DB Class 120

One of the most popular locomotive types left in front-line service in Germany is the electric class 120, although they are sadly now very much in the twilight of their careers.

120 114 departs Wolfsburg for the East.  The test track at the adjacent Volkswagen factory can be seen in use!  22/02/15 (JW)

Prototype Locomotives

Throughout the 1970s, the flagship locos of the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) were undoubtedly its class 103 express electrics.  As I have written elsewhere on this site, the wake of the Rheinweiler derailment in July 1971 saw DB reassess its pursuit of higher and higher speeds, and despite the 200 km/h design speed of its new machines, a blanket maximum speed of 160 km/h was implemented across Germany whilst some major issues were addressed.  This remained the case until the launch of the “Intercity ’79” project, and with the 103s at the forefront, DB’s express railway became the envy of the world.

Concurrently with this, much work was going on behind the scenes to develop a new generation of electric locomotive based on a new type of technology – the three-phase motor.  Central to this development were the three DE2500 locos – the story of which is very interesting indeed and will be the subject of a future article.

An order was eventually placed in March 1977 for a prototype fleet of five mixed-traffic three-phase electric locomotives – 120 001 to 120 005.  The first, 120 001 – built by Krauss-Maffei – was delivered on 14th May 1979, with the other four (two each from Henschel and Krupp) following in January 1980.  All were delivered in the handsome red and cream “TEE” livery.

Throughout the 1980s, these machines were engaged in operational testing on both freight and passenger duties.  These were largely of a “are they appropriate for the tasks we’d want a fleet to do?” nature, but there was of course a degree of “just what are they capable of?” experimenting too!  120 002 set a new world speed record for three-phase electric locos between Celle and Uelzen on 13th August 1980, when the speedo read 231 km/h (144 mph).  A further speed record was set by the class on 17th October 1984, when 120 001 flew along between Augsburg and Donauwörth at a maximum speed of a whopping 265 km/h (165 mph) – it had had to have a new speedometer face fitted for this, as it would otherwise have been well off the clock!

In the wake of this latter achievement, an order for a production fleet of 60 200 km/h machines – class 120.1 – was placed in November 1984.  The research use of the prototype locos continued, however, but swerved more towards testing technology intended for future locomotive types, rather than in advance of the arrival of the 120.1s.

All five prototype locos were renumbered to reflect their research-based usage in April 1989; 120 001 to 120 005 became 752 001 to 752 005, in order.  752 002752 003 and 752 005 were withdrawn at the end of 2000, 752 004 was stood down shortly afterwards, and 752 001 succumbed to accident damage in April 2004 (more on that later).

Production Locomotives

As mentioned above, the order for 120 101 to 120 160 was placed in November 1984.  This is considered the world’s first mass-produced three-phase locomotive order.

120 103 was the first to be handed over, on 13th January 1987, at a special event at München-Freimann (to which dignitaries were brought on a special train hauled by 120 001).

The first 120.1 to be handed over to DB, over 28 years previously – 120 103 – departs Büchen with IC2073 to Dresden, 16/05/15 (JW)

The first 120.1 to actually enter traffic, however, was 120 110, on 21st August 1987 – the last being 120 159, on 5th December 1989.

The class’s initial use was heavily centred around the express backbone of the former West Germany, the “Neubaustrecke” from Hannover to Würzburg, which opened in stages from 1988 to 1991.  In the relatively short period between the class’s entry to service, and the introduction of the ICE1 high-speed trainsets, many of the 120.1s racked up over 35,000 km (21,750 miles) per month!

The sectorisation of DB that came as a result of 1994’s “Bahnreform” ended the “mixed traffic” period of the 120.1s’ career.  From that day to this, their work has been almost entirely dedicated to passenger train haulage.

The two exceptions are 120 153 and 120 160, which were sold to DB Systemtechnik in 2005 for 200 km/h test train work (essentially, taking over from the former 120 001 after its untimely withdrawal the previous year), and became 120 501 and 120 502 respectively.  Both of these locos have, however, had short periods of hire back to the passenger sector in the years since – although this was quite some time ago now.  In more recent years, both have reverted to their “real” numbers, and 120 160 is now painted yellow.


Experience with the prototype 120s led not only to the development of the production series, but also the power cars (class 401) of the first generation of ICE high-speed units, the class El17 locos in Norway, and even to the Spanish class 252s and Portuguese 5600s which were forerunners of Siemens’ “EuroSprinter” family of machines.  In that respect, the prototype 120s were the progenitors of a significant percentage of the electric locos to be found across Europe today.

The prototypes today

It is sad to reflect, therefore, that 120 001 is not the star exhibit of a museum somewhere.  Sadly, as mentioned briefly above, it was virtually destroyed in an accident at Süßen, between Stuttgart and Ulm, at approximately 08:50 on the fateful morning of 21st April 2004.

The above is a link to a video of ecpaganini‘s on YouTube showing some of the final movements of 752 001 (ex-120 001), on test train duties in Baden-Württemberg on 20th April 2004.  Less than 24 hours later, the loco was involved in a fatal collision.

Whilst engaged in its usual role of powering a measurement train – in this case, running as train no.95158 from Ulm to Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim – the loco was involved in a head-on collision with a class 426 EMU (vehicle 426 011 leading) which was working a southbound ECS bound for Geislingen.  The resulting collision resulted in damage to both 120 and 426 of such seriousness that both were written off, and indeed scrapped on site (see harrowing images here and here).  Tragically, it also resulted in the death of the EMU’s driver.

The investigation concluded that some signal repair work carried out that morning had resulted in some cabling being incorrectly reinstalled; leading to a set of points showing differently in the power box to how they were set in real life.  Consequently, the EMU was moved from its intended track directly into the path of the 120.

Happily, though, three of the five prototype 120s are enjoying a retirement on display, 120 003 at Bahnpark Augsburg120 004 at the DB Museum at Koblenz-Lützel, and 120 005 at the Eisenbahnmuseum Weimar (on permanent loan from DB Systemtechnik).

The one not mentioned so far – 120 002 – was cut up in 2005.

Class 120.1 today

In addition to the two DB Systemtechnik locos, inroads have already been made by scrapmen into the production fleet.  The first to go was 120 142, which was cut up at Eschweiler on 11th October 2011.  To date (March 2018), a further 6 have followed – 120 158 in 2013, 120 109 in 2015, 120 130 in 2016 (after fire damage), 120 106, 120 110 and 120 140 in 2017, with 5 more: 120 124120 131120 135120 138 and 120 156 currently sat in Bender’s scrapyard at Opladen awaiting the inevitable.

Six more 120.1s are stored unserviceable – 120 112 at München, and 120 122120 126120 141120 145 and 120 154 in the “strategic reserve” compound at Hamm.

120 104 departs Hannover Hbf, top and tail with a class member, 07/12/14 (JW)

Eight of the remaining 41 120.1s – 120 107, 120 116120 117, 120 121, 120 128120 129, 120 136 and 120 139 have been renumbered as class 120.2s (120 201 to 120 208, not in order).  These locos passed to the employ of DB Regio, and were used on push-pull double-deck semi-fasts – 120 201 to 120 205 with DB Regio Nordost and used on the Hamburg to Rostock “Hanse-Express” service, and 120 206 to 120 208 with DB Regio NRW and used on the Aachen to Siegen “Rhein-Sieg Express”.  At the time of writing, the “Hanse-Express” is curtailed to Schwerin by long-term engineering work, and the NRW workings are passing to class 146 locos – with 120 206 now already moved away and observed working test trains from Minden.

For now, the other 33 locos remain with DB Fernverkehr and are used on long-distance express passenger trains.  Their use is nowadays largely concentrated on the Nürnberg-Stuttgart-Karlsruhe axis, although they also stand in for unavailable class 101s, and can frequently be found on the fair number of long-distance Fridays Only expresses that still run across Germany.

Current diagrams for the Fernverkehr (München-based), NRW (Köln-based) and Nordost (Rostock-based) 120s can be found in the members’ files section of European Rail Gen – as ever, please may I give you the polite reminder that if you benefit from these diagrams, please post your sightings to the group for everyone’s benefit!