Scraped past Disaster: The 2004 Efringen-Kirchen (Germany) ICE Collision
Efringen-Kirchen is a municipality of 8697 people (as of 2020) in the extreme southwest of Germany, located in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg just 13km/8mi north of Basel (Switzerland) and 2km/1.25mi east of Schaeferhof (France). The municipality sits on the eastern bank of the Rhine River, which forms Germany’s border with France all the way from Switzerland in the south to Karlsruhe further up north.
The municipality consists of several smaller towns spread out over 43.75km²/16.9mi², including Istein (1280 residents as of 2011) right on the eastern bank of the Rhine River. The town of Istein (and with that the municipality) lies on the Mannheim-Basel rail line, a double-to-quad-tracked electrified main line opening in sections between 1840 and 1855. The so-called Rheintalbahn (Rhine River Valley Railway) is one of the most important rail lines in Germany, carrying around 300 trains per day with everything from regional passenger services to long-distance express trains (including international ones), freight trains and ICE high speed trains. Most of the services are handled by the DB (German national railway), but other companies including the Swiss national railway (SBB) run trains on the line as well. The section of the line near Istein is relatively old in its routing and contains a lot of turns, limiting speeds there to just 80kph/50mph while other sections allow more than twice that speed.
The vehicles involved
ICE 600 was a third Generation electric Intercity Express (ICE 3) high speed train running from Basel in Switzerland to Dortmund in Germany. On the day of the accident the service was provided by a double-traction led by unit Tz 321 (christened “Krefeld”), which had only entered service 3.5 years prior. Each standard ICE 3 unit measures 200.84m/659ft in length at a “service ready” weight of 459 metric tons. While the previous generations had dedicated “motor cars” the propulsion system in the ICE 3 is spread out through the train underneath the floors, with half the train having one whole propulsion system each. The trains have a total output of 8000kW/10728hp, allowing a top speed of up to 330kph/205mph. There are also versions for travel outside Germany (and the specially adapted section to Basel Main Station), which have slightly different specifications. 50 units were made between 1997 and 2006, with each one carrying 454–460 passengers in a two-class configuration, depending on the floorplan. At the time of the accident the two ICEs making up ICE 600 only carried about 100 passengers plus staff, having barely started its journey.
Coming the other way on its trip from Frankfurt to Basel as ICE 271 was ICE 1 number Tz 185 (christened “Freilassing”), a first-generation ICE that had started service in November 1992. Each first-generation ICE measures 358m/1175ft long at a weight of 782 metric tons and can reach a top speed of 280kph/174mph thanks to a combined power output of 9600kW/12874hp from its two dedicated motor cars (4800kW each). Each train has a capacity of 703 passengers, how many were on board Tz 185 on the day of the accident is unknown.
At the time of the accident a 40 years old farmer was working in the vineyards uphill from the rail line, using a tractor and tiller/cultivator of unknown make/model or specification. Locals later said that he was helping out at the site and likely wasn’t familiar with the mountainous location. A tiller, in simplified terms, works similar to a plow in breaking up the ground and helping against unwanted weeds.
On the 1st of April 2004 at approximately 9:20am a 40 years old farmer is working in the vineyards north of Istein, just up the hill from the rail line. Parts of the hillside are rather steep, ending right at the rail line or a few meters above it with a short cliff as the tracks meander along the mountainside. Suddenly, as the farmer tries to stop his vehicle, it starts sliding downhill towards the tracks, with gravity and the lose ground overpowering the brakes. The tractor falls over the edge of a 15m/49ft cliff and crashes down onto the tracks, severely injuring the driver. Witnesses start yelling at him to get out of the wreckage, a train is approaching the site fast.
The driver of ICE 600, which left Basel main station under an hour ago and just started its northbound journey through Germany, suddenly sees the wreckage of the tractor and tiller in his path as he passes Istein station in a long left hand turn. The train is travelling at just 80kph/50mph due to the many turns, and the moment the driver realizes his path is obstructed he triggers an emergency stop. At 9:31am ICE 600 strikes the tractor at nearly full speed, ripping the vehicle to bits and dragging parts of it along for almost 300m before finally coming to a stop. The same moment the oncoming ICE 271 races past on the other track. The tractor’s remains are barely recognizable, had the driver not climbed out of the wreckage moments before impact he’d have had no chance to survive. The impact derails the leading car as it runs over debris, shifting it slightly to the left as ICE 271 passes it. Had ICE 271 arrived a moment later or had ICE 600 derailed a moment earlier the two trains would’ve had a head-on collision, certainly with far worse results than the accident ended up having. Two people aboard ICE 600 suffer minor injuries, bringing the total to three injured people in what could’ve been a massive disaster.
Witnesses call the emergency services right after the accident, originally responders are told about a train collision, an ICE having an accident, an ICE having struck SOMETHING and derailed. Some fear the worst, being reminded of the Eschede Tragedy that claimed 101 lives just a few years prior when an ICE derailed and struck a bridge that proceeded to come down on the train. About 100 responders arrive at the site within a few minutes, the driver of the tractor is airlifted to a nearby hospital while the passengers either move from the leading into the rear ICE-unit or leave the train and continue their journey on their own after being evaluated by medical personell. Reports only mention a single passenger requiring medical attention (but without going to the hospital) and the driver suffering minor cuts and bruises. Most passengers, it seems, only found out something was wrong after the train stopped. After it’s proven that the ICEs definitely touched after the initial accident ICE 271 is stopped at the next station and evaluated, continuing its trip when it’s found to be essentially undamaged. The driver of that train hadn’t even noticed anything was wrong until he was radioed to check for damages, finding a dent and some scratches on the rear motor car as well as one door not quite working smoothly.
Traffic on the line is shut down completely in both directions, blocking a major corridor for freight and passenger trains going to Switzerland and Italy for five hours. The rear unit from ICE 600 is soon disconnected from Tz 321 and towed back to Efringen-Kirchen station by a diesel locomotive, from where the DB organized buses for the passengers. Late in the afternoon the southbound track is reopened at reduced capacity to try and reduce the effect the blockade had throughout German and Swiss rail traffic, eventually Tz 321 is re-tracked and towed away too.
The damaged tracks and overhead wires are repaired during the night, investigators make sure to have the remains of the tractor picked up and placed in storage. There is nothing wrong with the train or signaling system, and both witness accounts and tire marks in the soil above the rail line proof that the tractor wasn’t working anywhere it wasn’t meant to be, so why did it end up on the tracks? The police managed to briefly talk to the farmer, he wasn’t anywhere he wasn’t meant to be when his tractor started sliding out of control. Investigators look over the remains of the tractor, research the make and model of tractor and tiller, and start to figure it out.
The farmer was legally allowed to do what he did, he was just not experienced with the location. The tiller is fed power off a Power-Take-off system (PTO) on the tractor, a splined driveshaft spun by the engine which certain equipment can be hooked up to so it can be powered without requiring hydraulics or electricity. The farmer must’ve stopped the tractor on a section of the vineyard that is too steep or almost to steep to do so, causing it to start sliding, aided by the engine still powering the tiller, further pushing the tractor along. Had he had more experience he likely would’ve avoided stopping in the area in question, keeping him safely away from the tracks. Once the tractor was involuntarily moving there wasn’t anything the farmer could do to stop the unfolding events, he didn’t even have time to bail out before the vehicle fell off the cliff onto the train tracks. And by that point there was nothing to keep the train from ramming it, the driver couldn’t have seen the obstacle earlier than he did, couldn’t have slowed the train sooner or faster.
While an investigation is launched against the farmer for negligent interference with rail traffic the charges are eventually dropped without the man even having to go to trial.
Ironically it was the area’s oddly low speed that helped to avoid a worse outcome, the same accident would’ve had far worse results at 180 or 280kph (112 and 174mph, respectively). Mister Buyken, a physicist and spokesman of a passenger-association does explain that ICE trains have a lot of inertia due to their high weight (which, in the ICE 3, is also very low in the train) which makes them unlikely to veer off-course much even after derailing, but one doesn’t want to imagine a head-on collision that could’ve happened with the oncoming ICE (especially at a higher speed) or 459 metric tons going off the tracks and racing/rolling into the town further down the hillside. Four years prior an express train had struck a home after derailing, and while the residents were unharmed the house still had to be demolished as the train had taken out a load-bearing wall.
After the accident Tz 321 is split up while the leading car is undergoing repairs, at some point after the accident the train is placed back in service with middle cars from different dissolved units and still runs in regular service today. As of writing this (December 2021) there is no publicly known retirement date for the ICE 3, the DB is considering to replace them with additional ICE 3-based Siemens “Velaro” which are already substituting the fleet, but no such action has been confirmed yet.
At the time of the accident (and still by December 2021) the DB is in the process of upgrading the Rhine River Valley Railway to four tracks to handle the already high and ever-increasing demand for more capacity. To allow faster operations in the area around Istein and also satisfy residents’ demand for more safety the rail line on the hillside where the accident happened wasn’t expanded (if that would’ve even been possible), with the DB instead constructing the 9.38km/5.8mi Katzenberg Tunnel, a double-track tunnel lets trains cut across underneath the mountainous terrain at up to 250kph/155mph between Efringen-Kirchen and Bad Belingen instead of taking the “scenic route” along the river which, since the tunnel’s opening in 2012, is almost exclusively used for regional passenger services.
History repeats itself
In August 2010 a garbage truck driver in the town of Lambrecht misjudges the soil under his tires and proceeds to fall down a small embankment onto the train tracks, where his vehicle is struck by an oncoming ICE in an accident not dissimilar to the accident at Efringen-Kirchen. The accident at Lambrecht leaves 18 people injured. Here, too, inadequate securing of the train tracks is criticized.