Even three days after the serious train accident near Garmisch-Partenkirchen with five dead and 44 injured, the cause is still unclear. A technical defect on the train or on the track is currently the most likely reason, but is determined in all directions. The investigators should also focus on construction work that, according to WELT information, was planned in a few days on exactly the section on which the regional train crashed on Friday.

The planned work, including the route closure, can be found on a list of construction measures by DB Netz AG, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn that is responsible for the infrastructure of the state-owned company. Under the numbers 3258, 3259 and 3260 there are three entries for work on the Munich-Mittenwald route on the section between Oberau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The town of Burgrain, where the accident happened, is also located there.

According to the schedule of DB Netz AG, a “track position correction” between Oberau and Farchant should first take place on the night of June 25, 2022 between 2.35 a.m. and 5 a.m. A week later, on July 1, between 12:55 a.m. and 4:55 a.m., Deutsche Bahn wanted to carry out a “rail renewal”. The route should be closed for both works during these times. From July 5th to 9th, rails were then to be replaced at night in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Deutsche Bahn initially left specific questions from WELT about the planned work and a possible connection with the accident unanswered. “We ask for your understanding that we are currently unable to comment on this due to the ongoing investigations,” said a spokesman for the group on Whit Monday. “Of course we will do everything we can to support the investigating authorities in clarifying the cause of the accident.”

Among other things, the questions of whether the work was scheduled due to specific damage, if so, when and how it was determined and why it was not implemented immediately, remain unanswered. It is also unclear whether there were warnings or speed limits on the route because of the work that was apparently necessary.

Shortly after the serious train accident, excessive speed was ruled out as the cause of the accident after reading out the train data memory. The investigations focus on technical failure or the infrastructure, said a spokesman for the independent Federal Bureau of Railway Accident Investigation (BEU).

They confiscated the entire train, and the experts on site also examine the tracks for so-called track position errors. The term describes deviations in the height or width of the rail track from the desired dimensions, comparable to a bump in the ground on a road. This can cause a train to derail.

To prevent this, there are regular inspections of the rail network by track measuring vehicles, which take place every three, six or twelve months, depending on the permissible speed in the section of track. The rail geometry is recorded with millimeter precision. In the section of track near Garmisch-Partenkirchen where the accident happened, the maximum speed was said to be 100 kilometers per hour, which would mean that track measurement runs would be required every twelve months.

It was not until November 2021 that the managing director of Deutsche Bahn competitor Bayerische Regiobahn (BRB) drew attention to deficiencies in the railway infrastructure in the Bavarian Oberland. “Every time a measurement train from DB Netz AG was on the road in the Ammersee-Altmühltal network, slow speed was immediately ordered,” criticized BRB Managing Director Arnulf Schuchmann in a statement. Nothing has been invested in the infrastructure for decades. It will only be patched in small parts. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to offer passengers a reliable timetable for the “dilapidated infrastructure”, complained the boss of the private regional railway.

Only last Monday did the CEO of Deutsche Bahn, Richard Lutz, admit that the group could not keep up with the renovation of the infrastructure. He described increasing delays due to fully occupied trains and more construction sites than ever before in the rail network as “growing pains”.

Lutz announced a change in strategy for the renovation measures and, from 2024, wants to bundle upcoming work in busy main corridors in the rail network. Secondary routes such as the accident site in Bavaria would probably not be affected. The Bavarian Greens politician Anton Hofreiter suggested that Bahn boss Lutz resign in the “Spiegel” because of his statements about the problems with the infrastructure.

The causes of track geometry errors can be very different. This includes the wear of rails due to high loads or changes in the ballast or subsoil, for example due to moisture penetration of the track substructure due to insufficient drainage. In recent years, the Federal Bureau for Railway Accident Investigation (BEU) has repeatedly identified faults in the track geometry as the cause of train derailments. In 2017, for example, the experts suggested regularly examining the drainage systems in the track area.

Also noteworthy is a response from the federal government to a request from the Greens (printed paper 19/32625) in autumn 2021 as to whether the climate crisis would also lead to track distortions. But the government gave the all-clear. According to this, the railway has been using the so-called seamlessly welded track since 1950. “The superstructure is designed to be so stable that it can absorb compressive and tensile stresses, such as those caused by heat, without massive deformation of the tracks.” That’s why DB AG hasn’t had any track distortions due to extreme heat.

Nevertheless, a safety report by the Federal Railway Authority for 2020/21 lists a total of 17 rail bends and track position errors in the category of disruptions and near misses.

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