ghosttram - A runaway tram & the fall-out

The incident of a tram careering through the dead of night because its driver had suffered a seizure has caused much alarm in Europe. In fact it was the implications upon the Schwebebahn which made me wonder what the whole issue was about, and why the Schwebebahn – not even a tramway of any sort – was being so critically scrutinised. Hopefully the full story is outlined here in this special post.

To start with in December last year some of the English media reported upon the fact a tram had careered out of control at speeds of perhaps up to 80kmh (50mph) through the suburbs of Bonn in Germany. In brief the tram sped through eight stations and no amount of effort on the passengers’ behalf in trying to stop the tram came to any success – until drastic intervention was made. See the BBC and the Independent for their reports on this. The English press actually say very little on what happened – or even where the incident specifically occurred other than it was in Bonn. And there seems to have been no follow-ups of any sort.

The huge surprise was despite the fail safe systems, how could it have been that a driver passed out and yet been able to, as it were, keep their tram on the move? Surely there was a dead man’s device as would normally be expected in any transport system? Or was there something Germany’s strict safety regulations had missed?

bonntrams - A runaway tram & the fall-out

Section of the Bonn tramways system. I have removed most of the detail showing just those stations on route 66/7 to Siegburg. It will be seen from this map the runaway tram in fact careered practically the entire length of the line from Siegburg to Adelheidisstrasse.

The ‘ghost tram’ incident occured on the Siegburger Bahn (Line 66 & 67 from Bonn Hauptbahnhof to Siegburg.) The tram in question sped out of control for over seven kilometres. This route is more of a light railway thus a good amount is on a private right of way – most fortunate in the light of what happened.

Anyway in the early hours of 22 December 2019 a late night tram heading from Siegburg towards Bonn began its journey as normal. Nothing amiss whatsoever. It left Siegburg at 00.33am. The first stop was Sankt Augustin-Mülldorf (pictured below.) The stop was made without any problems and passengers were able to board the tram. There was no reason to suspect anything was amiss and its clear the driver of the tram was at that point fully conscious.

Sankt Augustin M%C3%BClldorf lijn66 B - A runaway tram & the fall-out

Sankt Augustin-Mülldorf – where the incident began. Source: NLTrams

However upon departing Sankt Augustin-Mülldorf the driver clearly had a seizure. He collapsed and the weight of his body falling onto the console kept the emergency system inactive. In other words the dead mans device used on Germany’s trams was rendered useless and the tram sped along at 80kmh because his body was weighted upon the tram’s accelerator. Upon the tram passing through the next stop at Sankt Augustin-Mülldorf Central without stopping, its passengers soon realise something is up.

Again the tram speeds past the next stop Sankt Augustin Kloster and at that point the tram’s passengers realise it is down to them to stop the tram. If that didn’t happen it would soon be ploughing through cars once the line had entered its streets section (and the rest of the Bonn tramway system) at Konrad-Adenauer-Platz. The passengers activated the emergency switch – but the tram continued anyway because the switch merely alerts the driver there is a problem and its up to them to stop their tram.

In desperation the passengers activated the door control switches and opened the tram doors. But no, the tram does not even stop – it still continues rapidly towards the city centre. The next four stops the road crossing barriers do not close because the tram has sped too fast to allow the circuits time to activate and lower the barriers in advance.

The desperate passengers phone the police who in turn phone the control room at Stadtwerke Bonn. They had not been aware there was a tram out of control as the route was not being monitored. However the passengers then receive relayed instructions on how to stop the tram. This is roughly seven minutes after the tram first careers out of control. Two of the passengers force their way into the driver’s compartment (sustaining minor injuries in breaking the glass door) and successfully stop the tram 200 metres short of the stop at Adelheidisstrasse (picture below.) The stop was made fortunately a kilometre from the city’s main on street tram network.

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The tram stop at Adelheidisstrasse. Source: Google Streets

In the following days it transpired the Stadtwerke Bonn had considered turning the line’s power off however the company subsequently claimed intervention in the driver’s cab was much quicker. This claim came after they had originally asserted there was absolutely no way of stopping the tram remotely. They did say the opening of the doors by the passengers had caused the tram to shut off its power however it continued by way of momentum.

Clearly the opening of the doors didn’t even cause the brakes to activate, which is quite sobering given the implications that could occur. Stadtwerke Bonn were adamant no lives were in danger for they insisted their tram would have not made its way onto the city’s streets and especially not the congested section on the bridge across the Rhine.

It turned out a couple of weeks ago the driver was a newbie and had only been working just a few months. What is worse is he had not even declared his epilepsy to the company. It meant the company did not know they had taken on a substantial risk. Stadwerke Bonn have acknowledged their driver has been removed because he lacked ‘the personal prerequisites in future’ to continue being a tram driver.

Such irresponsibility of tram drivers bears heavily upon the tram operators – as this video shows – because they expect their drivers to act safely and professionally at all times (and also it shows the impact any crash would unfortunately have had.)

The North Rhine-Westphalia regional government admit it is the first they have ever had this instance and say its not a known. In their eyes it was unprecedented. However looking at the picture below of the tram in question, its clear the operation of the tram involves the pressure of a pedal to keep the system active. If any release in pressure is made the tram will automatically brake.

What happened, apparently, is the driver slumped forward on becoming unconscious, whilst keeping full pressure on the pedal – and also their body was fully placed upon the tram’s power controller, enabling it to speed ahead

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The aftermath of the incident. A broken door and glass on the floor. Source: Deutsche Welle

The regional government claimed it was the first time that a driver had become unconscious while driving and inexplicably being able to continue operating the dead mans switch. ‘This is therefore regarded as an absolutely isolated incident and does not justify any emergency action such as a shutdown.’ However they have given the region’s tram operators two years to make modifications.

This entails modifications to at least 1700 trams throughout the region. The new system will require the tram receives a signal every fifteen seconds the driver is conscious and fully in control. If no signal is received then the trams brakes apply automatically. This affects some of Germany’s larger tramway systems for many of these are combined systems of different towns/cites (such as Bonn’s connecting with Cologne’s by several routes, and Dusseldorf’s connecting with the Krefeld and Duisburg systems and so on.)

In brief this brings us to our own UK tram systems. The Croydon crash of 2016 was a result of there being no emergency systems kicking in should the driver not being alert or otherwise incapacitated. The accident forced TfL also to implement better safety systems for its trams.

Back to the beginning of this article – the initial point I made about the Schwebebahn. Well the famous monorail city of Wuppertal happens to be in North Rhine-Westphalia too, and that order to retrofit also applies to the famous monorail. Wuppertaler Stadwerke have said the Schwebebahn does not need this retrofitting because it already has two automated systems that stop the trains running in the event of a driver not being conscious. Plus it would eventually be controlled remotely by computers which would be another step forward in ensuring human inability or failure did not compromise the safety of its Generation 15 trains. Wuppertaler Stadwerke are therefore seeking an exemption because they are of the view the Schwebebahn does not need any modifications.

westdeutschezeitung - A runaway tram & the fall-out

The cover page re the Schwebebahn (in English) at West Deutsche Zeitung

The Schwebebahn’s managing director Ulrich Jaeger said ‘It would be completely superfluous to also incorporate this technology in the suspension railway. With the introduction of the new operating system last year, an automatic backup was created, it prevents two suspension railways from running on one section of the route and would automatically stop a driverless train. This digital technology is not comparable to the 40-year-old systems in the trams.’ Source: West Deutsche Zeitung

One thought on “A runaway tram & the fall-out”
  1. The issue here is the precise operation of the dead man’s device, and the weakness that led to this incident was well know for decades.
    As correctly described the dead man’s device on this tram (and many other trams and U-Bahn trains in Germany) requires permanent pressure. But such a simple system can easily fail, like in this incident. Worse, it can also be tricked, e.g. by putting a bag on the pedal.
    Conversely, the system used on all German railway train (including S-Bahn, and also some U-Bahn and overland trams too) is press and release: A pedal or button (there are usually a few in the cab, so drivers have a choice) has to be pressed, then released within 30 seconds, then pressed again. If the pressure is not released after 30 seconds the driver gets a visual and audible warning for 5 seconds, and if she/he still not reacts, there will be an automatic emergency brake application.
    And I distinctly remember there were discussions in the 1980s whether the railway’s system should be made compulsory for U-Bahns and trams too…

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