Sudden Drop: The 1999 Wuppertal Suspension Railway Accident
Wuppertal is a city of 355100 people (as of December 2019) in the far west of Germany, located in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, 24km/15mi east of Düsseldorf and 36.5km/22.5mi north of Cologne.
Unusual for a German city Wuppertal has a very slim stretched-out shape, caused by the city having expanded inside a valley along the river Wupper rather than sprawling in all directions. “Wuppertal” actually translates to “Valley of the Wupper”. While the city has connections to the Autobahn and national railway network and possesses a network of bus lines for public transport it also utilizes a rather unique rapid transport system in the form of the “Wuppertaler Schwebebahn”, a suspended passenger railway hanging off an overhead track. With the valley tightly filled with housing especially near the center of the city engineers at the time decided to utilize the unused space above the river Wupper. The line of the Schwebebahn constructed above the river is known today as the “Wasserstrecke” (Water line), a later line built above roads is referred to as the “Landstrecke” (Land line). Opened in 1901 the Schwebebahn, officially named the Einschienige Hängebahn System Eugen Langen (“Single-rail suspended railway system Eugen Langen”) actually predates the city Wuppertal by 28 years.
The Water line consists of two rails attached to a large steel support structure running the length of the river, 12m/39ft above the water supported by large steel girders in an inverted V-shape. The trains hang off the rails at the outside of the support structure, with a turning loop at either end of the route allowing trains to change the side/direction.
The water line follows the river for 10.6km/6.6mi, serving 16 stations along the way. Roads, footpaths and most other infrastructure passes below the elevated rails. The system was chosen over a conventional elevated railway as the suspended system allowed for higher speeds through the relatively tight turns necessitated by following a largely unregulated river.
The Schwebebahn utilizes a “third rail” (technically, in this case, second rail) power supply, with the trains receiving electricity through a secondary rail below the one they are hanging off of. There is argumentation if the Schwebebahn is a monorail, with the general agreement being that it’s closer to a traditional railway, with the trains possessing relatively traditional wheels and bogies, just on the roof except below the floor.
The train involved
The train involved in the accident was unit 4, a GTW 72 introduced in 1972. The GTW (Gelenktriebwagen, “Articulated rail car”) 72 is a 3-car train consisting of two longer end cars and a short middle car. Each train measures 24m/79ft in length and weights 22.18 metric tons empty. The end cars hang off the rail by four 2-wheel bogies while the short middle car is suspended between them. The trains can carry up to 43 seated and 156 standing passengers at up to 60kph/37mph. The position of the train relative to the rail is not permanent, they can swing up to 15° left to right depending on wind, load, acceleration/deceleration and corner speed. This banking is part of the Schwebebahn’s concept and was what led to it being preferred over a traditional elevated railway.
Like all trains the GTW 72 had an off-center aisle, doors on one side and only one driver’s cab, as the system never has the trains randomly change direction.
During the night between the 11th and 12th of April 1999 workers are continuing with a gradual renovation of the water line just south of the Robert-Daum-Platz station in the far west of Wuppertal. As they replace part of the support-structure they placed claws on the rail to connect them to the support structure and one another, intending to the rails from inadvertently moving. Each claw weighs about 100kg/220lbs. At the site of the renovation the track runs above a pipe-bridge which crosses the river with pipes for steam heating.
It’s unknown at what time the workers finish up, but by 5:20am they reported that they had cleared out and the track was ready to start operation. A fatal error, as they’d forgotten one of the claws on the rail. There is no testing done to ensure safety of the line, and thus at 5:44am unit 4 leaves Robert-Daum-Platz on the first westbound connection of the day. Depending on which source you believe the train was either full or nearly full. Regardless the train quickly picks up speed on the following 110m/362ft, reaching 50kph/31mph. The train driver never sees the obstacle, and at 7:45 the train runs into the claw at full speed. The sudden resistance tears the forward bogie off the roof and causes the train to bank to the right far enough for the second bogie to be dragged off the rail. Pulling the rest of the train along the forward car falls off the rail, smashes through the pipe bridge and lands in the river 10m/33ft below. The severely damaged forward bogie remains on the rail for a few more seconds before falling down, weighting 3.5 metric tons it easily punches through the exterior wall of the forward car. 3 people die in the accident, with 49 suffering severe injuries and countless more being registered with minor injuries.
Employees of the neighboring office supply company ELBA hear the deafening crash as the train smashes through the pipe bridge and use a scaffolding on the bank of the river to climb into the shallow water, becoming the first responders. With help from the injured driver they start pulling survivors from the wreckage and carry them ashore. An unnamed witness calls the police and is initially laughed at for such a ridiculous claim, some sources even say the police hung up. Eventually enough people call the emergency services for them to believe that the Schwebebahn very much did fall down, and over 150 responders pour into the site along with a group of clergymen to provide spiritual and emotional support to responders and survivors. This was a fairly new idea which found large scale use and acceptance after the Eschede Derailment just a few months prior. It soon comes clear that, as weird as it may sound, the train chose the best possible spot to fall off the rail. The river at the site is rather shallow, meaning responders could wade through the water and more or less walk up to the wreckage, at the same time the remains of the pipe bridge kept the train mostly out of the water so survivors wouldn’t drown. The fact that the train landed with the door-side up further speeds up the rescue effort. Had the train fallen down on the land line, above pedestrians, cars or buses, the outcome could have been far worse.
Lightly or uninjured survivors are grouped together on the bank of the river before being taken to a nearby tent, a local bank’s conference room becomes a makeshift field hospital and the Robert-Daum-Platz (a large intersection) is blocked off and serves as a landing site for 3 helicopters. Within 3 hours of the impact the train is empty and all survivors are taken care of. The body of a woman is found a short distance downstream, and with 2 initial survivors succumbing to their injuries at the hospital the death toll rises to 5 by the end of the day. Injuries largely consisted of broken bones, cuts and blunt force trauma, with the latter being blamed for the 5 deaths. The rescue of survivors both in the train and who had wandered the riverbed had taken place fast enough for no one to die from hypothermia in the cold water. The moment the last passenger leaves the wreckage the whole site is cordoned off and declared a crime scene. There had been half a dozen accidents and incidents involving the Schwebebahn since it’s opening over 90 years prior, one time a truck had knocked down a stretch of the land line and once an elephant jumped out of the train, but the worst consequences had always been minor injuries. So how had this happened? How had the famous floating railway suddenly fallen down and claimed lives? Within hours the news of the odd accident spread around the world, by the next morning news reels and newspapers even abroad were reporting on the accident.
The recovery of the train proves to be difficult, while a ladder-truck from the fire department could pull around the back of an adjacent office building to lift responders into the river with it’s ladder the spot was unfit for the 300 metric ton crane required to recover the train, as it was feared that the crane’s weight would collapse an underground garage. Eventually the crane was taken to the other side of the river in front of the ELBA-building, and had to lift every piece up out of the river and across the entire building. For this several floodlights were attached to the Schwebebahn’s support structure and an excavator was lowered into the river to help with dismantling the train and the pipe bridge. The train and bridge were cut up to allow recovery, with all the pieces being taken to a local military base for safekeeping and investigation. The recovery was finished by the 17th of April, and after some repairs service restarted soon after. The train and track were found to be in perfect condition, and there was nothing that the driver could’ve done wrong to cause the derailment. And with the site being the entrance of a turn excessive speed causing an excessive swing-angle was not an option either. The truth was, the workers had simply forgotten to make sure they had all their equipment with them when they packed up for the night.
Having been initially charged with negligent manslaughter and negligent cause of bodily harm the head of operations (the man in charge of ensuring safe operation) was relieved of guilt during the trial. On the 31st of January 2002 two workers were sentenced to 20 respectively 8 months in jail, with both sentences being turned into full probation, while one worker was sentenced to make 180 daily payments at 80 DM (German Mark) each (equivalent to 40.9 Euro/49.4 USD). Four more defendants were relieved of any criminal guilt. The city of Wuppertal, by their own claims, paid 1.3 million DM (626743 Euro/756811 USD) for damages (to property and the body), treatment- and funeral costs as well as for therapy-sessions. Combined with the damage to their own infrastructure (the Schwebebahn and the pipe-bridge) they faced a sum “way above” 8 million DM/3.9 million Euro/4.7 million USD). The train was scrapped once it was no longer needed for the investigation, while the track was repaired and the pipe bridge was reconstructed. To ensure that an accident like this will never be repeated the Schwebebahn now runs empty trains at a slow speed after construction work has taken place to ensure that the track is clear.
Visiting the site of the accident today the track and pipe-bridge look like nothing ever happened, the only drastic change was unrelated new construction on the banks of the river. A small balcony carries a sign informing visitors of the history of the railway and the first and only fatal accident. Heading to the nearby Robert-Daum-Platz station visitors can find a brass plaque there serving as a memorial for the victims of the accident sponsored by the operator of the Schwebebahn.
The plaque reads In memory of the victims of the Schwebebahn accident on the 12th of April 1999. The worst accident in the history of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway happened not far from this location. After construction work had ended early in the morning a train fell into the Wupper. Five passengers lost their lives, 47 people were injured.
To this day the accident from the 12th of April 1999 has remained the only accident to cause serious injury to passengers/staff or claim lives. This makes it an unusually safe mode of transportation. Retirement of the GTW 72 started in 2016, by 2019 all of the trains had been removed from service. Unit 4 is the only one to be scrapped, all other trains have been preserved publicly or in private ownership. But due to the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn being the only one the trains can use the preserved trains won’t ever run again. A new generation, named GTW 15 (introduced in 2015) started service in 2016, bringing improvements in safety and efficiency.
In case you want to find out a little more about the Schwebebahn in normal operation you can watch this little video: