The Cost of Comfort: The 1998 Eschede Train Derailment
Eschede is a municipality of 5739 people (as of 31st of December 2019) in the north of Germany, comprised of several smaller villages. Located in the federal state of Lower Saxony (“Niedersachsen”), 51km/31.5mi northwest of Wolfsburg and 92km/57mi south of Hamburg (both distances measured in linear distance) the Federal Road (“Bundesstraße”) 191 connects it to the nearby cities of Celle and Uelzen, with the town also having a station on the Hanover-Hamburg railway line.
Opened in 1864 the Hamburg-Hanover railway line is an electrified double-track railway line, forming an important part of the cross-country corridor connecting Munich in the South with Hamburg in the north and is used by everything from regional trains to long distance freight and passenger services to international trains continuing into Austria or even Italy and is built to support speeds of up to 200kph/124mph.
The train involved
Introduced in 1988 the ICE 1 (“InterCity Express”) was Germany’s first modern high speed train. Usually running as 14-piece units (which can be shortened to 11 or extended to 16 cars) with a motor car on either end these trains carry up to 703 passengers in a two-class configuration, coming in at a length of 358m/1175ft including the two motor-cars (which have a driver’s cab but don’t carry passengers). Weighting 795 metric tons empty the trains have a power-output of 4800kw/6437hp per motor car, allowing them to reach up to 280kph/174mph (310kph/193mph have been achieved in testing).
A distinctive feature of the first generation (which shares the motor car design with it’s successor) is the restaurant car (branded “BordRestaurant”), which features a 450mm/17.5in higher roof with several windows, making it easy to spot from the outside. Originally meant to just mark the car in the train and to provide light to the 40 passengers it can host (36 seats and space for 4 standing passengers) the space was eventually filled with technical equipment.
Soon after the first ICE 1 trains started operation complaints started coming in from numerous passengers about the train lacking comfort, especially in the restaurant car. Complaints listed a humming noise from shaking plates and “wandering glasses” on the tables, in some cases along with an unpleasant vibration. The problem was traced to the train’s monobloc steel wheels, fabricated from a solid piece of steel, developing metal fatigue and out-of-round conditions/flat spots from uneven wear resulting in resonance and vibration at higher speeds. In September 1991 Deutsche Bahn (German national Railway, DB) board member Roland Heinisch contacted the chairman of the board, Heinz Dürr, and urged him to focus on eliminating the problem to avoid both image-damage to the DB’s prestige project and also reduce the risk of damage to the trains themselves. Several solutions were worked out, including changes to the tracks/ballast or developing air suspension for the bogies (the train’s wheelsets). Fearing the high cost of either option attention turned to the slowest kind of rail transport, trams. Following the example of the wheels used by those slow-speed urban transport trains the DB developed the wheel “Bochum 84/Series 064”, which consisted of 3 pieces. An inner steel disc and a separate steel tire, with a 20mm thick hard rubber cushion between them allowing a certain degree of dampening not found in the solid steel monobloc wheels.
Starting testing in late January 1992 with 45 restaurant cars being converted the results were satisfying, with only one report of a crack being found in a steel tire a month after testing started. In summer 1992 Heinisch urged the engineers overseeing the tests to cut the schedule short, and on the 5th of October of the same year the DB announced the end of the “rumbling restaurant” with the new wheels being fitted to the whole fleet. In late 1997 Hanover’s tram operator warned of tires breaking long before their scheduled end of life and advised other users to shorten the replacement intervals. The DB had declined to do this, citing constructive differences between the tram wheels and Bochum 84 wheels.
On Wednesday the 3rd of June 1998 ICE 1 number 151, lead by motor car 401 051 is travelling as ICE connection 884 “Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen” from Munich to Hamburg, carrying 287 passengers and 6 crew members. After stopping at Augsburg, Nürnberg, Würzburg, Fulda, Kassel, Göttingen and Hanover it is approaching the town of Eschede, which it will pass right through and continue towards Hamburg, running just 1 minute behind schedule. The train is travelling at 200kph/124mph when, at 10:57:28am, a tire from the forward axle on the rear bogie of the first passenger car (behind the motor car) snapped due to undiscovered fatigue cracks, unwound and drilled itself through the cabin floor, shooting out between two occupied seats and becoming stuck. Sitting in the opposite seats was Mr. Dittmann, who witnessed a giant piece of metal almost striking his wife or son. Dittmann and his family abandoned the compartment and Dittmann went to look for the conductor (who was not in the same car as him). Upon finding the conductor Dittmann was informed that it was mandatory to evaluate the possible damage before triggering an emergency stop. Dittmann would later defend his decision, saying in the rush to get his family out of the compartment he did not see the emergency brake in the compartment and could not find one in the corridor. Coincidentally, following Mr. Dittmann back to car 1 would save the conductor’s life.
As they made their way back towards the damaged compartment the train car began swaying wildly, as the tire had ripped up the wheel guide from a set of points, causing it to tear through the floor also and become lodged in the entrance area, lifting the bogie off the track in the process. The wild swaying reported by Mr. Dittmann and the conductor came from the wheels, lacking guidance, bumping across the sleepers at full speed. At 10:59am one of the derailed wheels struck the variable rails on a second set of points just 150m/492ft from the overpass at Eschede, shifting the set from “straight” to “turn right”.
This caused the rear wheels of the third car to be diverted into the siding, dooming the train. While the points could be passed straight ahead at high speed, their speed limit for turning into the siding was much lower. The rear end of the 52.5 metric ton car was thrown off the track, rotating almost sideways. It obliterated 2 support columns of the overpass as it derailed, causing the 300 metric ton concrete bridge to start collapsing. The derailing car forced car 4 off the tracks also, racing across underneath the collapsing bridge unharmed as it headed off the tracks to the right. Torn loose from the train it struck and killed two railway workers who had been working at the siding before running into several trees on an embankment and stopping. The pneumatic connectors between the cars being torn caused the brakes to apply, stopping the forward 2 passenger cars largely undamaged a few hundred meters down the track, along with the derailed car 3 which had suffered severe damage from it’s impact with the bridge. Most of the bridge came down on cars five and six. The latter, the restaurant car, was compressed to 150mm high (to compare, an iPhone X is 144mm high). With the tracks now completely blocked by the rubble the remaining cars jackknifed and slammed into the growing wreckage one by one, in a process likened to a folding ruler. Within seconds, 8 ICE-cars are compressed to a length barely more than a single ICE 1 car (26.4m/87 feet).
Living just 20 meters from the railway tracks, and under 100 from the bridge is Miss Karl, at the time 50 years old. She recalls sitting in the kitchen planning some changes to the garden with her husband, when a deafening rumble causes the house to shake and throw a coffee cup off the table. At the time her husband wonders if a plane crashed nearby. Stepping outside Miss Karl and her husband are met by over 100 metric tons of torn and twisted metal, as part of the crashed ICE has ended up just a few steps from her front door. Inadvertently, the couple becomes the first responders to Germany’s worst railway disaster.
While the forward passenger cars tear off the leading motor car and stop, the motor car coasts on even with zero propulsion and the brakes fully applied. It comes to a stop nearly undamaged 2km/1,24mi past Eschede station. The driver, who felt barely more than a jolt and a sudden loss of power, suspects a simple technical fault. He is in the process of trying to restart the engines when Eschede station’s dispatcher radios him, telling him that his power car passed the station alone and that something terrible must have happened. The driver is paralyzed by the realization, by the time responders get to him he is still sitting upright at the control desk. It’s the dispatcher who, sensing something went very wrong, locks down the railway line and notifies the authorities, most likely giving clearance to various emergency calls about explosions or plane crashes in the area.
At 11:03am, 2 minutes after the first call to emergency services, sirens howl through Eschede, alerting all available responders. 3 minutes later demands for support go out to the surrounding cities, as far as Hanover. The level of alarm is raised nearly every minute, by 11:10am the German Army sends a squadron of helicopters from a nearby air base to help evacuate severely injured survivors, helping the terribly insufficient 2 civilian rescue helicopters at the scene. Most of them are used to transport survivors, while one stays at the scene, airborne, as a flying control tower. A radio call credited to different people goes out at that time, asking surrounding dispatch centers to “send everyone you got until I tell you to stop sending them”. The radio-system as well as the cell phone service are completely overloaded and break down, telling responders and residents to turn off their mobile phones eventually allows the re-establishment of some communication. Around that time Miss Karl remembers finding a little girl pacing up and down the sidewalk on the edge of the wreckage, unwilling to come inside or even sit down for a moment. Eventually Miss Karl can find an EMT to look after the girl, she is later told that the child had a severe shock and a broken vertebrae in her neck. With more and more professional responders pouring into the little town the civilians start to retreat from the wreckage, due to her house’s vicinity to the site Miss Karl starts doing her best to support the responders and survivors, supplying water and coffee, holding infusion bags for patients awaiting transport. Other residents bring blankets for survivors, bed sheets for the dead. At 11:25am the red cross holds the evacuation of injured survivors, lacking coordination has wreaked havoc on the surrounding hospitals, slowing rescue and treatment of severely injured survivors.
A constructional oversight of the ICE cars slows down responders more and more as the day progresses: There are no emergency exits, all windows are engineered to be difficult to break. As such, responders have to bring in machinery to cut through metal and glass or try to dig into the wreckage until they can enter at the ends of a car. By midday hundreds of responders are crawling the site and trying to chase off the media and disaster tourists, among the responders are British soldiers stationed nearby as well as 37 firemen who received medical training at a seminar a few towns away. At 1pm the German army brings in an armored recovery vehicle, while Hanover’s fire department sends a 40 ton crane to help pull the wreckage apart layer by layer. Around 2:15pm it is announced that no more survivors are to be expected, turning the effort into a recovery operation. An hour later the catastrophe-alarm is called off. The area designated for the collection of survivors is re-designated as a makeshift morgue, by midnight 78 victims have been recovered. The public prosecutor’s office ordered an autopsy to be performed on every single victim recovered sufficiently complete.
Most victims were killed instantly by the momentary deceleration, which can be compared to falling 160m/525ft onto concrete. Most victims had been in the center of the train, crushed under the bridge or by the impact into the massive obstacle. Identifying the dead proves to be extremely difficult, in difference to air travel there are no passenger lists and passengers are free to move throughout the train. A lot of victims also carried no ID, in one case an ID was found to be fake. Most of the victims were also not intact, despite four teams working around the clock on identifying and sorting body parts only 19 of the dead had been identified by the weekend (three days after the accident). With help from the federal police office 96 of the 101 victims were identified, due to the condition of the dead relatives were only asked to ID a victim in one case. In one car a class book from an elementary school is found in a dead woman’s bag, luckily it turns out that her class was not on the train with her. With two initial survivors dying in the hospital 101 people die in the accident, including the two railway workers and the whole crew excluding the driver and one conductor. Among the dead are 12 children, 6 surviving children are orphaned. 88 people suffer severe injuries, 106 medium or light injuries. The fact that the train was only at around 44% capacity was, despite the horrible loss of life, a lucky coincidence. Around 1900 people are involved in the rescue and recovery operation, bringing over 200 cars, trucks and ambulances, 3 armored recovery vehicles, 19 helicopters. Mr. Dittmann is among the survivors, had he remained in the third car where he tracked down the conductor it is likely that neither of them would have survived.
A lucky coincidence was that the train had run a minute behind schedule while it’s opposite partner, ICE 787 ”Karl Adam“, was running two minutes early, avoiding a meeting at Eschede. Had both been right on time ICE 787 would have slammed into the wreckage and made the outcome unimaginably worse.
The day after the accident responders find the flattened remains of a car in the wreckage, pressed up against the head of the bridge. Suspicion that an impact with a car parked on the tracks could have caused the derailment arises, rumors raise the theory to a deliberate attack on the train. As the recovery effort progresses the bodies of the two railway workers are found on the side of the tracks, soon after the car, a Mk3 VW Golf Variant, can be linked to their employer. It had most likely been parked on the bridge and fallen in between the train cars as the bridge was torn away under it. Furthermore, inspecting the leading motor car finds zero damage on the forward section, ruling out a collision.
On the 8th of June recovery crews start removing the train from the site of the accident to Aachen University, having found all evidence they can find at the site. Already on the fourth had investigators discovered scratches and missing chumps of concrete 6km/3.7 ahead of the site, leading to the suspicion that SOMETHING levered the train off the tracks.
These scratches, in addition to the damage to the track and points just ahead of the bridge, can be linked to the two pieces of metal found embedded in the forward cars, allowing investigators to slowly piece together what happened aboard the train in it’s final minutes. And the more they uncover, the worse things start to look.
The three-piece wheels on the ICE 1 get compressed into an oval shape with every rotation, around 500 thousand times each day. The longer a metal tire is in use the thinner it gets, making it more and more likely to develop cracks. This process is accelerated by flat spots or imperfections. The damage can be compared to a paper clip being bent open and close several times in succession, it will eventually snap in two. Accidents from metal tires on trains breaking are nothing new, going back to the Timelkam train derailment in 1875. The investigation shows that when calculating the lifespan of each metal tire for the ICE 1 this constant compression and decompression had not been factored in correctly, meaning the margin in which wear might vary was too small. Furthermore there were no sufficient regular checks. The guidelines allowed the 920mm tires to be worn down to 854mm, the tire that caused the accident was still 862mm in diameter. Testing after the accident showed that the tires should be replaced at 890mm, and only if they are regularly checked for cracks on the inside. To discover those the DB had introduced special ultrasound-equipment, but the maintenance department in Munich had stopped using them in 1994 after the so-called ULM-machines had reported too many defects that weren’t actually there. Instead, the mechanics used handheld neon tubes for a visual inspection. Furthermore, an inspection the day before the accident had found the faulty tire to lack concentricity by 1.1mm (twice of what was allowed in service) and have flat spots of up to 0.7mm when 0.6 were allowed. This, along with eight reports of flat spots from the previous weeks found in the onboard logbook were not deemed a security risk severe enough to remove the train from service, instead the issue was to be addressed in the Hamburg-Eidelstedt maintenance facility after the train’s arrival in Hamburg.
On the 7th of November 2001 the public prosecutor’s office in Lüneburg presents the indictment for the trial on charges of negligent manslaughter and negligent cause of bodily harm. It is 186 pages long. It is the biggest trial in post-war Germany, being set to take at least 22 days. Sitting in court on the first day of the actual trial (28th of August 2002) are two engineers from the DB and one from the company manufacturing the wheels who are blamed for the insufficient testing of the wheels prior to introduction. Also in the courtroom is Mr. Löwen, a spokesman for the relatives of the victims who himself lost his wife and oldest daughter. He makes it clear that he sees the defendants as not being the main people to blame, nothing is gained from them going to jail. Instead, he wishes he could see the board members sit in their place. The trial devolves into chaos, experts contradict each other and get lost in shouting matches, have to constantly be reminded by the judge to behave and get on with it in a professional manner as there are almost 70 witnesses and experts to be heard before a sentence can be handed down.
But it never gets that far. To the shock and disappointment of many the Lüneburg court decides to cut the trial short, after running for 55 days it ends in early May 2003 with each of the defendants paying 10 thousand Euros each. The defendants are not legally responsible, having had no sufficient reason to doubt their superior’s instructions. Similarly, the change of maintenance-procedures in Munich does not make the mechanics there responsible. Mr. Löwen tries to get another trial started at the Federal Constitutional court, but is shot down as the decision to end the trial on 3 fines is lawful and sufficient. Survivors and relatives are left upset and angry, but unable to do much. By 2008 the DB, expressively voluntarily, paid 32 million Euros (38.8 million USD) in damages, among them medical bills, personal injury compensation, income replacement and damages to property. Relatives are paid 30 thousand marks (14448 Euros/17504USD) for every victim in addition to damages, survivors are paid less depending on the severety of the injuries. The DB expects further payment for at least a decade, mainly income replacement and pension replacement costs. On the first anniversary of the catastrophe the DB’s CEO at the time, Johannes Ludewig, publicly apologizes for what happens, a step largely seen as borderline insulting by relatives and survivors.
The DB bans the three piece wheel form service within a week of the accident, temporarily returning to monobloc wheels and focusing on developing an improved suspension for the ICE. To reduce problems the refurbishment-intervals are cut down to 240 thousand Kilometers (150 thousand miles) and 10mm thick cushion-elements are placed between the rails and sleepers on new railway lines. Since then ICEs have received a new suspension-system that eliminates the vibration. Over 5 years time 6200 windows on ICE 1 are replaced with emergency exit windows that are easily broken with a provided hammer, eliminating the need for axes or diamond cutting discs used during the rescue (which both endanger passengers and slow the rescue down). During the rescue Mr. Karl had tried to break windows with his hammer, being completely unsuccessful. The guidelines for the construction of new railway lines are also changed, avoiding placing switches and sidings ahead of tunnels and overpasses. Regardless, while a new, column-less bridge is built at Eschede and 1.5km/4921ft of track and overhead wire are replaced, the switches which derailed the train are put into almost the same place again. Since the three piece wheel was removed from service this decision was deemed safe.
Something new at the time was the use of chaplains and therapists to provide emotional and spiritual as well as psychological support to survivors, relatives and responders even during the rescue operation. Organization of this service was led by the Jatzko-couple, two psychologists who had already worked in this capacity after the Ramstein Air Show Disaster 10 years prior. 700 responders took the offered help, when the program ended after 3 years 100 of them announced transferring into long-term therapy.
The rear motor car, which suffered severe damage on the train-end was placed in storage and used as a parts-donor, in 2007 pieces from it were combined with the remains from two more damaged motor cars to construct motor car 401 573–1, which is still in service, before the rest of it, including the chassis and frame, were scrapped.
All but the first passenger cars were scrapped once the investigation was finished. The forward-most passenger car, which had only suffered minor damage, was donated to the THW (Federal Agency for technical relief) for training, it was also used to film part of both National Geographic’s “Seconds from Disaster”, a documentary about the accident, and a German Documentary. It has since been scrapped and the THW was given a different retired ICE car to train with. The leading motor car was repaired and returned to service, it can still be seen in service today as 401 051–8. Many railway enthusiasts talking about a sad, somber feeling when they realize what motor car is passing them.
ICE 1 have been refurbished twice since the accidents, and are scheduled to remain in service until at least 2030.
The number 884 as well as the name Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen were not reused after the accident, with the 884 being skipped and 882 being followed by 886 (which uses 884’s time slot). In 2002 the DB started naming their ICEs after cities rather than people, when it returned to service the leading motor car was named “Osnabrück”.
The site today
In 2000 Mr. Bauch, an injured survivor left disabled by the accident constructed a small memorial in his garden, paid with his own money. In his own words his little chapel receives over 5000 visitors each year.
In Mai 2001 the official memorial was unveiled to the west of the train tracks, right next to the new bridge. It consists of 101 cherry trees, one for each victim, surrounding a large granite wall with the names of the victims. Climbing the stairs to road level visitors step through a gate, with the stairs continuing up about a meter on the other side, seemingly into heaven. The gate is inscribed with a poem. Both the wall with names and the gate were replaced with copies made from Bavarian granite in 2013, as the original pieces, made from Belgian granite (a lesser quality material) had suffered from the exposure to the elements. An annual memorial at the site is attended by responders, survivors and relatives. Among them is Mr. Bauch, who mentioned in a recent TV-interview that he still trusts the DB enough to take an ICE for the trip up from Munich.
Miss Karl still lives in her house, saying she can’t but also won’t forget the events of the day. She recalls the girl she handed off to the EMT visiting her with her mother a few months after the accident, it turned out that Mr. Karl had pulled the girl from the wreckage and moved on to help others, leaving the child to wander the site. Mr. Karl died in 2009, but even after that she never considered moving. She says she barely hears the trains, only unknown noises sometimes startle her still. The rear fence, cut up to access the rescue helicopters, is long replaced, as is all the damage to the front yard. Less than an hour after the accident a stranger shows up at her door, carrying a camera. Not a journalist, just someone interested in tragedies. He refuses to leave, saying he came a long way to take some photos. Miss Karl prefers to think about how everyone cooperated, how everything just worked, the whole town became one machinery to aid the rescue effort. In 2020 the NDR (German television) interviews selected responders, survivors and relatives for a documentary in their “Die Narbe” (“The Scar”)-series, showing how affected people still are 20+ years later. A bleak example is one of the first firemen on scene still having his muddy, bloodied jacked hanging in his garden shed, claiming he cannot wash or discard it but also can’t get himself to wear it again.
The Eschede Derailment remains the sole fatal accident with an ICE, the changes implemented since mean it could never happen again today.
While it indicated disaster on the day of the accident, an ICE 1 Motor car can drive on it’s own just fine as it has everything from the pantograph to the motors contained in itself. While extremely rare to occur, motor cars ferrying on their own have been spotted.