Shitty Situation: The 2015 Laggenbeck Level Crossing Collision

Background

The location of Laggenbeck in Europe.

The town lies on the Löhne-Rheine railway line, a 124km/77mi long double tracked electrified main line opened in 1855 to connect the western part of what at the time was the Kingdom of Hanover to the infrastructure of the Royal Hanoverian State Railways. This makes it one of the oldest railway lines in Germany. Being upgraded several times since then trains can now run on the line at up to 140kph/87mph. The line is mostly used for regional passenger services along with a few long distance trains, most notably an Intercity service from Berlin to Amsterdam. The intercity service is provided by the DB (German national railway), which also owns the infrastructure, while the regional services are provided by various private providers including, at the time of the accident, the Westfalenbahn, a private rail service provider founded in 2005.

The site of the accident seen from above. Laggenbeck lies to the west (left) of the frame.

The vehicles involved

An official photo by Fliegl showing a trailer similar to the one involved in the accident.

Travelling westbound on its journey from Osnabrück to Ibbenbüren (and then onward to Rheine) was RB61, a regional passenger service from Bielefeld via Osnabrück and Ibbenbüren to Bad Bentheim on the Dutch border. Since 2007 the service was provided by the Westfalenbahn using electric multiple units (the Westfalenbahn’s whole fleet are EMUs). On the day of the accident RB51 was performed by ET 002, a three-car Stadler FLIRT owned by Alpha Trains and rented to the Westfalenbahn. Introduced in 2004 the Stadler FLIRT (“Flinker Leichter Intercity- und Regional-Triebzug”/”Fast Light Intercity and Regional Train”) is a modular electric or diesel powered passenger multiple unit made by the Swiss company Stadler Rail. The three-car electric configuration used by the Westfalenbahn for RB61 weight 100 metric tons empty at 58.2m/191ft in length. The train offers 181 seats in a two-class class configuration and can reach 160kph/99mph, enough for regional services. Driving the train at the time of the accident was a 41 years old employee of the Westfalenbahn.

ET 002, the train involved in the accident, running as RB61 nine months before the accident.

The accident

Aftermath

A frontal view of ET 002, showing little but the left wall remaining of the forward section above the frame.

With the data-logger proving that there was neither a defect nor a false operation that put the train at fault for the accident the investigation’s attention turns back to the tractor and trailer. Examining the coupler it doesn’t take long for a startling discovery: The trailer wasn’t properly coupled to the tractor, any decent bump or shifting center of gravity could’ve uncoupled it. A bolt that ensures the connection between the tractor and trailer was missing, allowing the trailer to shake loose from the tractor. The bump of the tracks was the nail in the coffin, completely releasing the trailer. And neither the cables nor the air lines are designed to pull the weight of the trailer, so they obviously came loose the moment the tractor started to pull away from the trailer. E testified that he didn’t couple the trailer to the tractor, trusting his friend to do it properly, but by law the person driving a vehicle with a trailer is responsible to ensure it is safe for use. This includes the lights and wheels as well as, obviously, the coupler. E neglected to examine the coupler before driving off, and from the driver’s cab of the tractor the PTO-shaft (“power take-off, a system designed to power movable machinery off the engine of the towing vehicle) hid the coupler. As such, E is charged with dangerous interference with rail traffic, negligent homicide and negligent cause of bodily injury.

Firefighters among the remains of the trailer (left) and the hole torn into the side of the train (right).

In October 2016 the Ibbenbüren District Court sentences E to ten months of jail time set out to probation for 3 years, meaning if he commits a crime within those 3 years he has to serve 10 months in jail. He also has to pay 2000 Euros/2440USD to the emergency counselling organisation. The court expressed that once the tragedy had been set in motion E tried what he could to avoid the collision rather than falling into a state of shock or running away. But seeing the severe consequences, including the two deaths and the fact that some survivors still struggle with physical and mental consequences, the court couldn’t leave it at a fine to be paid. E accepted the sentence, repeatedly expressing how sorry he feels for what he caused saying that he shouldn’t have trusted his friend Mister B. If B ensured proper connection is unknown as he refused to give a statement to the investigation, as is his right.

Mister E walking towards the crossing with investigators, part of the trailer can be seen beyond the traffic sign.

The rail line was cleared a few days after the accident, today nothing at the site points to the accident. At the time of the accident it was planned to upgrade the line for a top speed of 200kph/124mph at the site to allow shorter travel-times especially for long distance trains, but plans were shelved indefinitely in 2018. In January 2017 the Westfalenbahn lost the contract for RB61 to the Eurobahn, a different private rail service provider. Like the Westfalenbahn the Eurobahn uses Stadler FLIRT trains on the line, utilizing the same trains used by the Westfalenbahn (in a new livery). Stadler has since unveiled several new FLIRT-generations, concluding with the FLIRT 4 in 2020. Like the train involved in the accident the new trains fulfill the highest crash safety standard, but of course any crash-engineering can be overwhelmed. There is no blame to be placed on the train or its driver, every part of the railway worked as it should. The high speed impact into the heavy obstacle was just well beyond the limits of the train’s crash-engineering.

Accidents between tractors and trains are sadly quite common in Germany, usually happening on remote, unsecured crossings and involving the tractor itself being struck. They rarely have the severe consequences they had in this case. It is often criticized that you can legally operate even large tractors at 16 years old, citing a risk of inexperience and easily being overwhelmed by the large machine. On the other side of the problem the DB, pressured by public outcries after nearly every accident that causes bodily harm, has worked for years trying to remove unsecured crossings from their network, at least reducing the risk of a level crossing collision between a train and a tractor, trailer or other vehicle. The Westfalenbahn still carries around 20 million people each year, the accident at Laggenbeck was the only one in the company’s history to harm someone aboard their trains.

An identical Stadler train passes a makeshift memorial and pieces of the crossing two days after the accident.

_______________________________________________________________

Join the discussion about this post on Reddit!

The index of all my posts on Reddit.

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.