Train accident near Garmisch-Partenkirchen: How is the train really safe? -Panorama

At least five people died in the train accident. Photo: AFP

Railway accidents, such as in Bavaria, are very rare in Germany. The risk of road accidents is much higher.

How safe is train travel? After the tragic train accident outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, people are anxious, especially those who would like to try the 9-euro train ticket. Statistics show that the risk of injury or even death in German rail transport is extremely low for travelers – much greater dangers lurk on the roads.

Could an accident such as in Bavaria repeat itself?

The cause of the accident has not yet been established. One thing is for sure: Deutsche Bahn’s double-decker regional train was derailed after a long curve, at least five people were killed and many others were injured, some of them seriously. Compared to the average of 23,500 DB trains which transport more than three million people in Germany every day, such bad events are extremely rare. According to the data of the Federal Statistical Office, in 2013-2020 not a single passenger died in derailed trains in Germany. Between 2001 and 2020, four people died – fewer than in the Bavarian accident.

How many rail accidents are there anyway?

Since the beginning of the millennium, the number of serious rail accidents has almost halved. In 2019, 452 injuries were reported in German rail transport. In Corona 2020, there were 432 of them. However, they included only six derailments and 15 collisions of trains, as well as 36 collisions with objects. The vast majority of accidents take place at level crossings, while working on infrastructure and when recklessly or intentionally entering the track.

What is the risk of injury when traveling by train?

Extremely low. Last year, 160 people died in rail transport, 13 more than in 2019. However, only two passengers and six rail workers were killed on the trains. All other victims were hit by trains at level crossings, died during construction work on the systems, or ran onto tracks illegally, often resulting in suicide. Another 486 people were injured in 2020, 76 less than the year before. There was not a single passenger among them, on board trains in 2020 only 26 employees were injured in derailments and collisions.

What are the numbers of road accidents?

Last year, 2,569 people died on German roads, down six percent. There were also 324,000 injured. The risk of death in car traffic is 59 times greater per kilometer and passenger than when traveling by train, the Pro-Rail Alliance has calculated based on the number of fatalities and mileage in 2010-2019. The risk of injury to drivers is up to 159 times greater than on railways. Across the EU, the risk of dying when traveling by car is 30 times higher than when traveling by train.

Why is rail transport relatively safe?

Contrary to the often chaotic individual traffic on the roads, trains run on fixed lanes with only professional drivers behind the wheel. From the German rail reform and the liberalization of the EU market, safety is the responsibility of network operators and railway companies, monitored by the Federal Railway Authority (EBA) to which the Federal Minister of Transport, Volker Wissing (FDP), is responsible. Train manufacturers and train operators have to comply with strict safety regulations. Automated safety systems are built into the infrastructure to slow down trains if they are going too fast, ignoring stop signals or jeopardizing oncoming traffic. The working, driving and rest times of drivers, train staff and transport service providers who have to set up the points correctly are also precisely regulated.

What are the other risks?

There is no absolute security anywhere. Human error, loose controls and technical deficiencies have repeatedly led to serious accidents in Germany. In 2016, twelve people were killed and 89 injured in Bad Aibling, Bavaria, when two regional trains collided on a monorail route because the transport service provider acted carelessly and the emergency technology showed weaknesses. The 1998 Eschede ICE crash was triggered by a faulty tire that should never have been fitted. And even after that, a large part of the ICE fleet was on roads with sensitive wheel shafts for a long time until the axles had to be completely replaced after a minor breakdown. On the other hand, the ICE 511, which partially burned down near Dierdorf in October 2018 due to an overheated transformer, revealed shortcomings in installation, fire protection and maintenance.

Who is investigating serious rail accidents?

If people are injured or killed, the public prosecutor’s office and the federal police are on the spot, as in Bavaria, to clarify the causes and responsibility. The Federal Office for Railway Accident Investigation (BEU) in Bonn is also involved in the detection and elimination of error sources. BEU accident reports must be published in line with EU regulations and often contain explicit omissions. In 2020, 2,112 hazardous events were recorded, including 1,352 accidents and 760 incidents. Only three collisions and two derailments were classified as particularly serious accidents, where at least one person was killed, five were injured and property damage amounted to two million euros.

How can the railroad become even safer?

The modernization of the long-neglected and partially obsolete rail network has begun, costing many billions of euros. In particular, digital control and safety systems aim to make railways even safer, so far imperial era lockout technology is still used here and there. The fleets of trains are also being modernized and expanded. DB Group is also increasing the number of employees undergoing a human resources offensive after drivers and dispatchers complained in particular about unreasonable and dangerous overloads. However, short training courses for transfer passengers are controversial as mistakes by inexperienced or overworked rail controllers can have dangerous consequences, as evidenced by BEU accident reports.

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