Laggenbeck is a town of 9540 people east of the city of Ibbenbüren (of which it’s technically a district), located 17km/10.5mi west of Osnabrück and 36km/22mi north of Münster in the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia in north-west Germany (both measurements in linear distance).
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 vehicles involved
Driving northbound on “Fuchsweg” (“Fox Path”) towards Velper Straße (“Velper Road”) was a tractor of unknown make and model pulling a tanker trailer loaded with slurry headed for a local biogas plant north of the railway line. The exact model of the trailer isn’t known, but the photos of the aftermath point to a double axle trailer made by Fliegl with a capacity of around 16 thousand liters/4300 US gallons. The tractor was driven by a 23 years old friend of the farmer who owned the equipment. The trailer and tractor were road legal and the driver had the necessary licenses to drive the combination on public roads.
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.
On the 16th of May 2015 at approximately 11:20am ET 002 is approaching Laggenbeck from the east at 140kph/87mph. The train is nearly full, carrying a driver, conductor and over 150 passengers (precise numbers are unknown). At the same time Mister E, a 23 years old local at a local farm is pulling a trailer full of slurry headed for a local biogas plant. The farmer who owned the tractor, Mister B, had (allegedly) coupled the tractor to the trailer and then asked E to do the drive for him. As he drives northbound along Fuchsweg the level crossing is clear, the barriers are up, the lights are off, and no train in sight. E drives the tractor over the tracks, a moment later he hears a “clunk” and sees the front of the trailer lift up. The coupler has failed and the trailer has disconnected from the tractor, severing the electric and pneumatic lines as the trailer’s automatic brakes apply. The large, heavy trailer is stuck, right on the train tracks. Knowing he can’t lift the draw bar to reattach the tractor (and release the brakes) E calls the emergency services, telling them to stop trains in the area or prepare for an accident. Just as he finishes the phone call the lights at the crossing turn on and the barriers lower. Realizing the call came too late E runs along the track towards the approaching train, trying to warn the driver before he can see the obstacle. It’s unknown if the driver missed E’s warning or if it came too late, coming around a long right hand turn the blocked crossing comes into view at 11:30am. The driver triggers an emergency stop, but even with the relatively good brakes on the FLIRT there is no way the train will shed 140kph/87mph in the remaining distance. At 11:31am ET 002 slams into the massive obstacle, still travelling at 127kph/79mph. The driver’s cabin is obliterated on impact with the steel tank as the train’s frame rips the trailer apart, throwing parts of train and trailer all over the place. The trailer’s frame is dragged along the side of the train, denting the side in and breaking windows before getting caught in a door and tearing a big hole into the side of the train. The train stays on the track throughout the collision, coming to a stop approximately 200m/650ft past the crossing. The driver and an 18 years old passenger are killed in the collision, 41 passengers are injured, six of which severely. E, who had to watch the tragedy unfold in front of him, is physically unharmed.
The local fire department arrives on the scene minutes after the collision, having figured out on the way that they were dealing with a passenger train the alarm was already raised to a mass casualty event, accelerating the deployment of more forces from surrounding cities. Upon arrival they are met with a huge field of debris, a door from the train was flung 15m/49ft into a field along with its rails, even the trailer’s heavy wheels were thrown well clear of the tracks, still attached to the frame. It’s clear from the start that any help came too late for the driver, what used to be his cab is entirely gone and filled with debris. The responders set up a triage area on a nearby field, uninjured passengers or those with minor injuries are taken to the community center at Ibbenbüren while Ambulances and helicopters take the more severely injured survivors to surrounding hospitals. Even the uninjured passengers are treated as patients, receiving support from psychologists and chaplains. The train, tractor and remains of the trailer are confiscated and examined, along with the damaged level crossing. A malfunction of the latter is soon ruled out, recordings show that it worked flawlessly. Furthermore, E’s call to emergency services happened before the crossing turned on, so a failure to activate is ruled out. The fact that he called emergency services, sounding quite panicked, and that he tried to warn the train also make a deliberate attack unlikely. Investigators recover the data-logger from ET 002 and, with the investigation on site wrapping up, have the remains of the train towed to a depot at Rheine.
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.
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.
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.