The Rhine Valley Railway (also called the Mannheim-Karlsruhe-Basel railway) is a double-tracked electrified main line in the southwest of Germany, running largely parallel with the French Border. Existing in it’s current expansion since 1855 it is one of Europe’s most important railway lines, being mostly used for both passenger and freight service between Germany and Switzerland, with some trains continuing right on through to Italy. Already in 1987 it became clear that the line was not up to the demand, there being way more trains needing it than the line could safely handle. The decision was made to turn it from a double-tracked into a quad-tracked line, in some places even six-tracked, removing the need for slower trains to stop at various stations and sidings to let faster trains pass. Freight trains were also meant to be diverted around rather than right through selected cities. Obviously you can’t just place two more lengths of track next to what’s there, various bridges and tunnels have to be adapted also. The expansion was claimed to cost 7.1 Billion Euros/8.6 trillion USD (that’s 8600, and then another 6 zeros) and be done by 2008. The effort suffered some setbacks, the completion being pushed to 2030. In 2011 a study contracted by the DB (German national railway) revealed that the railway ran at 126% capacity, meaning any minor delay or incident caused massive backups. Imagine a traffic jam made of large trains. One of the preparations for the quad-track expansion is the demolition and widened reconstruction of road-overpasses at the town of Auggen (population in December 2019: 2769), 26.5km/16.5mi north of Basel and 2.8km/1.7mi south-southwest of Müllheim (both distances measured in linear distance).
The train involved
One of the main services using the railway is so-called “Combined Traffic”, which are different ways to load containers, trailers or whole trucks onto trains rather than unloading them at the freight yard and moving the cargo over into train cars. One form of this is the “Rolling Road” (“Rollende Landstraße” in German, often abbreviated to “RoLa”), which uses special eight-axle extremely low flatbed cars to carry entire semi trucks along with a sleeper car (usually at the front of the train) for the driver’s to sit/sleep in. This is meant to unclog the roads, especially those over the alps, and also reduce emissions (lots of Diesel trucks vs electronic locomotives).
In 2001 the rolling road service on the connection from Freiburg in Germany via Basel in Switzerland to Novara in Italy (which takes 10 hours for 414km 257mi) was taken over by Ralpin, a Swiss company founded by the SBB Cargo (Switzerland’s national freight railway), Hupac and BLS Cargo (two private rail service providers). On the day of the accident the train was pulled by BLS Cargo’s RE 485 004–6, a four-axle multi-system electric locomotive made by Bombardier under their “Traxx”-line of locomotives. Weighting 85 metric tons these locomotives, made specifically for international freight trains, reach 140kph/87mph and were introduced as early as 1999.
Running in it’s usual place behind the locomotive was the sleeper car for the truck drivers, followed by the flatbed cars for the trucks. Due to low demand only 10 trucks used the service that day, meaning only 11 people were on the train including the driver. Far from full capacity, usually the trains carry 20 or more trucks depending on the route. Rolling road trains have recently been considered outdated, bringing drivers and trucks along means a lot of unnecessary weight and length. Critics say that the other forms of combined transport, just carrying the containers or maybe full semi-trailers are more effective. Especially since a lot of shipping providers can find another truck to pick up the trailer at the destination of the train.
On the 2nd of April 2020 at 7:19pm RE 485 004–6 is pulling it’s half-empty Rola-train out of Freiburg station, scheduled to carry it’s passengers and trucks to Italy while the driver’s get to sleep. At the same time construction workers are at work outside the town of Auggen, preparing an overpass for demolition so it can be rebuilt with enough span to allow 4 rather than two tracks under it. The railway is open, the construction company will only have it blocked once the part stretching above the tracks is taken down the coming weekend.
At 7:29pm the train has reached Auggen, travelling at approximately 100kph/62mph. For unknown reasons (the report hasn’t been released yet, the investigation is ongoing) part of the bridge comes loose, a 140metric ton slab of concrete falls down. A moment later the speeding train slams into it at full speed. The 51 years old driver does not stand a chance, the forces involved in the collision cause the blunt piece of concrete to act like someone hit the front of a train with a giant ax. The sudden deceleration is enough to force the first flatbed car entirely underneath the sleeper car, it’s truck gets compacted by the one behind it as the sleeper car rear-ends the locomotive, breaking open on one end. An eyewitness walking on nearby hills hears a deafening impact, as he looks over he sees what he describes as a large dust cloud with a few freight cars on the back of it. The dust comes from the locomotive and forward cars derailing, with the momentum keeping them going straight ahead. The concrete slab gets dragged along for approximately 260m/853ft, destroying the tracks and uprooting overhead wire supports as if it were a snowplow, before the train comes to a stop.
Auggen’s own volunteer fire department is at the site in minutes, but it’s clear that they can’t handle the aftermath alone. Gradually more responders from surrounding towns come in, including the THW (federal technical relief agency) and two rescue helicopters. The train driver is the only fatality, a truck driver trapped in the forward section of the sleeper car can be cut free and is flown to a clinic with severe injuries. Two more truck drivers suffer injuries of an unknown degree, the remaining seven are treated on scene and then taken to a local hotel to spend the night. Throughout the night survivors and responders have access to spiritual or emotional support to help them cope with the sights.
Eventually heavy duty cranes are brought in, the morning after the collision the concrete slab can be pulled out of the locomotive and the body of the driver can be recovered. With the concrete gone the extend of the damage becomes clear, the track has waves as if an earthquake took place and the locomotive looks like it grew two separate, open jaws.
The THW cuts the train cars and trucks into pieces, eventually the locomotive is removed in pieces also. Here the fire department is needed again, as a few minor fires are caused by the cutting equipment. With most responders leaving the THW remains at the site providing illumination of the massive field of debris, allowing workers to replace track, overhead wires and supports around the clock. On the 8th of April the last of over 200 responders leave the site for the last time as the railway reopens for traffic. In the days following the accident various trains passing the site can be seen sounding their horn, a respectful last salute to the dead driver.
While the accident was definitely tragedy it could have been much worse. Not only was the train half-empty (and a freight train to begin with), it also reached the collapsing bridge a few minutes after an ICE (high speed passenger train, up to 700 passengers) passed it in the opposite direction. Had the concrete piece come down in front of the ICE there could have been a repeat of the 1998 Eschede tragedy, which claimed 101 lives as a derailing ICE took out a bridge.
Note that the official report is not published at this point (11th of December 2020), when it is published I will add/correct any important information.