Rüningen is the one of the southernmost districts of the city of Brunswick Braunschweig). It’s located in the federal state of lower Saxony, 4km/2.5mi south-southwest of downtown Braunschweig and 35km/22mi north of Goslar. The district is home to the Rüningen Mill, a wheat mill with a maximal daily throughput of 1200 metric tons standing in the same spot a mill has been since at least 1312.
Rüningen lies on the Brunswick–Bad Harzburg railway, a 47km/29mi, a largely double-tracked unelectrified main line opened between 1838 and 1841. Originally it connected the two most important cities in the Duchy of Brunswick, Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel, making it the first state railway line in what would become Germany. At the time of the accident the line was mostly used for regional passenger services, with very few freight trains thrown into the mix. The railway line passes right by the Rüningen Mill, which possesses 3 sidings on the Mill’s property to receive and ship out materials.
The vehicles involved
Heading to Rüningen Mills from the west was an MAN F90, a three-axle truck loaded with 25 tons of wheat. Made since 1986 the MAN F90 is a mid-weight to heavy commercial truck that came in a variety of configurations depending on the intended purpose. The exact specification of the truck involved is unknown, but due to the high weight it is likely that it was one of the more powerful versions, being most likely equipped with the 310kW/422hp inline six diesel engine.
Travelling from Salzgitter to Brunswick was RB 14955, an early morning regional passenger service (RB = “Regional Bahn”/”Regional Train”) provided by a DB Series 628.4 two-car multiple unit. The 628.4 is the second generation of the series 628, introduced in 1992. Each unit measures 46.4m/152ft in length at a weight of 70 tons. The trains consist of the power car, equipped with a turbocharged V12 diesel engine, and an unpowered control car (numbered 928.4). The power cars offer 72 second class seats while the control cars offer another 74 seats, 12 of which in a first-class configuration. The two halves each have two wheel sets (“bogies”) with two axles each, but can only be separated with special tools at the maintenance facility. They reach a top speed of 120kph/75mph, enough for their purpose as a “modernized railbus”, thanks to the engine putting out 485kW/650hp. 1992 and 1996 the DB bought 309 units of the 628.4, and by 2010 the series 628 was still a vital part of the DB’s regional traffic, showing up on various main and branch lines all over the country. Providing the service on the day of the accident was 628 621, which had entered service on the 23rd of May 1995. At the time of the accident it carried just 59 passengers and a driver.
The 20th of January 2010 was a cold winters day, it started with snow on the ground and light fog as DB 628 621 left Salzgitter-Thiede station for Brunswick shortly after 7am. Most of the passengers are students and commuters, some of which use the train-ride to catch some sleep. At the same time a 53 years old truck driver was arriving in Rüningen with a load of wheat for the local mill, heading to the property’s entrance which lay parallel to the train tracks. Arriving before schedule he found the gate locked and no employee in sight. Instead of calling the mill or waiting nearby the truck driver chose to take a shortcut onto the property, drove into the adjacent level crossing and turned left onto the train tracks. As the truck slowly started crawling through the snow and gravel DB 628 621 had reached 119kph/74mph a few kilometers south of the crossing. It was still dark, and the slight fog hanging over the area didn’t help visibility. 50m/164ft north of the level crossing the truck driver’s genius plan backfired as his truck became beached on the tracks, unable to move over to the parallel driveway of the mill. The truck driver shut off his vehicle and climbed out of the cab before (supposedly) attempting to reach the emergency services. It’s 7:37:25am when DB 628 621 reaches the crossing at 110kph/68mph. At this point the train driver spots the truck’s rear lights through the fog and darkness and triggers an emergency stop, the train’s pneumatic system dumps air pressure and starts slowing down at 7:37:30am. It’s just 40m/131ft from the truck, there’s nothing to avoid the imminent collision. The 42 years old train driver abandons his seat and opens the door to the passenger area, attempting to warn his passengers. At that moment, less than 2 seconds after the train starts slowing down, DB 628 621 strikes the stationary truck at 107kph. The driver’s cab is destroyed on impact, cutting the data-logger’s recording. The truck’s cargo area is torn to pieces as a deafening impact awakens or startles residents far away, the leading power car derails in the ensuing cloud of wheat and wheat-dust and runs off the tracks to the right, loosing its leading axle in the collision. It stays coupled to the control car, digging into a field as it comes to a stop. Inside the train passengers in the forward car are thrown all over the place.
The truck driver had managed to call emergency services, but by the time his call had been put through from the federal police to the local dispatcher, who could’ve stopped the train, it was 7:40am and the damage was done. The stop-signal reached the stricken train at 7:40:28, 3 minutes too late. By the time the first of eventually 130 responders reach the site a few minutes later most passengers have evacuated the train, only 2 severely injured passengers require assistance by EMTs to leave the train. The passengers helped each other out of the train, being met by employees of the adjacent mill who got them out of the cold. Everyone involved survives the collision, 16 people are listed as injured to a degree that requires medical attention, 3 of which suffering severe injuries. Most passengers are evaluated and treated on site before being released. The truck driver is unharmed while the train driver survives with minor injuries, both men wouldn’t have survived had they remained in the driver’s seat with debris both destroying the driver’s cab of the train and penetrating through the rear wall of the truck’s cabin. The train driver suffers a severe shock, leaving him unable to be questioned at the time. With all passengers and the drivers taken care of the firefighters on site change focus, several hundred liters (100l = 26 US gallons) of diesel leaked out of pierced tanks and soaked the soil.
Investigators initially suspect that the truck tried to run the closed crossing or that, maybe, the crossing failed to work right. The cargo area of the truck is completely destroyed, it’s hard to tell which side the train struck. Walking back towards the level crossing investigators find tire marks in the snow between the northbound and southbound track, shortly thereafter the truck driver stumps investigators with the statement that he did, in fact, use the active railway line as a way to get around the closed gate of the mill instead of waiting to be let in.
Following standard protocol the investigation does examine the train, signaling system and level crossing, as expected all of which were in perfect working order. This wasn’t a level crossing collision but a collision caused by unimaginable recklessness on the part of the truck driver. The train driver did all he could, but at his speed he would have needed much much more space to stop or even slow down significantly. As such, the truck driver soon finds himself charged in a criminal investigation.
One thing that comes up again and again as passengers are interviewed is the difficult operation of the double-pane windows. Even though several windows on the train are marked as emergency exits with marked intended breaking points (by use of a provided small hammer) passengers report having a difficult time pushing the shattered windows out of their frames, with evacuation through the doors ending up being the faster option after the collision. To make matters worse, in one case the hammer allegedly broke. Investigators test two unused emergency exit windows on the train, and find the problem. The inner pane cracks as intended, concealing the fact that the outer one isn’t necessarily shattered as well. This leaves passengers trying to push out a fully intact pane of glass. The investigators add the emergency exit situation to their report, recommending that the construction of the windows be changed so that one or two decent hits with the hammer do in fact shatter both windows after their experiment saw them need several hits to break even part of the window.
A few months after the accident the truck driver has to stand trial for his actions on the day, in February 2011 he’s sentenced to a suspended jail sentence of 1.5 years on charges of negligent bodily harm and dangerous interference with rail traffic. The sentence falls six months short of what the public prosecutor’s office demanded, and goes into effect without the driver’s defense trying to fight it.
A few days after the accident a 100 metric ton crane removes the train and truck, the train is stripped for parts and sent to the scrapyard in October 2012. It’s safe to assume that the truck ended the same way, as the old vehicle was most certainly beyond saving. In recent years the series 628 has largely been retired in favor of more modern multiple units, especially advancing electrification left a lot of units unneeded. Only a handful of series 628 remains in service, many of which in private hands. The Salzgitter-Brunswick-connection is nowadays provided by private rail companies, with the 628 saying its goodbye on the line in 2014. There is no official date known yet, but the series’ days on German rails are numbered. Recently it has been considered to let Rüningen have a station on the line again, after decades without one.