June 3rd in German History: The Eschede Derailment

Ice eschede 1.jpg
The wreckage of the rear passenger cars.

I have covered several more recent events in German history on this blog. Sadly, most of them have been either terrorist attacks or man-made disasters. The Eschede Derailment falls into the latter category. On June 3rd, 1998, a train derailed near the village of Eschede in Lower Saxony, killing 101 and injuring 88.

The Eschede Derailment is the worst high-speed rail disaster in world history and the worst rail disaster in German history. It was caused by a fatigue crack in a wheel which caused it to be caught in a switch on the track, changing the setting of the switch while the train was passing over it. This resulted in the cars of the train going down two different sets of tracks, resulting in derailment. In the derailment two coaches were crushed and the remaining cars crashed into the wreckage. Unfortunately, the accident could easily have been avoided. The design of the wheels on the train made them prone to metal fatigue and cracks within the wheel. These faults had been uncovered in 1997 but went uncorrected. Further, maintenance checks on the train had discovered faults in the wheel and eight complaints were made. The company that operated the train, Deutsche Bahn, said that it was not at fault for ignoring the complaints. Finally, the train manager refused to stop the train after the wheel broke, stating that in accordance with company policy he needed to inspect the wheel himself. Sadly, individuals or corporations failed at every step and so one hundred and one people died.

Although the events leading up to the derailment were characterized by inexcusable failure, the response was at least conducted well. Deutsche Bahn immediately paid 30,000 euros to each of the families and later settled with other victims. Further, the wheels on all trains were replaced and the windows were replaced with windows with breaking seams so as to make rescue operations easier. An official memorial was established on May 11th, 2001 and was funded partly by Deutsche Bahn. Although the Eschede Derailment is not a historically critical event, those who died should still be remembered and we must strive to make sure a similar event does not happen again.

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