Watery Ways: The 1918 Weesp (Netherlands) Train Derailment

Max S
8 min readFeb 17, 2024

Background

Weesp is a former municipality of 20765 people (as of 2022) in the west of the Netherlands, located 10km/6.2mi southeast of Amsterdam (which it became part of in 2022) and 15km/9mi west of Almere (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Weesp in Europe.

Weesp lies on the Oosterspoorweg (“Eastern Railway”), an electrified partially double-tracked rail line between Amsterdam and Zutphen. The line opened in 1876, being operated by the HSM, the first Dutch rail company and one of the companies which later merged to become the Dutch national railway.

The municipality is separated from Amsterdam by the Merwede Channel, a small man-made waterway which opened in full in 1892, although some sections of it are several hundred years older. The rail line crosses the channel on a small bridge, which it approaches on long embankments to gain the elevation necessary so ships could pass under the bridge.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The train approached from the southeast (bottom-right).

The Train Involved

Train Number 102 was a passenger service from Amersfoort to Amsterdam, having been assembled at Amersfoort by combining two trains arriving from Enschede and Zwolle respectively. The train then received another passenger car at Hilversum, bringing it to 11 cars. The train was pulled by a HSM Class 520, an express passenger steam locomotive built in 1917 which meant the locomotive involved in the accident was barely a year old. The coal-fired locomotive rode on two driven axles following two leading axles and was combined with a separate tender for up to 6 tons of coal. Each Class 520 measured 17.85m/58.5ft in length excluding the tender at a service-ready weight of 61 metric tons. The type had both the biggest wheel-diameter in the Netherlands at the time at 2.10m/7ft and the highest maximum allowed axle load at 17 metric tons. The locomotives had a top speed of 110kph/68mph, plenty for an express train at the time.

HSM 534, identical with the locomotive involved in the accident, photographed upon completion in 1920.

The Accident

Heavy rain is pounding the area around Weesp as train #102 departs Weesp station on the 13th of September 1918. The train crew isn’t too fazed, it’s been heavily raining for several days now and actually looks like it might ease up soon. The train starts to climb pretty much right after departing Weesp station, the channel is just 1.2km/0.75mi away. The heavy train makes it seem like the ground is shaking as it thunders up the incline at just after 10:20am.

The passengers suspect nothing, they probably barely notice, when the ground suddenly starts to actually move just before the train reaches the bridge. The tracks start to slip sideways under the train as the ground turns to watery mud, without warning 95m/312ft of track have nothing to hold them in place. The locomotive gets tantalizingly close to the bridge, crashing headlong into the first vertical girder as its train helplessly falls off the rapidly narrowing embankment behind it, dragging car after car off the tracks to the right. Wooden car-bodies turn to splinters, metal bends and passengers are turned upside down before the wreckage comes to a rest just as the rain lets up. 41 passengers are dead, 42 more are injured. The locomotive crew is unharmed though as the derailing train had slowed their forward momentum enough to make the impact with the bridge survivable.

Aftermath

The dispatcher at Weesp manages to stop an inbound train before reaching the wreckage, avoiding a worsening of the accident from another train crashing into the chaotic scene left behind by the collapsed embankment. The locomotive, fallen over, is jammed in place at the start of the bridge, the leading baggage car has slipped off the end of the bridge but is largely intact, while the three following passenger cars largely disintegrated due to their wooden bodies, worsened by the following baggage and mail cars falling into them. The rear cars derailed too, but remained somewhat upright and thus intact, allowing their passengers to mostly survive. Locals and lesser-injured survivors pull passengers from the mangled wreckage after the accident, rendering first aid under instructions of a surviving surgeon who happened to be on the train. The dispatcher at Weesp station had raised the alarm at 10:45am, but it would take almost an hour for the large-scale response, including the first rescue-train, to reach the site.

Someone manages to make two freight boats on the channel stop, using them to transport both injured survivors and later victims to nearby Amsterdam while other survivors are taken east along the rail line and treated at Weesp. The accident is the worst rail disaster in the Netherlands and would remain so until the Harmelen train collision claimed 93 lives in 1962, 44 years later.

The locomotive as it ended up jammed against the bridge with the leading baggage car next to it.

An investigative commission was instituted the day after the accident, led by Mister Lely who had been the Dutch Minister of Water Management until the day of the accident (presumably by coincidence). There had been nothing wrong with the train, and the train crew couldn’t be blamed of any wrongdoing either, so the cause that was left was a failure of the embankment the rail line sat on. An examination of the embankment along with comparisons to its counterpart across the channel showed that it had been absolutely soaked with water, along with the ground surrounding it, both from the sustained heavy rainfall and from water seeping through the banks of the adjacent channel.

The investigation literally digs into the embankment and finds layers containing high amounts of clay, making them essentially waterproof. Water had been absorbed by the top layers of the soil, but instead of seeping away into lower layers the clay held most of it in place, increasingly soaking the upper few feet, destabilizing them. This eventually led to the groundwater-level sitting above the level of the channel, soaking the embankment and leaving it barely in the intended shape, only contained by the grass and the weight of the soil itself. It was a delicate balance that kept a soft, almost liquid mass in a certain shape under a thin skin because nothing upset it, nothing touched it.

Another view of the wreckage, seen from the channel towards the rail line.

Thus, at last, it was the train itself that triggered the disaster. The weight and vibrations from the steam locomotive and its cars making their way up the incline did away with the delicate balance that held the embankment in place and in shape, at which point the soil finally liquefied completely and, well, ran downhill, as liquids do. And with the soil gone there was nothing to keep the rail line in place, especially not with a heavy express train pushing down on it, at which point the train’s crew and passengers were doomed. There was no warning to the locomotive crew, no sign of malfunction for the passengers, the train was steaming up the embankment at one moment and derailing off tracks hanging in the air a moment later.

The investigation concluded that poor construction and maintenance had been the main causes to the accident, as the layers of clay weren’t noticed during construction and structural deterioration had not been spotted during subsequent years, even before the rainy days ahead of the accident. Reinforcements made to stop general deterioration from age, it was considered, may have made the embankment more resistant to the rainfall and/or may have turned up the problematic layers of clay within it. Similarly, there should have been a way to create an intended blockade between the channel’s water and the rail line, so its water couldn’t additionally destabilize the soil below the embankment.

Two of the forward passenger cars, their wooden, merely metal-clad bodies offered next to no protection in the accident.

It took six days to clear the wreckage and repair one of the tracks, allowing traffic to resume under a 5kph/3mph speed limit. The bridge and embankments wouldn’t be rebuilt until December 1918. The accident led to the development of the “Laboratorium voor Grondmechanica” (Laboratory for Soil Mechanics) at the Delft University of Technology, a department set up specifically to better understand the behavior of soil, both natural ground and artificial structures like embankments and dikes, both under different circumstances and over time. Rules around the construction of railway embankments were also expanded and improved, aiming to avoid effects like the water-logging suffered at Weesp on the day of the accident. Wood has also since been effectively banished from passenger train car construction beyond interior dressing, with all-steel construction proving time and again that it offers superior crash protection.

The HSM merged with another private railway in 1917 as the first world war caused an economic disaster, forming the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch national railway), which was nationalized in 1938 and remains the main railway operator in the Netherlands. The HSM Class 250 became the NS Class 2100 in the merger, before surviving units were retired in 1954. Only one survives today, sitting on display at Utrecht in non-functional condition.

There appears to be no memorial to the accident, with a new bridge still carrying trains across the channel in the same place. The Oosterspoorweg remains one of the Netherlands’ most important rail lines, even despite the nearby motorway being constructed, while the importance of the channel has diminished over time.

The site of the accident captured on a bike path’s StreetView-Footage in 2016.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.