Rude Awakening: The 2000 Brühl Train Derailment

Brühl (best pronounced “Bruhil” in English) is a town of 44126 people (as of December 2019) in western Germany, 13km/8mi south of Cologne and 17km/10.5mi northwest of Bonn.

The location of Brühl in Europe.

The town has a station on the West Rhine Railway (“Linke Rheinstrecke”/”Left Rhine Railway” to differentiate from the near-parallel “Right Rhine Railway” on the other bank of the river), a 152km/94mi double-track electrified main line running from Cologne down to Mainz. Opening in sections until 1901 the West Rhine Railway is one of the most important railway lines in Germany, while also being very popular with tourists and enthusiasts due to to the picturesque views it offers as it travels along the Rhine for a large part of it’s duration. Even after the Cologne-Frankfurt high speed rail line opened in 2002, allowing up to 300kph/186mph (almost twice as much as the West Rhine Railway) it remains an important railway line for both freight trains and everything from regional passenger trains to long distance express trains. While freight traffic has increased since the high speed rail line opened in 2002 it was already important before then, and Brühl, like many towns on the route, has a freight yard just north of the passenger station. Passenger trains travelling southbound, like the one involved in the accident, have to pass through the freight yard before reaching Brühl station.

The site of the accident seen from above. Note that the marker sits on the former track 3, which has been removed since the accident.

D 203, nicknamed “Swiss Express” (Schweiz-Express) was an overnight express train from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Basel (Switzerland) where the rear 3 cars would be detached and continue to and Brig (Switzerland) with a different locomotive. Pulling the train through Germany towards Basel (which can be reached by German locomotives) was DB (German national railway) series 101 092–5. The series 101 is a modern four-axle electric locomotive mostly used for heavy express trains. Weighting 84 metric tons the 19.1m/63ft long locomotive puts out 6400kw/8580hp, enough to reach up to 200kph/124mph. Adtranz, the manufacturer of the series 101, actually used the electrical system of the locomotive for the ALP-46, a locomotive in use with New Jersey Transit in the USA. However, that locomotive uses a different exterior design. At the time of the accident 101 092–5 was relatively new, having only been delivered 1.5 years prior.

101 092–5 (2), the rebuilt locomotive involved in the accident, photographed with an identical train in 2011.

The train consisted of nine four-axle passenger cars from the NS (Dutch Railway). While the forward cars still wore the DB’s white-red livery all nine cars belonged to the NS, being air-conditioned second class “couchette” cars for overnight trains. Couchette cars differ from sleeper cars in still having six-person compartments, offering less comfort than sleeper cars in return for a lower price per ticket. Each car offers space for up to 60 people at 26.1m long, weighting 44 metric tons empty. On the night of the accident 201 passengers used the train, meaning it was nearly empty (this is the number from the report, other sources claim as many as 300 passengers).

A couchette cars identical to those involved in the accident photographed in 2010.

On the fifth of February 2000 D 203 is passing through the city of Hürth (pronounced without the second H, like “Hurt”), travelling southbound towards Brühl on it’s way to Switzerland. It will pass through Brühl’s freight yard and then the passenger station before continuing towards Bonn. During the night of the accident the southbound track at the freight yard was closed for construction/maintenance work, since there was no way to change over into the left hand track at the freight yard this had to be done at Hürth station. This was a common occurrence, which is why the signaling-system was equipped to let the train travel on the left hand track at it’s regular speed. However, Brühl station itself was not set up to be passed southbound on the left hand track, meaning this had to be specially permitted via a replacement signal (the main signal couldn’t turn green to let a train proceed southbound, the replacement signal overrides this).

A replacement signal (white) overriding a red main signal.

Using the replacement signal meant the top speed was limited to 40kph/25mph until the next green main signal is passed. Simultaneously, the speed for any train passing the construction site had been limited to 120kph/75mph. This only affected northbound tracks due to the mentioned limit set by the use of a replacement signal. The printed out list of exceptions from usual operations, which is right in front of the driver, only noted the 120kph/75kph limit. The list also noted a reduced speed of 90kph/56mph on the right hand track for when construction finishes. In total, the driver was facing 3 vastly different speed limits. In a case like this train drivers are taught to chose the lowest speed until the situation can be cleared up.

At approximately 0:05am on the sixth of February 2000 the driver of D 203, who had been with the DB for a year, acknowledges having seen the advance-signal at Hürth station telling him the next main signal will be set to “proceed slowly” with a button on his control desk. He decelerates to the instructed speed and changes over into the left hand track before accelerating again. D 203 is limited to 130kph/81mph on the day, as the train has too little braking-power to be permitted the usual 140kph/87mph. Approaching the construction zone he passes the red main signal with the white replacement signal and decelerates to 40kph/25mph. While this was meant to last until the next main signal (on the other side of Brühl main station) the driver presumably got confused by the notes in front of him and, while at the construction site, accelerates first to 90kph/56mph and a little later to 120kph/75mph. Three times the speed he is supposed to go. The signal-system cannot stop him from speeding, as it is not set up to do anything but completely stop a train on this track and has been overridden (as planned). The 40kph speed limit was important as Brühl station cannot release a train on track two, meaning a path was set to go into track 3 ahead of the station via a set of points with a limit of 40kph for turning off the straight track. At 0:13am the locomotive reaches the switch ahead of Brühl station, meant to turn left into track 3, at 122kph/76kph. The locomotive turns left for a second, immediately derails and goes straight off the track, disconnecting from it’s train. It moves down a steep embankment, missing several massive trees, mows it’s way through three residential backyards and collides with the rear wall of a house, breaking through the wall of a living room. The residents of the home, an elderly couple, had gone to bed not long before, leaving the ground floor empty.

Responders standing next to the wrecked locomotive.

The forward two cars are pulled along most of the path and end up partway down the embankment with car 1 in a residential garden. Car 3 and 4 derail turn sideways with car 4 rolling over before impacting the station roof of Brühl station, crushing the interior and folding the cars to 45°. This is where most of the victims die.

Car 3 and 4 in the wreckage, almost looking like one single car. Note the fallen-over car 5 on the left.

Cars 6–8 derail and impact the other cars at lower speeds as they follow the locomotive off the tracks, largely remaining upright. Only the 9th car of the train remains on the tracks, coupled to car 8 and essentially undamaged.

Car 7 hanging across a small path between the tracks and residential gardens, relatively intact.

In seconds 9 people are dead, 149 survive with injuries (42 of which being severely injured). Due to the late hour of the accident the platform at the station was empty, meaning no-one is harmed as debris is thrown all over the site.

An aerial view of the scene, note the path of destruction left by cars 3&4

On the night of the accident Mr. Kopp is bartending in a small bistro/pub at Brühl station. He recalls being focused on pouring a beer for one of his customers when he hears a “mighty crash”, flickering the lights and setting off the alarm system of his establishment. A moment later the door flies open and a man “who might as well be a ghost” stumbles in, heading for the phone on the wall as he babbles nearly incoherently, talking about having hit someone’s house and being a train driver. Indeed he is the driver of D 203, having survived the derailment physically nearly unharmed, having climbed out of the destroyed locomotive and went to find help. Being rudely awoken by a train plowing past their homes a lot closer than usual various residents are the first people on scene and also the first people to call emergency services. It takes until 0:28am for the first professional responders to arrive, but when they do they do so in masses. In minutes over 300 responders from the fire department, the police and the THW (technical relief agency) fill the scene, along with a bunch of ambulances with their crews. For a short time the volunteer fire department’s youth group even tries to help, most of whom are 13–15 years old, before their adult counterparts grab them and send them home, hoping to spare them the gruesome sights. The whole time residents are trying to round up survivors walking aimlessly around the dark site or lying near the wreckage, taking them to their homes to keep them warm and alive as good as they can. The police catches another 50 survivors in surrounding streets and takes them to the local law enforcement academy. The train was popular with tourists who’d come from Germany and the Netherlands or fly into Amsterdam to go Skiing, the thick clothing many survivors carry certainly came in helpful in the cold of the night. Communications with survivors turn out to be difficult, with many passengers coming from other countries, mostly England, Japan and New Zealand. The forward cars took the brunt of the damage, while most of the cars maintained a minimal survival space the fire department still has to cut the cars into pieces to access survivors, some of whom only leave the mangled cars after going through emergency amputations.

Responders working on removing part of one of the cars from the scene.

While wandered-off (and found) survivors originally cause fears of finding a high amount of victims under and in cars 3 and 4 the fire department can declare the site clear at around 3am with no more victims to be expected in the wreckage. Around noon the next day cranes arrive to start the recovery of the train. The rear two cars are placed back on the track and towed away, the other seven cars are cut up on site and removed by having cranes reach over the adjacent residential houses and loading the pieces onto flatbed cars. The same day North Rhine-Westphalia’s prime minister orders all flags in the federal state to be flown at half-mast, while chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the CEO of the DB Hartmut Mehdorn and representatives of both the German catholic and evangelical church express their sadness and compassion for the relatives and survivors.

Cranes removing pieces of car 2 and 4 from the site.

The THW stabilizes the house the locomotive hit (which did not collapse when hit with the speeding 84 metric ton steel behemoth) while the fire department cuts down various trees on the embankment. Steel plates are laid down across the gardens the locomotive went through and on the tenth of February two cranes pull the locomotive back the way it came, up the embankment and onto the tracks. After experts evaluate the structural integrity of the house the owners are allowed to recover property from it, before the house is later demolished and replaced.

The locomotive being dragged out of the severely damaged house.

By the 11th of February the railway line, using track 1 and 2, was reopened. The DB later opted not to repair the (essentially destroyed) track 3 but to just remove it entirely as it wasn’t really needed anymore. In total, the material damage amounted to 50 million German Mark (25.6 million Euro/31.3 million USD). On the thirteenth of February a memorial service is held at St. Margareta church in Brühl, attended by survivors, relatives and responders as well as locals and a couple of important personalities, including North Rhine-Westphalia’s prime minister, the German President at the time, the traffic minister and Mr. Mehdorn.

Meanwhile the investigation uncovered that the inexperienced driver had failed to finish his training to become a train driver with the DB before going to a smaller local freight railway in Cologne where he passed the final exam in 1998 before mostly working in shunting and sporadic regional trains. In 1999 he went back to the DB, a mandatory seven days long seminar was listed as completed. Digging a little bit soon unearthed that he had received confirmation for the seminar despite actually working in maintenance for a week. Simply put, the maintenance department needed a set of hands that week and thus it was decided that the driver could do the seminar, which involved how to handle routes running on the oncoming track, at some later point. Investigators also found out that the printed out list of exceptions from usual operations contained several errors, as well as the radio system malfunctioning during the night of the accident meaning a planned clarification of the unusual routing and speed limits via radio by the dispatcher on duty couldn’t take place. The full report, which points out a number of flaws in the DB’s system, was originally withheld from release even to a committee formed to help avoid a repeat of the events, even after a court demanded publication the committee only received a four-page summary (the full report, which has been released since, is 75 pages long). Further confusion is caused when a tv-crew releases footage recorded hours after the accident showing a temporary sign in the wreckage telling trains to only go 90kph. The sign was not only wrong (it should have only been put up once construction finishes) but is also nowhere to be found when investigators look for it. It’s never found out who put it where exactly and why.

In early 2001 the public prosecutor’s office in Cologne starts the trial against the driver and 3 more DB employees on charges of negligent cause of bodily harm in 149 cases and negligent manslaughter in 9 cases. One of the accused is the employee responsible for the false listing of the speed limit (120kph instead of 40kph for the southbound train), the other two are employees of the maintenance department who issued confusing notifications and orders. The driver uses his right to remain silent, while one of the maintenance department’s employees claims he pointed out the non-ideal arrangement (a single replacement signal and unusual speed limits over a long distance) but was ignored by superiors. The driver’s tactic fails when a voice-recording from the night of the accident is played, when the driver had talked to another DB-employee on site saying he’d gotten confused about his location and the speed limit. Apparently, he had thought he could pass straight through Brühl station instead of having to turn into track 3, which is why he accelerated. He had forgotten that the low speed limit applies until after Brühl station. The court eventually decides that the inexperienced driver is only of insufficient fault regardless, and on the 25th of October 2001 the trial against the 4 accused ends without a sentence, with each of them agreeing to pay 000–25000 German Mark (3500–13000 Euros/3970–14750 USD) to charitable causes. The court recognizes that errors were made, but none severe enough to justify a conventional conviction on such a heavy charge. The event, coming just 1.5 years after the disastrous ICE-derailment at Eschede which killed 101 people, had caused a wide-spread debate about the training and workload of the DB’s drivers. As part of the reformation after Germany reunified in 1990 a number of train drivers had been let go, increasing the workload on remaining employees. That the DB was in the middle of another, smaller reform at the time of the accident, openly to operate more efficiently (understood as saving money), didn’t help against claims that the DB was prioritizing profits over safety.

101 092–5 was disassembled after being recovered from the site, while the frame, shell and most of the internals were scrapped part of the electrical system was used for a new series 101 locomotive. Running under the same number (but often called 101 092–5 (2)) the replacement locomotive started service in December 2002 and is still in use today.

101 092–5 (2) pushing an Intercity in July 2020.

Brühl consciously decided against an official memorial at the site of the accident, rumors claim that they didn’t want a reminder of the dark day just a few steps from the historic Brühl Castle, the city’s main tourist magnet. Track 3 was removed shortly after the accident, being later replaced with a noise protection wall for the residents. The house struck by the locomotive was replaced, today little points to the accident. However, a number of locals still know very well what happened 20 years ago. A few years after the accident D 203 is removed from schedules, most of the connection is now served by EC 9 running from Hamburg to Zürich via Cologne and Basel.

Brühl station today, looking south. The grass stripe on the right is where track 3 was.

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