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Germany's Worst Railway Accident
Genthin - 1939


Genthin, Germany 23 December 1939. The Driver of a heavily laden express train from Berlin was intent on keeping to time. However, he failed to heed a stop signal and misinterpreted a clear signal intended for the preceding train bound for Cologne. Efforts were made by station staff to stop the express by showing it a red light. Their intention, to prevent the express from careering into the back of the Cologne train was thwarted when the driver of that train stopped after seeing their light. The resulting accident was the worst in German Railway history.


Passenger traffic out of Berlin was heavy on the Saturday before the first Christmas of WWII. Christmas day fell on the Monday providing an extra-long weekend which both civilians and service personnel were taking advantage of. The additional demand which this created necessitated extra capacity. Owing to military requirements, there could be no additional passenger trains and the only solution was to increase the capacity of the regular trains by adding extra carriages.
The Cologne train left Berlin at 2315 in bitterly cold conditions and with vision impeded by patchy fog. Due to a number of signal checks, it reached the outskirts of Genthin, some 40 miles from Berlin, late by 30 minutes. At the preceding station, Belicke the signals were set to "danger" to stop any following train and thus protect the Collagen train. However, the Berlin to Kassell express, hauled by a 4-6-2 locomotive and which had been making good time charged through the station, the stop signal unseen. Staff at Belicke immediately warned Genthin that the express had overrun the signal.
At Genthin, the signal had been cleared for the Cologne train which had begun to pull away. The driver of the fast approaching express saw the clear signal but failed to see the train ahead. Assuming that signal was for him, he made no attempt to stop. Station staff, realising what was happening ran forward showing a red light to warn the Kassell train and hoping that it could be brought to a halt in time. Unfortunately, this light was seen by the driver of the Cologne train who thinking that it was intended for him brought his train to rest. Moments later the engine of the express struck the rear of the other train with such force that the coaches were hurled upwards, to land on top of the locomotive.
The estimated speed of the express train at impact was 60mph. The driver of the this train was held to be responsible for the accident which caused the deaths of 136 individuals and 101injured. He had been trying hard to keep to time and had been fortunate that signals that were set against him were cleared as he approached them. This meant that he had not been forced to slacken speed and it may have been a momentary lapse, perhaps assuming that the Belicke signal would change as had previous ones. It is possible that upon seeing the clear signal at Genthin he believed that his assumption was confirmed. The courts however took the view that he was culpable and he served three years in prison.

Disasters at Christmas in the Twentieth Century


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Copyright David Fry 1998
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