Transportation | 17.11.2009
German freight trains show severe safety defects
The federal railway authority EBA determined in a nationwide check in September that over 18 percent of the trains inspected had "safety-relevant defects" with their wheels or axles, said a television documentary aired on Monday evening on German public television ARD.
Wheels or axles displayed stress marks, dents or corrosion damage, the report said. The wagons should have been unloaded and taken to be repaired. The majority of the some 4,450 wagons tested were owned by Deutsche Bahn subsidiary DB-Schenker.
The documentary said the inspection was the first of its kind since the EBA was founded in 1994. The authority had announced the upcoming check of all freight wagons in Germany following a rail accident in Viareggio, Italy, in June, which killed over 20 people.
Seeking a European solution
EBA head Gerald Hoerster said in a letter to the railways, made available to news agency Reuters, that he assumed "that the necessary measures will be taken on your own authority." This could, for example, be a visual inspection of the axles before departure.
But the Association of German Transport Companies ( VDV) criticized the EBA for its recommendation. The visual inspection of the axles was not feasible, VDV head Martin Henke said.
"The EBA has not provided evidence of any kind that defects in the paint work or dents in the wagons could lead to accidents," Henke said.
He said the EBA was contradicting itself as it had just certified the sector a "stable level of safety" without serious defects. After all, rail transport was still 44 times safer than trucks, he said.
The association called on the EBA to refrain from going it alone and instead collaborate constructively on a long-term, European solution to safety issues in rail freight traffic.
"The European safety authority has not seen any necessity for short-term measures," Henke said. Together with the European Railway Agency ERA, a task force including railways and relevant authorities are currently developing Europe-wide binding standards for inspecting wheel axles.
"In Germany, over 100,000 foreign wagons are in transit," said Henke. "Therefore, a solely European uniform regulation is appropriate in terms of safety."
Profit instead of safety?
"Rail is the safest means of transport in Germany," Deutsche Bahn's former chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn once said. Never would savings be put ahead of safety, he said. But in fact, Mehdorn, who wanted to go public with Deutsche Bahn, ordered one major rule of thumb: profits. And this occurred at the cost of safety, the documentary said.
The film showed that an accident in 2006 in the Berlin commuter railway system, leaving 35 injured, was caused by weak construction and saving specifications in maintenance. One of the victims from that accident told ARD that this called for criminal proceedings.
"You can't arbitrarily push down costs," said accident victim Ralph H in the report. "It's not about whether the paint is peeling off; this is about ensuring that people get off the train again in good health."
The report concluded that safety supervision did not function well. Operators are currently responsible themselves for secure operations. They inspect their own trains on a voluntary basis.
Hans Juergen Kuehlwetter, a former EBA legal adviser, called for further legal regulations.
"Companies today are under considerable pressure to yield returns," Kuehlwetter said in the report. "This means that inspections of safety-relevant parts are clearly not being undertaken with the intensity they should be."
Deutsche Bahn ignores political demands
Members of the parliament's transport committee told ARD they often felt powerless against Deutsche Bahn. There were no effective controls.
"What bothers me is that, in particular in the Mehdorn era, the impression was given that they couldn't care less about the demands of parliament in this matter," said Patrick Doering of the Free Democratic Party. "Just hand over four billion euros ($5.9 billion) every year, we'll take care of the rest. That is a position which I cannot accept, neither as a parliamentarian nor as a taxpayer."
Dorothee Menzner from the Left party said this attitude angered her.
"It's infuriating that the Deutsche Bahn managers confront us representatives with enormous ignorance and arrogance," Menzner said.
Editor: Susan Houlton