency stop as he spots the stopped train in his path, whose driver has just contacted the dispatcher to inquire about the unexpected signal-change. He does not get to finish the radio-call. His northbound colleague is recorded on the radio-transcript with “Shit there’s a train coming!” a moment before the northbound train slams into the stationary southbound one at 57kph/35.5kph. A 24 years old passenger on the northbound train is killed in the collision as he is thrown against the interior furnishings while another 51 people are injured, 6 of which severely.
The first calls to emergency services are placed about 5 minutes after the accident, both from residents adjacent to the rail line who report “a loud bang” or possible explosion and from survivors who know a train crashed but aren’t 100% sure where exactly they are. The first responders arrive within a few minutes of being alerted, eventually 1100 responders and 336 vehicles will fill the adjacent residential area. The “responder-traffic” at the site becomes so much that the radio-system breaks down, necessitating orders to be given face to face or by written notes.
One of the first firefighters on site later reports carving a way from the road to the rail line with chainsaws before listening out for survivors who were talking/screaming/crying, and “postponing” tending to them for the moment. What sounds odd or maybe mean is actually a common strategy in mass-casualty* events, as those who can be heard are breathing and conscious while others who don’t probably aren’t. Thus, it’s common practice to see which survivors at such a site are audible and tending to those who aren’t first.
*In this context “casualty” refers to both victims and injured survivors.
The northbound train’s driver is discovered alive but trapped in the destroyed driver’s cab of his train, a random cavity no more than 30cm/12in deep ensured his survival. Firefighters cut away mangled metal and pieces of the interior until he can be pulled from the wreckage 30 minutes after responders arrive. He’s severely injured but alive. His colleague in the southbound train also survives the accident, he managed to abandon the driver’s cab and run into the passenger compartment right before impact.
The last ambulances leave the site at 6:35pm the same day, leaving the site to the investigators along with members of the THW (German Federal Agency for technical relief) who will later be tasked with the trains’ recovery. Both trains are found to have been in full working order, with no sign of a defect affecting performance or driver control. The investigators initially consider the possibility that the southbound train drove too fast and/or ignored a signal to catch up its delay, but the damage to the points at the northern end of the station (from being forced open by the northbound train) along with a statement from the dispatcher establish that the southbound train was exactly where it was meant to, the northbound train wasn’t.
The investigation finds out that the northbound train was emergency-stopped by the signaling system (PZB) upon running the red exit-signal. Normally, the driver would have to contact dispatch, report that his train was forced to a stop, and then the dispatcher would sort out the situation and instruct the driver on what to do (stay, back up, proceed, etc). Instead, the northbound train’s driver completely ignored that rule and, once his train came to a halt, cleared the status of the signaling-system, reset the brakes and put the train in motion again, dooming the collision to happen. His train had been brought to a stop, and the southbound train’s driver had stopped his as well (if he hadn’t the system would have emergency-stopped his as well due to the red pre-signal a second later). The southbound train’s driver radioed the dispatch as he was meant to. Had his colleague in the other train adhered to that rule as well, nothing would have happened. The situation would have been sorted out, likely by having the northbound train back up, and within a few minutes both trains would’ve been underway again. This puts the driver of the northbound train at sole fault for the accident.
Things get even worse for the northbound train’s driver once the investigators start tracing the train’s journey up to the accident. They find that he had already been forced to a stop by the PZB once before that day. The investigation finds that he had breached the speed limit between the stations at Icking and Ebenhausen-Schäftlarn, which got him an emergency stop. Here, already, he disregarded the official guidelines and set the train in motion without contacting the dispatcher and reporting the incident. Munich’s public prosecutor’s office proceeds to file charges against him in late August 2023, accusing him of purposeful endangerment of rail traffic in combination with one case of negligent manslaughter and 51 cases of negligent cause of bodily harm. The driver, in their opinion, purposely disabled vital safety measures not once but twice by purposely disregarding standard procedures related to emergency stops triggered by the PZB.
Germany does not add up sentences (a crime punished with 3 years of jail time and one with 5 years gets you 5 years, not 8), thus, if found guilty, the driver is looking at a maximum of 5 years in jail. As of this writing (September 2023) proceedings are ongoing.
The investigation points out that his wasn’t the first train collision in Germany caused by a driver disregarding official guidelines after being stopped by the PZB. Back in 2014 a train driver had been emergency-stopped by a red signal at Mannheim main station. He had run the signal, which was to his right, because he had been looking at the signal to his left, which was green (but not meant for him). After being, in his eyes, inexplicably stopped he too chose not to contact the dispatcher but just set his train back in motion, causing his locomotive to run into the side of an overtaking express passenger train 445m/1460ft after being stopped, pushing a car from it off the rails. The accident (which was the topic of installment 48 on this blog) doesn’t claim any lives, but 38 people are injured.
Already back in 2014 the investigation into the accident at Mannheim had recommended changing the integration of the PZB into trains, suggesting that an emergency stop should be followed by an automatic radio-call to the dispatch center. This recommendation, which would make it much harder for train drivers to just drive off again, is repeated after the 2022 accident, along with encouraging improved training for train drivers with a higher emphasis on the importance of correctly handling a forced stop triggered by the PZB. The basic idea is that a train driver who has the dispatcher radio in and ask about a reported forced stop would be much harder to ignore than a simple guideline saying “you have to report this to dispatch“.
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.