Danger Ahead! - Historic Railway Disasters

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Historic Hanging Railway
Disaster


Notes on the tragedy       Historical Notes

Notes on the tragedy

Ninety-eight years of fatality-free operation came to a sudden and tragic end for Wuppertal's famous "hanging railway" early on Monday April 12, 1999.

In anticipation of increased ridership, the Schweberbahn had been undergoing extensive renovation and improvement work to the stations and the infrastructure. Over the weekend of 9/12 April, the system had been closed down while work was undertaken at the station at Robert-Daum Platz. Shortly before the first train was due to depart, the contractors handed back the system to the train operator with assurances that all the technical systems were in working order and that the infrastructure was sound and servicable.

With this assurance the first train of the day set out and was carrying about 50 passengers as it approached Robert Daum Platz station. At about 05:47 the train suffered a catastrophic derailment causing it to plummet about 10 m (30 feet) into the Wupper river below. At this point the river is les than 1 metre (3 feet) deep. The train's fall was partially broken by piping of a district heating system, which is carried accross the river on a bridge. The central part of the train was suspended on this as he two ends dipped into the water.

Two people died instantly in the wreckage. A third body was found further down the river and a fourth person died later in hospital. Thirty-nine people suffered injuries.

An investigation into the accident began immediately and an inspection of the monorail revealed that a metal bracket, used during the renovation work had been left on the track. Althought it is too early to be certain that this caused the derailment, there has been considerable speculation that this had dislodged the train's running gear.

Prosecuter Alfons Grevener was reported to have said charges of negligent manslaughter were being considered against either the construction firm or train operator.

Resources

Wuppertal unter Schock (Wuppertal under shock) (Deutsch)
Spiegal Online 12/04/99
Death toll now 4 in Schwebebahn river plunge
Danger Ahead! 12/04/99
Four die as 'hanging train' crashes
The Times 13/04/99
Civic pride led to disaster
The Times 13/04/99
Schwebebahn salvage begins
Danger Ahead! 15/04/99

Historical Notes

The Schwebebahn was first concieved in the late 19th century as the need grew to improve communications between the two towns of Barmen and Elbefeld. They are connected by a narrow valley through which the Wupper river flows, but whch allowed little room to expand the road or to build a conventional railway.

The towns' leaders accepted a solution proposed by the Cologne engineer, Eugen Lange to construct a monorail and a contract was signed in 1894. Lange's concept was for a single-rail system carrying cars suspended from a structure, rather like an inverted "V". The supports could easily be fonded on each bank of the river. The cars themselves were to be guided on this rail by double-flanged wheels. The single caryring rail concept would permit the line to follow the curvature of the river, allowing the cars to swing outwards from the curves so causing little discomfort to passengers from the centrifugal force.

The original contract was for the line to be built between Zoo Station in Elberfeld and Ritterhausen in Barmen. In 1896, it was a greed to extend the line into Vohwinkel.

The first tests of the completed railway were undertaken in 1900 and in that October Kaiser Wilhelm traveled in an inaugaral train. The formal opening of the first section came on 1 March, 1901.

The April 12 accident is the first fatal accident in the line's long history. There have however been a number of incidents. The line was put out of action on two occasions by allied bombing in WW2. Perhaps the most bizarre incident was in 1950. In a publicity stunt, a baby circus elephant called "Tuffi" was being carried on a train when it became panicked. The frightened animal kicked through a glass panel in a door and leapt out into the river below. Despite the fall, Tuffi was not seriously hurt.

Resources

Historische Aufnahmen von der Schwebebahn (Historic photographs from the Schwebebahn)
Photographs
The Wuppertal Floating Train
An excellent article and pictures from Elevator Magazine
Monorails in History
From the pages of the Monorail Society
Die Wuppertaler Schwebebahn (Deutsch)
Information about the Schweberbahn
WSW - Owners an Operators of the Schwebebahn (Deutsch)
Info in English
Corporate website

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