Causes of the Accident

A sequence of events no one would have ever thought possible came together on that fateful day which caused the Eschede accident to become a tragedy which took the lives of many people. In this section we will examine those underlying causes and explore how they contributed to the overall aftermath of the accident, what was it that went wrong?

The Speed of the Train
In today’s modern age and time, trains have been able to attain higher and higher speeds while ensuring safety and comfort, there exist many high-speed trains (specifically ICE trains) in the world today which have not suffered any calamities or casualties. There exists enough evidence to ensure that a high-speed train accident need not be as catastrophic as the one at Eschede, the derailment of a train at Great Britain on June 17, 1998 derailed at an incredible speed of 100 mph but the train was able to come to a halt safely leaving no casualties and only nine people with minor injuries. Even though the train at Eschede was traveling at 200 km/h (approximately 124 mph) it is still considered standard speed and well within the capabilities of the train which can reach speeds of up to 280 km/h (174 mph). Thus, in many cases where there is a derailment accident, excessive speed is a major factor, but when it comes down to it, speed did not play a major role at the Eschede disaster.

The Track

The layout of the train tack definitely contributed to the disaster in being incapable of bringing the derailed train to a safe halt. The line upon which the train was travelling was not solely dedicated to high-speed trains, slower moving services also used it, although it had been upgraded for faster moving trains, the maximum speed allowed was 160 km/h. The design was a quadruple track which allowed the separation of the slower services from the high-speed trains, this kind of arrangement allowed the fast moving trains to overtake the slower ones providing (at intervals) a means of switching a train from the slow to the fast lanes and back, thus maximizing track usage. The problem originated when the train got to a turnout leading from the northbound fast line to the slow line, at a distance of about 300 m, just ahead of the bridge. It was later found out that a wheel was running on the outside of the right-hand rail of the fourth carriage, and by the time the turnout came about, it was diverted towards the slow line heading onto a collision with the bridge supports. It all comes down to the facing points, since it is a known fact that there is always a tendency to guide a derailed wheel, running outside of the rail, in the direction of the turnout. If these had not been present it was almost a sure bet the train would have passed under the bridge without a scratch!

The Wheel

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The original wheels which had been originally installed on the train (monobloc tires) were replaced with a particular wheel which included a rubber strip between the tire and the hub. The reason why they had to be replaced was because the original wheels caused a lot of vibration and noise which was transmitted via the steel suspension into the passenger’s seats, an unacceptable feature for a state of the art train. The strip mentioned previously reduced the vibration dramatically (pic included). These types of wheels are more commonly used on light railway, and they had served tremendously well since their introduction. There is regular inspection being made to these wheels, and even though there is some debate about how to best determine problems and the frequency at which they should be checked, no severe problems had ever been detected. Some experts suggest that the complete destruction of the wheel of car 802-6 was caused by internal metal fatigue (thus, improper inspection). This idea however was pushed aside once all ICE 1s were immediately withdrawn and their wheels inspected twice which revealed no problems with any of them. A more plausible theory suggests that the fragmentation of the wheel was caused by an object striking it, a piece of equipment which fell from the carriage. It is however, still undetermined the exact reason for the wheel completely disintegrating and whether its construction or shape had anything to do with its destruction.

The Bridge

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The bridge involved in the Eschede train disaster was designed specifically to remove level (grade) crossings. It consisted of a 3 section road decking, supported by concrete pillars at both sides of the rail. They were at a couple of meters from the lines where the trains would pass at speeds greater than 100 mph. There was absolutely no crash barrier as the pillars stood unprotected to the heavy, fast-moving ICE train which crashed against them. The lightly used rural road demanded less than a substantial structure as it was never under a high level of traffic or under a major trunk load. If the design would have paid more attention to the speed and weight of the trains traveling under it; an underpass or anything like it comes to mind whenever we think of alternatives, and remembering the relative closeness at which the supports stood with respect to the line.


Train Design

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Car detached from its underframe.

The design of carriages for this particular train (ICE trains) does not follow the usual design for high-speed trains, that is, the floor forms part of the underframe to which the body is attached by welds, and the bodies are made from aluminum extrusion which makes it a bit heavier than steel but lacks its rigidity. In order to compensate for this, they are heat-treated but in turn lower the tensile strength by 50% at the side of weld. Pictures as the one shown above clearly show how the carriage body separated at the weld line. This is a severe design flaw as it has been shown that even at a lower speed, the same design can be split open Pendolino accident at Piacenza in Italy.

Not one of these factors is the sole cause of the accident at Eschede, they all played an important role and interacted in just the right way to create a tragedy, one of the worst disasters in high-speed train history. We are still learning from our mistakes, but the fact that accidents like this, where everything seems to be working fine until something imperceptible goes wrong, makes us realize we are just seconds away from “normal” accidents.

Sources of information for this page can be found here.