Right of Way: The 1975 Warngau Train Collision
Warngau is a municipality of 3867 people (as of December 2019) in the far south of Germany, 37km/22.99mi south of Munich and 31km/19mi west of Rosenheim. The Austrian border is just 25km/15.5mi away (all distances measured in linear distance).
The municipality lies on the Holzkirchen-Lenggries railway, a 30km non-electrified single track main line (largely, the southernmost 9km/mi are listed as a branch line) opened in sections between 1874 and 1924. The railway is set up for up to 100kph/62mph and is mostly used for regional trains connecting various towns to Munich.
At the time of the accident there was no block system, trains would rely on the dispatcher’s commands and their signals and pass one another at the station. An exception to the usual, scheduled “meetings” was the section between Warngau in the north and Schaftlach in the south. Here the DB (German national railway) had introduced a system called the “Luftkreuzung” (“Floating Crossing”). This meant that, on paper, the trains were to pass one another between the stations. Since this was obviously impossible the dispatcher at either station was supposed to talk to his colleague at the other station, deciding who would hold “his” train and whose train would get the right of way. This way event trains that didn’t run regularly or didn’t always run right on time could be operated efficiently.
The trains involved
Travelling southbound from Munich to Bad Tölz was E3591, a daily regional service. The train consisted of green center-entrance passenger cars type B4yg, each seating 72 people and weighting 31.2 metric tons at 19.5m/64ft long.
Coming the other way was E3594, a new weekly connection from Lenggries to Munich. The train, which had just been introduced that year, was mainly aimed at getting hikers to and from nearby nature parks. In fact, the accident happened the second week this connection was offered. The prior week the northbound train had been delayed so much that the trains safely passed at a station far from the site of the accident. The train consisted of “Silberling” (“Silverling”, a coin from the Bible) passenger cars, named that affectionately for their unpainted rust-resistant metal bodies bearing a Perlée pattern on the lower half. Each Silberling is 26.4m long, weights 32 metric tons and holds 96 (purely second class) or 78 (first and second class) seats.
Both trains were pulled by a DB (German Railway) series 218 diesel locomotive, the northbound E3594 (with the Silberling cars) by 218 238, the southbound E3591 (green central entrance cars) by 218 243. The series 218 is a 16m/52ft long four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 1971 as part of the V160-family (spanning several locomotives designated 21x). Powered originally by a turbocharged V12 diesel engine producing 1839kw/2500hp these 79 metric ton locomotives can reach up to 140kph/87mph.
On the 8th of June 1975 E3594 is departing Schaftlach station to the north at 6:28pm, heading towards Warngau where the driver expects to pass the waiting southbound E3591. The train is mostly filled with day-trippers who spent the day hiking in the picturesque alpine landscape around Lenggries. One of the passengers is Mr. Mahler, who’s seated towards the back of the forward passenger car. He had spent the day hiking with his sons before heading home in time for dinner. His sons had spent some of the time on the train throwing a backpack back and forth, after complains from other passengers they moved to the back, with Mr. Mahler asking his sons to notify him when they see the conductor come in. They had almost missed the train, at the platform the driver had told them to hurry up or he’d have to depart without them. So Mr. Mahler and his sons board the train, planning to buy tickets from the conductor.
A minute after the northbound train departs Schaftlach E3591 is departing Warngau station southbound, expecting to pass the waiting E3594 at Schaftlach station. The investigation later uncovers that the dispatchers messed up in a catastrophic way. When using the “Luftkreuzung” dispatchers have to use very specific phrases, and always confirm what the other said before continuing. Recordings from the conversation between Mr. Habart (Warngau) and Mr. Hiergeist (Schaftlach) show that they used lose wording and local slang instead, and failed to confirm what the other said. Eventually, both suggested their own side’s train to have the right of way and both thought the other one had agreed. A misunderstanding caused by negligence in the choice of words, aided by the very similar numbers. Furthermore, there is no radio-system in the trains to warn the drivers should an error be realized. Because of that the collision is unavoidable by the time E3591 departs from Warngau.
As it moves down a straight, slightly downhill section of track the southbound train reaches approximately 95kph/59mph, slightly more than the northbound train, which works it’s way uphill through curves, making it to 80kph/50mph. Just as his train leaves the woods on the northern side E3594’s driver suddenly sees the headlights of another series 218 locomotive coming right at him. A second later, at 6:31pm a deafening crash echoes across the landscape as the two locomotives slam into each other at full speed. Neither driver has any chance of survival, the impact compresses both locomotives to the combined length of about 1.5 series 218 locomotives. Mr. Mahler recalls this moment as his sons just telling him they can see the conductor, the same moment there was a bang and, to quote, “the world outside went upside down”. What happens is that his car is deflected to the side, off the track and passes both locomotives, rolling over before coming to a stop in a meadow several meters past the oncoming locomotive. The second Silberling car takes the worst impact, compressing the rear control cabin of it’s locomotive it’s deflected upwards, telescoping high above the locomotives. The older central entrance cars in E3591 fare far worse, being thrown to all sides while disintegrating. Around 400 people were on both trains, 37 die in the collision (including both drivers and a conductor), while 126 suffer often severe injuries. Of the injured initial survivors another six succumb to their injuries later.
Mr. Mahler and his sons survive the derailment largely uninjured, a few moments after the car comes to a rest he orientates himself and climbs out of the stricken car, followed by his sons. They have a few lacerations, a couple of bruises. That’s all. The front of the car where he had been sitting before the other passengers complained about his sons is destroyed, moving all the way to the back of the car saved the group’s life. Walking away from the wreckage he turns around and takes a photo of his sons, one of the earliest recordings of the aftermath.
Within four minutes of the collision local responders are alerted, both volunteers and full time. Knowing from the start they’re hopelessly overwhelmed by what they will find units from as far as Munich are asked to come in. Mr. Hoffstetter, the commander at the time, recalls how they didn’t even have a hydraulic spreader (“jaws of life”) at the time, wanting to do SOMETHING he sends the ladder-truck instead. A good call, as this allows responders to get on top of the wreckage and reach the telescoped car. The firefighters use various tools to break windows, broomsticks create a conveyor-system to get survivors and victims out of the trains and down to the ground.
Bavaria’s only civilian rescue helicopter is brought in, the local hospitals exceed their capacity immediately. When the alarm is raised to catastrophe-level the German Army gets permission to help, sending another six helicopters from the Armed Forces and the Border Guard to help bring survivors to Munich for treatment. There, the Theresienwiese (known for the Octoberfest) is turned into a landing site, a hundred police officers have to keep onlookers out of the way so helicopters can land and deliver survivors to the nearby hospital. Responders use saws and torches to cut openings into the destroyed trains to rescue survivors and recover the dead. The sight inside the trains must’ve been nightmarish, responders later talk about lining up body parts outside the trains and trying to match them together to find out how many people died or survived.
Every victim recovered “complete enough” to identify is loaded into a coffin and taken to a local church. Marked with “M” for male victims and “W” for female victims the coffins are lined up down the nave. Relatives of possible victims are tasked with going to the church and looking through coffins, hoping not to find their loved one. Soon medical staff has to be sent to the church as some relatives collapse when looking inside the coffins.
The entire rescue and recovery-effort is coordinated from Munich by Mr. Prechtl and a coworker, who describes the entire thing as pure chaos. With local radio networks being overloaded within minutes everyone ends up sharing one radio-channel, meant to serve about 1/3 of Bavaria. Prechtl and his coworker keep track of everything with pen and paper, try to avoid sending ambulances to full hospitals, calm and coordinate calling relatives, orchestrate the rescue helicopters and keep count of the vehicles available or on site. Without a computer, and with the normal emergency calls still coming in also.
With the rescue and recovery largely finishing up during the night a crane removes the wrecks the next day so the track can be repaired, by the tenth of June operations are back to normal.
The accident caused a public outcry, the system of the Luftkreuzung and general safety-level being compared to the days of horse-drawn trains. Something utterly outdated by the 70s. Following this the DB banned the practice from their schedules, and removed any other instance of it being used. After a relatively short trial the two dispatchers are sentenced to probation (I couldn’t find out how many years each) for negligent manslaughter, negligent cause of bodily injury and dangerous interference with rail traffic. Unsatisfied with that outcome the public prosecutor’s office also went after their superiors, something highly unusual at the time. Most attempts got stuck in the swampy corporate hierarchy, but after several months of investigations and eight different experts being consulted the employee who came up with the Luftkreuzung-system is sentenced to jail time, also immediately turned into probation.
While 218 243, the locomotive of the southbound train, is scrapped the other locomotive is actually repaired, with the DB probably unwilling to write off two almost-new locomotives. By 2002 the locomotive, now repainted and modernized, was still in service.
Some time after the accident a small memorial is placed near the site, featuring a hand drawn image of the event.
Since the accident Warngau station has been downsized, no longer featuring a siding to let trains pass one another. In November 1998 the DB ceases operation of passenger trains on the line, handing it over to the BOB (“Bayrische Oberlandbahn”). Locomotive-pulled trains are being increasingly retired from German regional traffic.
In the mid-90s, over 15 years after the accident, the local fire department hires Monsignore Waldschütz as an emergency chaplain to provide spiritual and emotional support to local responders. When he is interviewed in 2016 he talks about how he spent years meeting responders from the collision and talking to them, often unleashing a flood of gruesome memories. Responders talked about how they would have nightmares wandering the site, or how they’d wake up and see body parts in their bedroom. But whenever he asked “who did you tell about your problems” he always got the same answer: No one. Despite problems, clear traumatization, none of the responders ever talked to anyone about what haunted them. It just “didn’t seem right” to complain. This luckily changed, support for responders has become increasingly common since the 90s and nowadays is pretty much the norm. Locals get another bleak reminder of the events in 2016, when two regional trains collide head-on at nearby Bad Aibling, just 24km/15mi (linear distance) from the site of the 1975 accident. Once again, negligent dispatching costs the life of several people. Some of the responding fire departments were even involved in the 1975 accident also.