Kellmünz an der Iller (Kellmünz on the Iller) is a town of 1483 people (as of 2021) in the far south of Germany, located in the federal state of Bavaria 32km/20mi south of Ulm and 63km/39mi southwest of Augsburg (both measurements in linear distance).
Kellmünz lies on the Illertalbahn (Iller Valley Railway), an unelectrified, single-tracked main line connecting Kempten in the south with Neu-Ulm in the north on 84.65km/52.6mi of track. The line opened in 1863, being constructed mostly for freight traffic as the cargo transport on the Iller had been forced to end due to the construction of several dams and mills along the river. Nowadays the line, which is the most frequented single-track line in Germany, is mostly used by regional passenger services with speeds reaching 140kph/87mph.
The vehicles involved
RB 75757 was a regional passenger service from Altenstadt to Kellmünz, provided on the day of the accident by DB (German national railway) 612 078. Introduced in 1998 the series 612 “RegioSwinger” is a two-car diesel multiple unit measuring 51.75m/170ft in length at a weight of 116 metric tons. The type was developed specifically for services on old, curvy routes and features a special suspension system which allows the body of the train along with the frame to lean into turns at up to 8° depending on input from sensors at the leading and trailing axle. This changes the forces inflicted on the train, track and passengers and allows a 30% faster operation compared to regular trains. This leaning-system is the reason for the RegioSwinger nickname, as the train supposedly “swings” through corners, even if the actual motion is more comparable to a motorcyclist.
Each series 612 is powered by two Cummins inline-six diesel engines (one per half) producing 563kW/755hp each, and can carry up to 146 passengers in a two-class configuration at speeds of up to 160kph/99mph. At the time of the accident the train carried 50 people including the driver.
The other vehicle involved in the accident was an Audi A4 Avant B5, a midsize station wagon from the late 1990s measuring 4.47m/14.7ft in length at a weight of 1.24 metric tons empty. The five-seat car only carried a driver at the time of the accident, 46 years old Miss Dempfle.
On the 17th of July 2013 DB 612 078 is approaching Kellmünz from the north at 6:50am, carrying 49 passengers, likely mostly commuters on their way to work. At the same time 46 years old Miss Dempfle is also heading to work, driving eastbound on “Steinweg”. Up ahead the road intersects with the rail line at a barrierless crossing, which is secured with signage and a warning light. By 6:56 the lights at the crossing activate and turn red, warning of the inbound train. Miss Dempfle proceeds into the crossing despite the warning, ending up right in the path of the approaching train. The train’s driver, spotting the obstacle, triggers an emergency stop, but there’s not nearly enough distance left to stop. The train ramms the side of the Audi just before 7:00am, travelling at approximately 100kph/62mph. The impact rips the engine and front axle from the car and severely compresses the rest as the train derails on debris from the car, dragging the severely damaged car along the tracks for another 100m/328ft before veering off the tracks to the right and digging into the soft ground.
The resistance from the ground along with the downward angle causes the forward half of the train to swing around almost 180°, ripping off the rear half in the process. A passenger is ejected through the opening at the back of the forward car before the train car falls over, coming to a rest on its side next to the remains of the Audi in a resident’s thoroughly demolished backyard. The passenger who was ejected and another passenger aboard the train are severely injured, as is Miss Dempfle, who is pinned in the mangled remains of her car. Another 10 people aboard the train also suffer injuries requiring medical attention.
The crash is heard throughout the town and residents are on site to render aid almost immediately, soon followed by the first professional responders. The Audi’s safety engineering stood little chance against the side-impact from the train, most of the car ahead of the rear wheels is severely deformed, nothing ahead of the dashboard is recognizable (if it’s even there still at all), and the whole thing is upside down. Yet still, miraculously, firefighters manage to cut Miss Dempfle from the wreckage alive. She’s airlifted to hospital, losing both her legs but surviving. Responders enter the toppled train car with ladders as well as through the rear opening, assisting survivors in finding a way out of the train. Since one survivor was flung from the derailing train they also search the area around the wreckage to ensure no passengers go unnoticed.
The cause of the accident appears to be fairly clear, the car drove into the level crossing without authorization, leaving insufficient space for the train to stop before it crashed into the car. After the collision debris from the car breaking apart was run over by the train’s leading wheels, lifting it out of the tracks. Unfortunate, but far from unheard of in accidents like this. The shape and consistency of the ground around the rail line, lastly, aided in the leading train car falling over. The question to be answered is why the car was driven into the path of the train. Several people are injured, the leading train car is written off, the Audi is destroyed and several square feet of greenery need replacing, along with a stretch of the rail line which was destroyed by the derailing train. Furthermore, collisions at barrierless level crossings in general are an ongoing issue in Germany, with every new accident refueling the discussion about how urgently they need to be upgraded with barriers.
The most plausible cause is rejected first, Miss Dempfle did not act in suicidal intention. She claims to have seen neither the approaching train nor any warning lights. The DB’s lawyer admits that the rail line north of the site was hard to observe from the perspective of an approaching car, but since the crossing was equipped with warning lights which were working fine that shouldn’t matter. Regardless, the DB reacts to the accident after a few days by posting a guard at the crossing who manually blocks the road any time a train approaches.
Arguments over who is at fault to what degree carry on for years after the accident, during which time it’s revealed that the DB had planned to upgrade the crossing in 1995, and that an improvement was promised in 2012. The upgrade is finally installed in summer 2018, fitting the crossing with barriers and even a separate pedestrian crossing with its own barriers, making a repeat of the accident impossible.
The DB’s infrastructure division eventually sues Miss Dempfle’s insurance in summer 2019, almost six years after the accident, to finally settle the matter. The DB wants 165 thousand Euros/182.260USD from the insurance, a fraction of the estimated 3 million Euros/3.3 Million USD damage. Both parties agree that the level crossing’s lights worked as intended, but the insurance argues that their client couldn’t see the lights due to the low sun shining right at her as she approached the crossing, making the lights insufficient and relieving Miss Dempfle of the accusation of gross negligence. With the parties unable to come to an agreement in court an on-site evaluation is ordered on the anniversary of the accident, which gives the same lighting-conditions as of the day the collision happened.
The evaluation, which the DB tried to avoid due to time and cost, results in the decision that yes, the sun was at a height above the horizon and in a position that made it shine right down the street and into Miss Dempfle’s eyes, likely making it very hard or even impossible for her to spot the red warning light. Miss Dempfle is thus, at last, cleared of criminal wrongdoing, and the DB loses the trial against the insurance. The equipment of the level crossing at the time of the accident was insufficient, and the DB neglected to upgrade it appropriately. As it happened many times before, the courts decide that an accident at a level crossing would not have happened if it hadn’t been a barrierless crossing. She might have been able to act more carefully and spot the oncoming train in time, but her degree of attention paid was not insufficient enough to call her behavior gross negligence.
As of summer 2021 the DB claims to have 13600 level crossings in their possession, of which 579 are barrierless and 3942 have no technological safety-measures (lights, barriers, warning-horn) at all. During a 2021 questioning in the German parliament the DB explained that upgrading a crossing from “nothing” to “lights and barriers” can cost approximately 1 million Euros/1.1 Million USD, and while no numbers for an upgrade like the at Kellmünz are known the crossing-upgrade there cost 800 thousand Euros/884 thousand USD. This means that 4 upgraded crossings per year would make the upgrades cost more than the average damage caused to the DB at barrierless crossings per year (3.5 Million Euros/3.87 Million USD).
To be fair, most barrierless crossings and almost all low-equipment (no more than signs) crossings are in rural areas on extremely low-traffic roads, but some, like the one at Kellmünz, aren’t. And even those in rural areas can fall victim to avoidable severe or even fatal accidents, just less likely so.
Miss Dempfle is interviewed by a local newspaper in December 2013, announcing that she intends to get back to working soon, wanting to live as normally as she can, given the circumstances caused by the consequences from the accident. Her car and the leading half of the train are scrapped after the accident, the rear half of the train (numbered DB 612 578) is united with the remaining half from a different series 612 that suffered a level crossing collision in February 2014. As of summer 2023 the resulting train (carrying the numbers of two rear halves) is still in service, with no retirement in sight for it or the type as a whole.
A kind reader is posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.