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Eschede train disaster
Ice eschede 1.jpg
The destruction of the rear passenger cars
Date 3 June 1998
Time 10:59
Location Eschede, Celle, Lower Saxony
61 km (37.9 mi) N from Hanover
Country  Germany
Rail line Hanover–Hamburg
Operator Deutsche Bahn AG
Type of incident Derailment
Trains 1
Passengers 287
Deaths 101
Injuries 88

The Eschede train disaster was the world's deadliest high-speed train accident. It occurred on 3 June 1998, near the village of Eschede in the Celle district of Lower Saxony, Germany. The toll of 101 dead and 88 injured surpassed the 1971 Dahlerau train disaster as the deadliest accident in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was caused by a single fatigue crack in one wheel which, when it finally failed, caused the train to derail at a set of points.


Chronology of events

Powercar 401 551 of the crashed train.

Wheel fracture

InterCityExpress trainset 51 was travelling as ICE 884 "Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen" on the Munich to Hamburg route; the train was scheduled to stop at Augsburg, Nuremberg, Würzburg, Fulda, Kassel, Göttingen, and Hannover before reaching Hamburg.[1] After stopping in Hannover at 10:30, the train continued its journey northwards. Around 130 kilometres (80 mi) and forty minutes away from Hamburg[1] and six kilometres south of central Eschede, near Celle, the steel tire on a wheel on the third axle of the first car broke, peeled away from the wheel, and punctured the floor of the car, where it remained embedded.

What followed was a chain of events that unfolded within minutes yet took investigators months to piece together. The tire embedded in the rail car was seen by Jörg Dittmann, one of the passengers in Coach 1. The tire went through an armrest between where his wife and son sat. Dittmann took his wife and son out of the damaged coach and went to inform a conductor in the third coach. The conductor, who noticed vibrations in the train, told Dittmann that company policy required him to investigate the circumstances before pulling the emergency brake. The conductor took one minute to go to the site in Coach 1. Dittmann said that by then the train began to sway from side to side; Dittmann said that the conductor did not show a willingness to immediately stop the train at that point; according to Dittmann the conductor wished to further investigate the incident. Dittmann said that the crash occurred just when he was about to pinpoint the armrest puncture to the conductor.[1]


As the train passed over the first of two track switches, the embedded tire slammed against the guide rail of the switch, pulling it from the railway ties. This steering rail also penetrated the floor of the car (an occurrence known in North American railroads as a "snakehead"), becoming embedded in the vehicle and lifting the axle carriage off the rails. At 10:59 local time (08:59 UTC), one of the now-derailed wheels struck the points lever of the second switch, changing its setting. The rear axles of car number 3 were switched onto a parallel track, and the entire car was thereby thrown into and destroyed the piers supporting a 300-tonne roadway overpass.

Car number 4, likewise derailed by the violent deviation of car number 3 and still travelling at 200 kilometres per hour (120 mph), passed intact under the bridge and rolled onto the embankment immediately behind it. Two DB railway workers who had been working near the bridge were killed instantly when the derailed car crushed them. The breaking of the car couplings caused the automatic brakes to engage and the mostly undamaged first three cars came to a stop. The detached front power head came to a complete stop long after passing the Eschede train station, some three kilometers (two miles) down the track.

Bridge collapse

Coaches one through four cleared the bridge. Coach three hit the bridge, which began to collapse. Coach four cleared the bridge, moved away from the track, and hit a group of trees. The bridge pieces crushed the rear half of coach five. The restaurant coach, six, was crushed to a six inch height. With the track now completely obstructed by the collapsed bridge, the remaining cars jackknifed into the rubble in a zig-zag pattern: Cars 7, the service car, the three first class cars numbered 10 to 12, and the rear powerhead all derailed and slammed into the pile.[1] The resulting mess was likened to a partially collapsed folding ruler. An automobile was also found in the wreckage. It belonged to the two railway technicians and was probably parked on the bridge before the accident. [1]

Powercar 401 051 of the crashed train sustained minor damage. It is still in use (Munich, August 2007).

The crash made a sound that witnesses later described as "startling", "horribly loud", and "like a plane crash". Nearby residents, alerted by the sound, were the first to arrive at the scene. Erika Karl, the first person to walk into the accident scene, took photographs of the accident site. Karl said that, upon hearing the noise, her husband initially believed that the accident was an aircraft accident. After the accident, eight of the ICE carriages occupied an area slightly longer than the length of a single carriage.[1]

At 11:02, the local police declared an emergency; at 11:07, as the magnitude of the disaster quickly became apparent, this was elevated to "major emergency"; and at 12:30 the Celle district government declared a "catastrophic emergency" (civil state of emergency). More than 1000 rescue workers from regional emergency services, fire departments, rescue services, the police and army were dispatched. Some 37 emergency physicians, who happened to be attending a professional conference in nearby Hanover, also provided assistance in the early hours of the rescue effort, as did units of the British Forces Germany.

While the driver and many passengers in the front part of the train survived, there was little chance of survival for those in the rear carriages, which crashed into the concrete bridge pile at a speed of 200 km/h. Including the two railway workers who had been standing under the bridge, 101 people died. ICE 787 had passed under the bridge going in the opposite direction (on the Hamburg to Hanover route) only two minutes earlier.

By 13:45 authorities gave emergency treatment to 87 people. 27 of the most severely injured passengers boarded airlifts for hospitalisation.[1]

Accident statistics

  • Passengers: 287 (ICE-1 max. is 651)
  • Train crew: 6
  • Maintenance crew: 2
  • Fatalities: 101
  • Severe injuries: 88
  • Minor or no injury: 106


Wheel design

The ICE 1 trains were equipped with single-cast wheels, known as monobloc wheels. Once in service it soon became apparent that this design could, as a result of metal fatigue and out-of-round conditions, lead to resonance and vibration at cruising speed. Passengers noticed this particularly in the restaurant car, where there were reports of loud vibrations in the dinnerware and of glasses "creeping" across tables.

Managers in the railway organisation had experienced these severe vibrations on a trip and exerted pressure to have the problem solved. In response engineers decided that to solve the problem: the suspension of ICE cars could be improved with the use of a rubber damping ring between the tire and the wheel body. A similar design had been employed successfully in trams, though at significantly lower speeds. This new wheel, dubbed a "wheel-tire" design, consisted of a wheel body surrounded by a 20 mm thick rubber damper and then a relatively thin metal tire. The new design was not tested at high speed before it was commissioned and brought into service, but proved successful at resolving the issue of vibration at cruising speeds.

At the time, no facilities existed in Germany that could test the actual failure limit of the wheels, and so complete prototypes were never physically tested. The design and specification relied heavily on available materials data and theory. The very few laboratory and rail tests that were carried out did not measure wheel behaviour under extended wear conditions or outside of cruising speeds. Nevertheless, over a period of years the wheels proved themselves apparently reliable and, until the accident, had not posed any major problems.

The Fraunhofer Institute was charged with the task of determining the cause of the accident. It was later revealed that the institute had told the DB management as early as 1992 about its concerns about possible tire failure. In the months leading up to the accident, Üstra, the company that operates Hanover's tram network, reported that the tires employed in its trains were failing far earlier than expected based on the failure limit estimates; it unilaterally decided to replace the wheels much earlier than was legally required by the specification. In doing so, it reported its findings in a warning to all other users of wheels built following similar designs, including Deutsche Bahn.

It was soon apparent that dynamic repetitive forces had not been accounted for in the statistical failure modelling done during the design phase, and the resulting design lacked an adequate margin of safety. The following factors, overlooked during design, were noted:

  1. The tires were flattened into an ellipsoid as the wheel turned through each revolution (approximately 500,000 times during a typical day in service on an ICE train), with corresponding fatigue effects.
  2. In contrast to the monoblock wheel design, cracks could also form on the inside of the tire.
  3. As the tire became thinner due to wear, the dynamic forces were exaggerated, resulting in crack growth.
  4. Flat spots and ridges or swells in the tire dramatically increased the dynamic forces on the assembly and greatly accelerated wear.

In July 1997, Üstra discovered fatigue cracks in dual block wheels on trams running at around 24 km/h (15 mph). It began changing wheels before fatigue cracks could develop; Üstra then contacted other rail companies. According to the tram company, in fall 1997, when Üstra notified Deutsche Bahn, they replied by stating that they had not noticed problems in their trains.[1]

Failure to stop train

Failing to stop the train permitted the wheel disintegration to result in a catastrophic chain of events. Had the train been stopped immediately it is unlikely that the subsequent events would have occurred.

Conventionally, railways apply a stop and examine policy when there is strange behaviour or noises from a train. However, this was not the case aboard the ICE. Valuable time was lost when a passenger tried to warn the train crew about a large piece of metal coming up through the floor, instead of pulling the emergency brake himself. The train manager refused to stop the train until he had investigated the problem himself, saying this was company policy. This decision was upheld in court, clearing the train manager of all charges.


Around the time of the disaster, the engineers at Deutsche Bahn's maintenance facility in Munich used only standard flashlights for visual inspection of the tires, instead of metal fatigue detection equipment.[2] Previously, advanced testing machines had been used; however, as the equipment generated many false positive error messages, it was considered unreliable and its use was discontinued. During the week leading to the Eschede disaster, three separate automated checks indicated that a wheel was defective. Investigators discovered via a maintenance report generated by the train's on-board computer that, two months prior to the Eschede disaster, conductors and other train staff filed eight separate complaints about the noises and vibrations generated from the bogie with the defective wheel; the company did not replace the wheel. Deutsche Bahn said that its inspections were proper at the time and that the engineers could not have predicted the wheel fracture.[1]

Other factors

The design of the overbridge may have also contributed to the accident because it had two thin piers holding up the bridge on either side, instead of the spans going from solid abutments to solid abutments. The Granville train disaster of 1977 had a similar weakness in its bridge. The bridge built after the disaster is a cantilevered design and does not suffer this vulnerability.

Another contributing factor is the use of welds in the carriage bodies that "unzipped" during the crash (see Modern Railways December 2004, p16).


Official memorial site next to the bridge, with the railway line in the background


Immediately after the accident, Deutsche Bahn paid 30,000 Deutsche Marks (about 19,000 United States dollars) for each fatality to the applicable families. At a later point Deutsche Bahn settled with some victims. Deutsche Bahn stated that it paid an equivalent of more than 30 million U.S. dollars to the families of victims and survivors.[1]

In August 2002, two Deutsche Bahn officials and one engineer were charged with manslaughter. In Germany, companies may not be tried in criminal courts; only people may be tried.[1]

The trial lasted for 53 days with expert witnesses from around the world blaming each other for wrong approaches and bad results.

The case was dismissed in April 2003 on condition of a fee being paid. According to the German code of criminal procedures, if the defendant is not responsible for substantial guilt, and if the state attorney and the defendant agree, the defendant may pay a fine and the criminal proceedings are dismissed with prejudice and without a verdict. Each engineer paid 10,000 euros (around 12,000 USD).[1]


An ICE window pane

Within weeks, all wheels of similar design were replaced with monoblock wheels. The entire German railway network was checked for similar arrangements of switches close to possible obstacles.

Rescue workers at the crash site experienced considerable difficulties in cutting their way through the train to gain access to the victims. Both the aluminium framework and the pressure-proof windows offered unexpected resistance to heavy rescue equipment. As a result, all trains were refitted with windows that have predetermined breaking points.


Udo Bauch, a survivor who became disabled by the accident, built his own memorial with his own money. Bauch said that the chapel received 5,000 to 6,000 visitors per year. One year after Bauch's memorial appeared, an official memorial, funded in part by Deutsche Bahn, was established.[1]

See also


Numbered References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Derailment at Eschede" ("High Speed Train Wreck"). Seconds From Disaster.
  2. ^ 090120 NGC Seconds from the catastrophe

External links

Coordinates: 52°44′04″N 010°13′13″E / 52.73444°N 10.22028°E / 52.73444; 10.22028


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