Recklessly Replacing Signals: The 2003 Schrozberg Train Collision

Background

The location of Schrozerg in Europe.

The city lies on the Crailsheim-Königshofen rail line, a 66km/41mi non-electrified single track main line opened on the 23rd of October 1868, predating the formation of Germany as a nation (at the time Württemberg was a kingdom and Baden a Grand Dutchy). After seeing plenty of regional use and even some long distance services from Berlin, Hamburg and Dortmund usage of the line sharply declined in the late 1980s/early 1990s, leaving a handful of regional passenger services and the occasional freight train. The section where the accident occurred is set up for a top speed of 90kph/56mph and runs through a wooded area. The neighboring stations in Niederstetten (north) and Schrozberg (south) allow trains in opposing directions to pass one another at either end of the 9.5km/5.9mi long section.

The site of the accident seen from above, the green line approximately follows the track. RE 19534 was the northbound train.

The trains involved

A second class type 439 passenger car identical to those making up RE 19534.

The DB series 218 is a 79.5 metric ton 16.4m/54ft long four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive powered by a 52 liter MTU V12 diesel engine putting out 2800hp/2000 kW, enough for a top speed of 140kph. Introduced in 1971 the 218 is the youngest member of the V160 locomotive family and has seen usage in a variety of services, from regional passenger trains to freight trains, international express trains and emergency support as a towing-locomotive for stranded electric trains. With 400 units made 218 was one of the DB’s workhorses for decades and there wasn’t a corner of the country where you couldn’t find them at some point. By the time of the accident 218 285–5 was 30 years old and, like a lot of her siblings, still in full service. Combining a series 218 with the simple single-level passenger cars for regional services was a standard combination in German regional traffic and probably the 218’s most common use.

A DB series 218 pulling a train nearly identical to the one involved in August 2003.

Running in the opposite direction from Aschaffenburg to Crailsheim was RE 19533, provided by a diesel powered DB series 628.2 two-piece multiple unit consisting of the motor-car 628 285–9 and the unpowered control car 928 285–6, which was leading at the time of the accident. The DB series 628.2 was introduced in 1986 as the first evolution of the series 628 diesel multiple unit, which in itself had been the long overdue replacement for the aging rail buses. With the 628.1 only being built three times (being essentially prototypes for full service testing) the 628.2 is the train most people refer to when talking about the 628. A series 628.2 measures 46.15m/151.4ft in length at 64 metric tons, with the two halves being permanently connected and requiring a trip to the maintenance facility to be separated. The trains are powered by a turbocharged 22.6L Mercedes V12 diesel engine putting out 550hp/410kW, enough to let them reach as much as 120kph/75mph. They offer 124seats in a two-class configuration along with a row of bicycle stands behind each driver’s cabin. 150 units of the 628.2 were made, with 628 285–9 being just 15 years old by the time of the accident. By 2003 these trains were still in wide use, with 628 285–9 receiving a new paintjob in the updated livery a year before the accident.

628 285–9, the unit involved in the accident, photographed 6 months before the accident with the motor car leading.

The accident

The dispatcher at Niederstetten station suspected the fault to be due to a defect in a local level crossing which wasn’t properly integrated into the signaling system. Seeing that he had to override the malfunction he contacted his colleague in Schrozberg and agreed to release trains one by one by overriding the signaling system, the usual procedure to maintain operation when the signaling system “freezes up”. This also meant that the dispatchers would notify each other of each arriving train to know when the track was clear. At 11:55am Niederstetten’s dispatcher allows RE 19533, southbound series 628, to depart for Schrozberg by using the replacement signal. The signal means the block system is overridden, entering the single track section in either direction would not cause an emergency stop.

The arrow points out the replacement signal at Niederstetten station. Its usage allows a train to pass the red/closed signal.

The dispatcher in Schrozberg suspected that the signal system was out of order, so he was ready to dispatch the northbound RE 19534 with a replacement signal also. Hearing a train roar past his signalbox the dispatcher at Schrozberg reports RE 19533 as having arrived at his station at 11:59. In reality he had heard the freight train go past, which was unusually short (thus likely sounding similar to the 628). Usually RE 19533 took 9 minutes from Niederstetten to Schrozberg, but neither dispatcher noticed that the reported arrival happened only 4 minutes after the train had departed Niederstetten. In agreement with his coworker the dispatcher at Schrozberg clears RE19534 for departure towards Niederstetten, with both men assuming that the section is clear. As the series 218 locomotive pulls out of the station the accident becomes unavoidable.

A series 628 reaching Schrozberg station from the north 2 weeks after the accident, the collision happened literally just around the corner.

At 12:02am the series 628 comes around a long left hand bend and starts turning right towards Schrozberg station. Just at that moment the driver is faced with the oncoming series 218 diesel locomotive heading right for him on the same track. The driver triggers an emergency stop at 12:02:57 as his train is travelling at 63kph/39mph, but it’s in vain. Loosing just 3kph/1.8mph in the following 4 seconds the train slams head-on into the diesel engine. On impact the northbound train is travelling at 83kph/51.5mph, the driver didn’t even have time to trigger an emergency stop. The heavy diesel locomotive tears through the lightweight control car, compressing it between itself and the 628’s own engine compartment. Damage to the remains of the 628’s control car indicates that the forces of the collision lifted it up to 150cm/59in off the tracks, ripping it off the coupler as it derails and gets pushed back. Similarly the locomotive is torn off its train, being thrown off the tracks to the right. It slides down an 8m/26ft embankment and comes to a rest on its side, severely damaged, 30m/98ft away from the tracks. The driver has no chance to survive the collision as his driver’s cab is compressed into the engine compartment. Up on the tracks the remains of the 628’s control car come to a rest at 30° to the direction of travel, the driver and 4 members of the family in the front of the car are dead. Another 25 passengers survive with injuries.

Aftermath

The leading end of 628 285–9 during recovery.

A few hours after the collision the site is deemed clear of survivors and victims and handed over to the investigators, starting with an employee of the DB recovering the data-loggers from the remains of the trains. As both their records and an inspection of the trains fail to show any technical flaw with the trains the attention of the investigators quickly turns to the signaling system and its operators. It doesn’t take long for the investigators to stumble over oddly regular usage of the replacement signal, finding out that the defect in the signaling system was almost a regular occurrence in recent months. But instead of having the rail line closed for traffic and actually hunting down the defect it had become regular procedure to use the replacement signals to dispatch trains until the malfunction went away.

The rear end of the control car with the massive bend where the resistance from the motor car caused it to buckle.

On the day of the accident this already risky habit (which obviously goes against official protocol) was made worse by gross negligence on the part of Schrozberg’s dispatcher, who apparently claimed arrival of the train after hearing a train go past that could be the expected regional train without a visual check. In reality, he had confused the two-car multiple unit with a freight train consisting of a locomotive and a single freight car. The 26 years old dispatcher had been working for 15 months by the time of the accident, it is assumed that he got overwhelmed and took a reckless risk in order to try and keep operations going. It’s unknown if the driver of the series 218 tried to react to the oncoming train also, either way the collision was unavoidable at that point.

The wreckage of 218 285–5 being removed from the site.

In September 2004 the local Public prosecutor’s office filed charges against the two dispatchers, listing negligent manslaughter in six cases, negligently causing bodily harm and negligent endangerment of rail traffic. While the court agreed that a technical defect was at the base of the day’s fatal chain of events, proper attention and following procedures could have easily avoided the collision. The dispatcher from Schrozberg accepted responsibility for the events, while his 56 years old colleague from Niederstetten insisted on having had professional trust in his colleague and that he should not be blamed for what happened. On the 15th of June 2005 the Ellwangen District Court sentenced Schrozberg’s dispatcher to 18 months on probation, while his colleague had to pay 4800 Euros/5795 USD. Medical expenses, therapy and the 700 thousand Euros in material damage were paid by the DB’s insurance. The rear 4 passenger cars were repaired and returned to service, while the leading passenger car, the locomotive and the multiple-unit were scrapped once the investigation concluded.

The remains of the series 628’s forward section, giving an idea of the forces involved.

Today the site of the accident shows no sign of what happened, while an upgraded signaling system is supposed to make an accident like this even more unlikely in the future. In winter 2019 locomotive-pulled trains stopped being used for passenger service on the rail line, with Siemens “Desiro” multiple units (running as DB series 642) having taken over all passenger services. The DB 218 has largely disappeared from the DB’s services, with more and more services being taken over by multiple units or electric locomotives like the Siemens “Vectron” which was introduced in 2017. However, a handful of 218s have already been adopted by private owners for preservation, some of which in working condition. The series 628 has met a similar fate, while the first unit made (628 201) is property of the DB museum’s collection most 628s have been retired from service and scrapped, except for a handful trains going to the Czech Republic and 3 units going to Canada.

A series 628 photographed next to a series 642, its replacement, at Schrozberg station in 2014.

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