Whale that’s lucky: The 2020 Spijkenisse (Netherlands) Metro Derailment

Spijkenisse is a city of 72000 people (as of 2021) in the southwest of the Netherlands, located in the province of South Holland 16km/10mi southwest of Rotterdam and 69km/43mi north of the Belgian city of Antwerp (both distances in linear distance).

The location of Spijkenisse in Europe.

The city lies on lines C and D of the Rotterdam Metro, holding the stations Spijkenisse Centrum, Heemraadlaan and De Akkers. The tracks extend past the end of De Akkers Station by approximately 440m/1440ft on a dead-end bridge, intended to let trains change direction (and track) or park for the night. The bridge ends 9.7m/32ft above an artificial pool with the tracks terminating on buffer stops. Rotterdam Metro was opened in February 1968 and since expanded to a network of 100km/62 miles, servicing 70 stations both underground and above ground on five lines. Using regular gauge track the trains, being supplied with electricity by a floor-mounted third rail along the tracks, carry over 99 Million people per year.

In 2002 Walvisstaarten (“Whale Tails”), a 9.1m/30ft high statue consisting of, well, two towering whale’s tail fins, was constructed in the pool at the end of the Metro bridge, following a design by Dutch architect Maarten Struijs. The tails consist a 6mm thick polyester-plastic skin mounted around a steel skeleton. Struijs also designed the extension to the Metro-Bridge which was installed the same year.

The site of the accident seen from above, with the statue clearly visible.

On the night of the accident Metro-train number 5351, a Bombardier MG2/1, was shunting at De Akkers station with an identical train in tow. The MG2/1 (also called Metrotyp B) is a 2-car electric multiple unit introduced into service with Rotterdam Metro in 1998. Each two-car unit measures 30.65m/100.5ft in length at a weight of 44.2 metric tons and can reach a top speed of 100kph/62mph. Each unit can seat 64 people with room for another 153 standing passengers, and depending on the line up to four units are coupled together. Between 2013 and 2016 all 63 units were refurbished to extend their service-life, the program was referred to as the “Midlife-Revision”.

A Rotterdam Metro train identical to the one involved, photographed in transit after being refurbished.

On the 2nd of November 2020 a train driver is moving an empty double-traction of MG2/1-units down the dead-end bridge just after midnight, intending to change direction and switch into the other track. 28 minutes past midnight the driver applies the brakes as he nears the end of the bridge, too late. The train fails to come to a stop even with brakes fully applied, instead crashing through the buffer stop, being bumped up by the end of the bridge. The leading car clears a 7.5m/25ft gap and lands on the southern of the two whale tails, sliding a few inches past the far edge before coming to a stop as the leading bogie catches on the fin. The tail actually holds the weight of the train car, with the rear end of the leading car barely resting on the bridge, held in place by the coupler to the second car. The train didn’t fall down, but it is in a rather precarious balance some 9.7m/32ft above the water/ground below. The train driver, once realizing that he’s still alive, makes his way back through the train onto the safety of the bridge, escaping shocked but uninjured.

Local residents, likely awoken by a loud and certainly odd noise, are the first people on scene. A little bit of rubble on the sidewalk beyond the end of the bridge is the only change immediately visible, with the train car remaining high above passerby’s heads. Photos of the odd scene start circulating within the hour, with suspicions arising that it might be a movie set, art installation (on top of, well, another art installation) or even a photoshopped image altogether. The police cordons off the sidewalk below the statue, mainly worrying the train might fall after all, while the driver is checked at the hospital and then taken to the police station for questioning. Firefighters try to somewhat secure the train in its sketchy position, allowing investigators from the OVV (Dutch Investigation Council for Safety) to examine it and the bridge.

A photo taken by a bystander which circulated on Reddit minutes after the crash.

The train shows no technical defect, neither does the signaling system, and there is no report of the driver having been under the influence. His escalating application of the brakes also makes it unlikely that he fell asleep, backed up by him recalling the entire trip from the station to the statue. The investigators do note that it was a rather cold night, and that the tracks were wet. As the train was conducting a shunting operation at the time of the accident the signaling-system had no control over its speed, leading to the theory that the driver, likely trying to get the task over with, overestimated the grip-levels on the wet rails and drove faster than he should have as he assumed he could stop quicker. The driver’s lawyer vehemently denied any wrongdoing by their client, but while there was no criminal guilt declared it is rather obvious that the accident was caused by the driver going inappropriately fast and braked too late for the conditions the track was in at the time of the accident.

Spectators at the foot of the bridge in the days following the accident.

Despite local laws highly restricting public gatherings due to the ongoing pandemic in the Netherlands the wreckage still consistently drew a crowd after the accident, with locals wanting to see and photograph the odd addition to their neighborhood’s art installations. In fact, some people felt that the result of the driver’s negligence was so unique that, rather than arranging a recovery operation, the train should be permanently attached to the statue. The local authorities kept urging locals to stay home and watch the plentiful coverage online or on TV, pointing out how the crowds at the barriers grew needlessly large.

Mister Stujis repeatedly pointed out that he and the engineers who had constructed the statue were rather surprised that the tails hadn’t come down along with the train car, never having been meant to carry a high load and certainly not being intended as a safety-measure for the rail line. He did admit that there was “something poetic” about a whale’s tail keeping the train plunging into water. A lucky coincidence was that the statue had to be engineered stronger than it would usually have to be, as the area is often subjected to high winds. The fin of the two tails have a shape similar to an airplane’s wings, generating lift as the wind passes over them, meaning the statues had to be designed to keep themselves from being uprooted too easily. The development went as far as constructing a scale model of the statue and the end of the bridge, which was placed in a wind tunnel to measure the forces exerted on it by high winds.

A scale model being tested in a wind tunnel (left) and the real statue being constructed (right).

An article published in “Popular Mechanics” actually helped clearing the confusion about the statue’s strength, explaining that the whale tail doesn’t actually hold the full weight of the car. The coupler-system used by the trains means the majority of the load is on the remaining train cars, still on the bridge, which are also the reason the train car didn’t descend in the gap between the statue and the bridge. Without the statue there or if it had been heavier (say, loaded with passengers) the train would have come crashing down to the ground, but as it happened the articulated connection to the rest of the train brought just enough stability for the train to both act like a cantilevered beam, reaching straight out instead of immediately heading downwards, and carried enough of the train’s weight for the statue to hold the rest. Furthermore, the train was moving fairly slowly as it went beyond the bridge, at a regular operational speed it would have likely cleared the statue and made it easily 15m/50ft or more before crashing down.

A good comparison is the 1895 train crash at Paris-Montaparnasse station, where a train overran elevated buffers at low speed. Without anything to keep it from falling, and just a regular coupling-mechanism to the first car, the locomotive plummeted down onto the road in a fate similar to what would have befallen the train at Spijkenisse had the statue and/or coupler-system not been there.

The famous aftermath of the 1895 Paris Montparnasse derailment.

The day after the accident workers faced the task of somehow recovering the stricken train from the statue, a task that proved to be unusually difficult. Workers had to cut down four trees, fill a ditch and construct a temporary road to get cranes even anywhere near the train. The water around the statue meant larger cranes had to be brought in that could lift the train car despite having to extend out a significant distance. Lastly, to make things a little more difficult, the city experienced increasingly high winds as the recovery was meant to go underway. On the 4th of November 2020 the police evacuated 2 houses within the cranes swing-radius, and one by one the leading two train cars were picked up off the bridge and placed on flatbed trucks to be taken away, with the remaining train being towed away on its own wheels. The leading two cars were taken to the maintenance facility at Waalhaven for further examination, and eventually, once the investigation concluded, written off due to excessive damage. This was mainly due to the front end and underside of the leading car having had any attachments shaved off during the accident.

The leading car being recovered off the statue with two large cranes.

The odd sight of the aftermath meant that the accident lives on online, with a variety of memes being created around the accident within days of the accident, often comparing it to thrill rides or joking about the fact that an engineering-failure (of sorts) was saved by an artpiece.

Two examples of memes and jokes circulated after the accident.

The statue, rail line and rear cars were repaired at a claimed cost of 1 million Euros/1.1 million USD, returning to service soon after the accident. Unit 5351 being written off is the first full loss of the type since its introduction. Nothing physically points to the accident anymore, but it’s certainly unforgotten both among locals and even foreigners, thanks to the widespread online publicity of “the train saved by a whale. Downtown.”


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