103 222 at Dresden Hbf on a test train, 25/05/14 (JW)
The Deutsche Bundesbahn class 103 electrics are one of the few locomotive types to have truly earnt the epithet “iconic”.
During an illustrious career, these 200 km/h, 9,980 hp machines can take the credit for putting the railways of West Germany prominently on the high-speed map. They firmly entered the public psyche there, being conspicuous features of most DB publicity throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They were also astonishing performers. These locos took a consistent thrashing in their stride, with most class members averaging around 1,000 km a day for nearly three decades.
In addition to four prototype locos built in 1965, 145 class 103s entered traffic between 1970 and 1974. However, this does not tell the full story – the whole fleet never operated simultaneously. There has been one particular glaring gap in the fleet list from almost the very start; when only three months old, 103106 was destroyed in a tragic derailment at Rheinweiler in 1971. Despite the significance of this event in German railway history, it is not well covered in histories, it being regarded as a truly black day and something of a taboo subject in some quarters.
103245 sits on the blocks at München Hbf, 17/10/16 (JW)
To understand the accident in context requires a little examination of the situation that Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) – the state railway of West Germany – found itself in in the early 1970s.
West Germany experienced an economic boom in the wake of the Second World War, and industrial output and living standards rose dramatically. But this is not to say that its railways were a profitable operation. By 1971, DB was reported to be 15 million Deutschmarks in debt.
Steam traction remained fairly widespread and many pockets of the system had changed little since before the war. Yet the need for modernisation was keenly felt, and DB made the conscious decision to actively compete with long-distance road and air travel. The Germans had a long tradition of exploring the opportunities presented by high-speed rail and following experience with the prototypes, DB placed an order in 1969 for a production fleet of 103s. This fleet was to form the keystone of a magnificent high-speed cross-country network.
1971 was not, however, to be a magnificent year. By the end of May, there had already been three major disasters on West German railways – at Aitrang on 9th February, Illertissen on 18th May and Dahlerau on 27th May – with a total of 80 people killed in them. Tragically, July was to see a fourth disaster, and the death toll was also to rise.
The fateful day
At precisely 13:00 on Wednesday 21st July 1971, D370, the “Schweiz-Express” service slipped out of Basel Bad en route to København. The train was formed of fourteen carriages with approximately 300 passengers on board. It was hauled by 103106, with 52-year-old Mannheim driver Karl Mitsch at the controls.
Save for being snapped by a lone railway photographer stood at the lineside at Efringen-Kirchen – this photo can now be found in a number of Eisenbahn Kurier publications – the train proceeded uneventfully for 19 minutes. At that point, approaching the village of Rheinweiler, the train began to sway fiercely from side to side, luggage tumbled from the overhead racks and, a split second later, it violently left the rails.
The loco had only entered service on 8th April, and now, after just 105 days in traffic, “number 106” had been practically destroyed, lying upside down and unrecognisable in the wreckage some distance from the railway line.
The train had derailed on a tight curve which had a maximum speed of 75 km/h. The loco and six of the carriages plummeted down a 5 metre high embankment into a residential area, leaving a trail of absolute destruction. Tragically, it had completely destroyed a house, instantly killing both a 5-year-old boy and a 90-year-old man inside. In total, 23 died and 121 were injured. Amongst the dead was Driver Mitsch.
As with many railway accidents, the death of the driver – who was the only person on the footplate – made it very difficult indeed to establish the circumstances of the derailment. Analysis of the loco’s Fahrtenschreiber (“tachograph”) revealed that it had been driven in accordance with the route’s varying linespeeds as far as Kleinkems, approximately a minute before it reached the curve.
At Kleinkems, the linespeed dropped to 120 km/h, however the Fahrtenschreiber showed that Driver Mitsch had set the loco’s AFB (Automatische Fahr und Bremssteurung – effectively, semi-automatic cruise control) to 140 km/h instead. Two kilometres later, the linespeed dropped further, to 75 km/h for the curve, but no alteration was recorded to the AFB setting at that point. Intriguingly, nor did the loco appear to have been braked.
The train’s excess speed at the curve led to an inevitable catastrophe.
The train was single-manned in accordance with the rulebook as it was not booked to exceed 140 km/h. Anything at higher speeds was to have two on the footplate, as was anything on specific lines with particularly vicious gradients and varying speed restrictions. Although the route through Rheinweiler route had numerous speed restrictions, it did not have this requirement.
Karl Mitsch had been a driver since 1950, had worked on electric locos since 1956, and over the route in question very frequently since 1958. However, he had only recently passed out on class 103 traction; an article in Der Spiegel in October 1973 claimed that this was only his third solo turn on the new locomotives.
Although the 103s were thoroughly modern machines, one of the only significant differences from the electric traction he had been working on for the previous 15 years was the presence of the AFB system. The Fahrtenschreiber printout appeared to show that this had been incorrectly programmed, with an excessive speed set on the run-up to the derailment. With Mitsch’s route knowledge beyond question, it must be wondered why this occurred.
His relative inexperience on the traction might lead to an obvious conclusion. However, this may be a dangerous assumption to make. It came to light in the wake of the accident that some serious issues with the AFB system on class 103s had already been identified. For example, a train had been reported to have been exceeding the speed at which the AFB had been set by 25 km/h on at least one occasion.
The predominant safety feature at work in the train’s final minutes would have been the Sifa – the loco’s driver vigilance device – which required operation every 50 seconds. Were this not done, the brakes would have automatically been applied. Mitsch continued to operate the Sifa correctly right until the moment of derailment.
DB had for many years employed the “Indusi” system – similar to our own Train Protection and Warning System, in the sense that it was designed to operate via track-based electromagnets to apply the train’s brakes in the event of a train passing a signal at danger or approaching a speed restriction too quickly. However, this was not universally applied, mainly due to reasons of cost. The curve at Rheinweiler was not fitted with Indusi.
However, regardless of how the AFB behaved, and given the lack of Indusi magnets, the curve on which the train derailed still followed 400 metres of straight track. In broad daylight, if not incapacitated – and Mitsch’s consistent operation of the Sifa would indicate that he was not – the driver should have been more than able to slow the train sufficiently before reaching it, preventing the derailment.
In truth, the evidence-gathering surrounding the accident probably posed more questions than it provided answers. Indeed, although the finger of blame was pointed at the driver, a truly detailed cause has never been established. This mystery is unlikely to ever be solved.
103113 backs onto IC118 at Stuttgart Hbf, 30/05/14 (JW)
Irrespective of its cause, the effects of the Rheinweiler derailment were significant, immediate and widespread. The German popular press made repeated and vocal calls to stop increasing speeds on the Bundesbahn. It perceived there to be a safety risk where trains fit for the 21st century were in many cases being put to work on 19th century infrastructure.
In the wake of the accident, the Minister of Transport, Georg Leber, cut short his family holiday in Austria, and soon announced that the routes, timetables and speeds of all trains were to be investigated in detail in order to ensure that safety was not being compromised. One of the consequences of this was that the maximum speed of all DB trains was indefinitely restricted to 160 km/h, which must have been a bitter blow to the cash-strapped organisation as its 200 km/h flagship flying machines continued to roll off the production line. AFB was put out of operation until further notice.
Impressive efforts were made to ensure that all bases were covered in order to try to prevent a repeat of the accident. DB bowed to the longstanding demands of its drivers’ union, and Indusi was rolled out far more widely. The time interval required between the operation of the Sifa device on class 103 locos was reduced from 50 to 30 seconds.
In an attempt to secure drivers’ retention of situational awareness when driving, particularly during fog and darkness, significant alterations were made to the trackside kilometre posts across the network. Small stone posts at track level were superseded by raised signs at driver’s eye level on reflective backgrounds every 200 metres or so, and these remain a prominent feature of German railways today.
The class 103 cab environment also received attention. Some elements of the cab design had been criticised in the accident investigation, and therefore the final batch of 30 locos were constructed with slightly different cabs. They were also equipped with an additional speed control device (EFB) which was retro-fitted to the other class members in due course.
By 1979, Deutsche Bundesbahn was ready to rise again. As part of the “Intercity 79” project, maximum speeds were again raised to 200 km/h, and it would be no exaggeration to say that West Germany’s cross-country network of high-speed express trains became the envy of the world. Both safety and punctuality gained a reputation as being exemplary. The 103s, now permitted to truly stretch their legs, also cemented their reputation as one of the finest locomotive types of all time.
Their star began to fall in the late 1980s when the 60 new class 120.1 locos began to make their presence felt on the Hamburg-München route, the express backbone of the country. The 103s continued to be flogged, however, and continued to provide sterling service. But by the mid-1990s, they were beginning to show their age, and their almost like-for-like replacement by a fleet of 145 Bombardier-built class 101s commenced in February 1997.
Tragically, history was to repeat itself, in a way. Just 20 months into its service life, on 6th February 2000, a misunderstanding regarding a temporary speed restriction and bi-directional working led the driver of 101092 to enter a 40 km/h turnout at Brühl at 122 km/h, causing it and several coaches to plunge down an embankment into a house. Nine people died. This is a link to a 43-minute documentary about that accident (in German). The loco was a write-off, but a 146th frame was constructed, and the so-called “101092II” remains in service to this day.
But perhaps the strangest coincidence of all was that 101092’s train also carried the “Schweiz-Express” name…
The “new” 101092, at Stuttgart Hbf, 30/05/14 (JW)
Intriguingly, after 103132 sustained accident damage in 1976, part of 103106’s frame was used in its repairs. 103132 was one of the last 103s to remain in traffic, and is one of the 14 production 103s to still remain intact – owned by the DB Museum and stored at Dessau Works since 2009.
The legacy of the accident at Rheinweiler is still visible right across the German railway network even today. Perhaps this is some compensation for the fact that it seems to be very rarely mentioned.
However, the tragedy is still acutely remembered in Rheinweiler. Far fewer trains pass the spot nowadays – the freight and expresses have been diverted via the new Katzenberg Tunnel since 2012 – but the locals continue to tend to a modest memorial to the victims of the accident on that fateful day in 1971.
If you’re enjoying the content of this website, please could I invite you to have a look at how you could support it? Thanks!