Eschede ICE Disaster

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The article is based on a variety of sources. All opinions expressed here are my own and in no way represent those of any individual, company or government department associated with the train or the accident.
the accident
It had never happened before. In seven years of service, no one had ever been killed on an ICE. The super-fast, state-of-the-art Inter City Express trains of Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) had covered hundreds of thousands of kilometres over a network of lines connecting important centres in Germany and Austria. Many thousands of passengers had reached their destinations safely.
All this tragically changed on the morning of Wednesday June 3, 1998 near a small town in Lower Saxony. It was 5.47am when ICE 884, WILHELM CONRAD RÖNTGEN rolled out of Munchen Hautbahnhof and accelerated through the suburbs of Munich. In a little over six hours, having travelled through the heart of Germany, passengers could expect to alight from the train in the centre of Hamburg. They were travelling in the comfort and security of an Inter City Express (ICE), one of Germany's most up-to-date trains, capable of reaching 250km/h.
On board the ICE trains, facilities are second to none. At each seat passengers may choose to listen to no less than five radio programmes. Refreshments and newspapers papers are available from the Restaurant car. Here, passengers can also enjoy a meal from the a la carte menu. Those in first-class receive complimentary newspapers and service is available at their seats. The majority of the twelve car train is non-smoking, except for two cars situated at either end -one first class, the other second. These carriages also offer passengers the option of watching a video from a choice of two programmes. A telephone is also available in the first class carriage. To these facilities and the speed, add reliability and an impeccable safety record and it can be seen how the ICEs have contributed to a renaissance in German Railways. Since their introduction seven years ago, rail travel in Germany has increased by over thirty percent.
After a three minute stop, ICE884 left Hannover station at 1033. Passengers settled down for the last leg of its journey as the speed of their train climbed rapidly to 200 km/h (125 mph). In less than an hour and a half, they would be entering Hamburg's main station. They had been going for barely twenty minutes and were about 6km from Eschede when passengers in the centre part of the train felt an unusual shaking sensation. The sensaton was only momentary and it is unlikely that anyone thought any more about it.
Then, as the lead power car emerged from beneath a road over-bridge, about two kilometres from Eschede station, the driver felt a "tug" on his locomotive. On looking backwards he saw that his train was no longer following him. Instead, the horrifying reality that greeted him was carriages in total disarray, spread crazily across the track. He would have become quickly aware that the traction motors had stopped and that the brakes had been automatically applied. He may have been confused as to why the regenerative braking system was inoperative and that only the mechanical disc brakes were functioning. By the time the solitary power car had come to rest, it was standing in Eschede station.

what went wrong
As his cab passed under the bridge, the driver could not have been aware of the drama that was being played out behind him. Even as he looked back, several hundred metres further on, it is unlikely that he could appreciate the scale of the disaster. What he would have seen was the first three cars of his train, about three hundred metres from the bridge, although derailed, reasonably intact. The fourth car may have escaped his attention altogether as this had travelled to the right, across the tracks coming to rest amongst trees by the line-side. Car 5 had been severed by the falling bridge, the front half coming to rest about 100 metres beyond it.
Back at the bridge, it was all too apparent that something dreadful had taken place. Cars six and seven were severely damaged, resting almost parallel to the bridge. Cars 8 and 9 (the service and restaurant cars) were buried under the concrete decking of the bridge and the remainder of the train had piled into the wreckage in concertina fashion. Only the rear power car remained reasonably intact.
In the first few hours after the crash, there was considerable speculation about the cause and attention focussed on a car which was amongst the wreckage. News reports speculated that this had fallen from the bridge, perhaps as the result of a road accident and that, straddling the tracks, it had caused the train to derail. These reports completely ignored the available evidence. The most important being that the lead power car escaped any damage. Thus, the road vehicle could not have been present on the line when the train passed.
A much more feasible cause began to emerge following the discovery, some six kilometres before the bridge of part of a train wheel tyre.
ICE 1 sets were originally fitted with monobloc wheels. However, vibration which was transmitted through the steel spring suspension units led to a redesign of the wheels to include a separate "tyre" with a rubber strip to reduce the vibration.
It was at around this point that passengers had experienced the unusual noise and ride quality. The broken tyre had come from the leading axle of the rear bogie of the first car. The train continued in this condition until it reached a turnout approximately 300m from the bridge. Here, the flange of the broken wheel caught in a guide and derailed the coach to the right. A little more than 100m further on was another turnout. This caused the following car to derail.Car No4 followed the the route of the turnout towards the supports of a bridge over the line. The car struck and demolished these columns. It was possibly at this point that the train separated between the third and fourth car. The bridge did not collapse completely until after the fourth car had passed under it. When it did fall, it fell onto the fifth car cutting it in half.

A combination of circumstances came together to ensure that the Eschede accident became a major tragedy. Features of both the infrastucture and the rolling stock contributed to the scale of the disaster. It is not the intention here to second-guess the findings of the official inquiry. Rather, this section seeks to examine some of those features which appear to be significant and which may be issues that train and infrastructure builders and train operators will address. The results of the Inquiry will be posted here in due course.

the speed
A train designed for high-speed travel crashes at high speed and kills over a hundred people. What role did the speed of ICE 884 play?

For many years, trains have attained this and higher speeds in complete safety. Indeed many hundreds of ICE trains had passed the site of the accident without mishap. Of course, these did not suffer a derailment. However, trains elsewhere have derailed at high speeds yet they have been brought to a halt giving passengers little more than bruising and a severe shaking.
There is ample evidence that high-speed rail crashes need not be as catastrophic as the Eschede disaster.. In a recent incident in Britain an IC225 sustained a broken wheel and derailed at 100 mph. The train came to a halt safely albeit amid a shower of ballast. In France, TGV trains have been involved in a number of potentially serious situations yet without the consequences of Eschede.
Although undoubtedly, the speed at which ICE 884 was travelling, 200km/h contributed to the horrific death toll, it was within the limits set for the line and certainly within the capabilities of the train. The ICE 1 has a cruising speed of 280Km/h (174 mph). In other rail accidents where speed has been a factor, it was excessive speed that caused the disaster. This was clearly not the case at Eschede. It is therefore necessary to look elsewhere for causal factors.

the track
The railway line through Eschede is not a dedicated ICE line. Although it has been prepared for high-speed running there is a significant question about the wisdom of including points (switches) in high-speed layouts.

The line upon which ICE 884 was travelling is not a dedicated high-speed line. It is shared between high-speed trains and other, slower services. It has however been upgraded to permit speeds of up to 200Km/h (125 mph). At precisely the location where the derailment occurred, the layout of the line places considerable impediments to the task of bringing the derailed train safely to rest. The quadruple track allows separation of the high-speed trains from the slower services. Such an arrangement by allowing faster trains to overtake slower ones permits more intensive operation than would be possible on a two-track line. Further, to maximise track usage, it is expedient to provide at intervals, a means of transferring a train from the slow to fast lines and back. But it was just this expedient which served to contribute so much to the scale of the disaster.
Just ahead of the bridge, at a distance of some 300m is a turnout leading from the northbound fast line to the slow line. It was this set of facing points that caused the fourth carriage to stray from the straight-line course it was following. It seems probable that a derailed wheel was running on the outside of the right-hand rail and on reaching the turnout it was diverted towards the slow line and onto a collision course with the bridge supports.
Given plain track, it is very likely that the train, although derailed could have passed safely under the bridge.

historical note
Although facing points are essential to the smooth flow of traffic, there will be a tendency to guide a derailed wheel, running outside of the rail, in the direction of the turnout. In the nineteenth century facing points were the source of numerous more-or-less minor mishaps. A major accident at Wigan in 1873 in which 13 passengers were killed and 30 injured served to confirm, what Nock refers to as "the abhorrence of facing points".
It was just this eventuality that early railway builders in Britain were keen to guard against and facing points, except at junctions were avoided. Indeed, when the Settle - Carlisle line was constructed in 1876 there was not a single example of facing points between Settle Junction and Carlisle

the wheel
One of the wheels has become the focus of investigations into the cause of the accident. The type of wheel used on the ICE 1 trainsets is more usually found on Rapid Transit/Light Rail vehicles...

The original specification for wheels for the ICE 1 sets called for monobloc wheels. However the vibration and noise that was transmitted via the steel suspension units into the passenger spaces was deemed to be unacceptable. A solution was found by providing a wheel with a composite construction which includes a rubber strip between the "tyre" and the "hub". This strip reduces the vibration. Wheels such as this are relatively common on light railway/rapid transit vehicles, but are unique to ICE 1s in high speed trains. The wheels have however served their purpose well and without incident since their introduction. The wheels are inspected regularly although their has been some discussion about the difficulties of such inspections and considerable debate about the method that should be employed and the frequency with which they take place.

The debate suggests that there maybe a problem inherent in this type of wheel with suggestions that the destruction of the wheel of Car 802-6 was due to metal fatigue. However, after the accident, all ICE 1s were immediately withdrawn and their wheels subjected to two inspections. This revealed no problems with any of them and the trains were returned to service. Another theory for the disintegration of the wheel is that it struck an object, perhaps a piece of equipment that had fallen from the carriage. If this is the case, it remains to be determined if the construction of the wheel had a role in causing its complete destruction.

the bridge
The bridge at Eschede was an unimportant affair carrying only a minor road. Was this the major design consideration rather than that it crossed a four line, high-speed railway?

The line through Eschede had been upgraded for high speeds, part of which involved the removal of level (grade) crossings. The bridge at Eschede was to replace such a crossing. The bridge consisted of a 3-section road deck, the central section being supported on two sets of concrete pillars at either side of the rail formation. These were situated approximately 3m from the nearest rail. This diagram shows the positions of the support columns relative to the line. Car No4 struck those at the top of the diagram, dislodging them and bringing the deck crashing down onto the centre of car No5 as it sped beneath. The energy that the pillars had to absorb may be calculated…

(mass x velocity)2

Unprotected by any form of crash barrier (unlike motorway bridges), the slender supports proved to be no match for the onslaught of the heavy, fast-moving ICE.

The power-to-weight ratio is an important design consideration in high-speed trains and aluminium is the material of choice for their construction. There is however evidence that its use in high-speed train carriages, occupants may be at risk.
A disturbing feature of the Eschede accident was the sight of the body of at least one of the cars detached from its underframe. It is clear that this car's ability to contain its occupants was severely compromised.
Modern railway carriage design is the result of long and often bitter experience. The wooden construction of railway passenger coaches in the nineteenth century can be blamed for the high casualty toll in many early rail accidents. The splintering of carriages and consequent spilling of passengers out onto the line was a feature of many "high-energy" accidents. Many died or were severely injured as a result. Through experience it became established that containing occupants within the vehicle in which they were travelling could considerably reduce the number of casualties. Advances in the design of passenger vehicles, particularly the use of steel to create a rigid, enclosed cabin made a major contribution to achieving this aim.
The construction of ICE 1 cars does not follow traditional practice. The floor forms part of the underframe to which the body is attached by welds. The bodies are made from aluminium extrusions which are heat-treated to provide increased strength. A side effect however is to lower the tensile strength, typically by 50%
1 at the site of the weld.
The design of carriages for high-speed trains must take into account the forces to be absorbed in the event of the vehicle being in a collision. The construction of ICE 1 cars does not follow traditional practice. The floor forms part of the underframe to which the body is attached by welds. The bodies are made from aluminium extrusions which provides a weight advantage over steel but lacks its rigidity. However they are heat-treated to provide increased strength. A side effect of this is to lower the tensile strength by about 50% at the site of the weld. An examination of photographs suggest that the carriage body separated at the weld line. Further evidence that this may be a problem is available in the accident to a Pendolino train at Piacenza in Italy. The carriages for these trains are constructed in the same manner as those of the ICEs. Although the Pendolino was travelling at a lower speed, one of its carriages was split open in an even more spectacular manner.

The accident at Eschede is no the only example of a train bringing a bridge down onto itself
An accident at Granville in Australia had many similarites to that at Eschede. Here, a train derailed, demolished a bridge support resulting in the decking falling onto the train killing 83 people.

the train
ICE 884 was comprised of a total of 14 vehicles, two power cars, and twelve trailer cars. It was part of a fleet of 60 ICE1 (first generation) units introduced into service in 1991. The fleet comprised... The trains have a maximum service speed of 280 km/h which is permitted on specially constructed, dedicated high-speed track. Elsewhere, the maximum speed is limited to 225 km/h.
Composition of the train
Power Car 401 051-8
The power car continued for another 2 Km after the derailment. It was brought to a halt by an automatic application of the disc brakes invoked after the train parted. The regenerative braking system was inoperative because the power supply had been cut after the overhead catenary was demolished. This vehicle will be returned to service.
Trailer Car 808 802-6
2nd class car. The second vehicle in the train and the first passenger car. Smoking is permitted and video programmes are available. This car was the first to be derailed after a wheel tyre broke. It came to rest about 300m from the bridge.
Trailer Car 802 609-8
2nd class carriage, third vehicle in the train. The carriage was derailed and stopped aproximately 300m from the bridge.
Trailer Car 802 311-1
2nd class carriage, fourth vehicle in the train. The carriage was derailed and stopped aproximately 300m from the bridge.  
Trailer Car 802 374-9
2nd class carriage, fifth vehicle in the train. This carriage struck a central supporting column of the bridge, starting its demolition. The car careered across the track and came to rest amongst some trees beside the line.  
Trailer Car 802 340-0
2nd class carriage, sixth vehicle in the train. This car was cut in two by the falling bridge, the front portion coming to rest around 100m from the bridge. The rear part was crushed beneath the bridge.  
802 373-1 2nd Class   802 037-2 2nd Class   803 008-2 Service car (Wheelchairs + crew space + telephone)
804 010-7 Restaurant Car   801 009-2 1st Class   801 014 1st Class  
801 806-1 1st Class (Smoking + video + telephone) 401 551-7 Power Car    

Constructed as a collaboration between a number of manufacturing companies, the ICE1s are amongst the most advanced trains in the world. They are equipped with sophisticated safety equipment including a dual breaking system (regenerative and friction disc) and in-cab signalling. Many of the train's systems are monitored with information being relayed to the driver. There is even a warning that water in the toilets needs to be replenished. There is not however a system to warn that a carriage has been derailed!

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