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ICE axle cracks wreak havoc

28 Nov 2008

GERMANY: Passengers on Deutsche Bahn's long-distance trains have had a torrid time in recent weeks following a series of incidents that culminated in the sudden withdrawal from service of all 71 ICE-T tilting trainsets on October 24.

DB had been concerned about possible cracks in the axles of its ICE3 and ICE-T trainsets after an axle broke on an ICE3 on July 9, causing it to derail as it left Köln Hbf. The train was moving slowly at the time and no-one was hurt.

Any incident involving wheels or axles in Germany evokes the spectre of the Eschede disaster of 1998, when a broken wheel on an ICE1 travelling at 200 km/h led to a derailment that caused a bridge to collapse on the train, killing 100 people. So it should come as no surprise that the Federal Railway Authority, Germany's railway safety regulator, should instruct DB in July to inspect the axles on its 300 km/h flagship ICE3 trainsets at intervals of 60 000 instead of every 300 000 km.

Discovery on October 8 of a 2 mm crack in an ICE-T axle prompted EBA to decree that axles on these 230 km/h trainsets should be inspected every 45 000 km instead of at intervals of 240 000 km, and from October 10 the ICE3 axle inspection regime was tightened further to every 30 000 km.

On October 23 DB decided that the body tilting mechanism should be switched out of use on the ICE-T fleet to limit the forces exerted on the axles. This meant the trains had to run at lower speed through curves, wreaking havoc with timetables. On the following day the entire fleet was withdrawn for 'additional technical examinations', reducing much of DB's long-distance network to chaos, although DB made strenuous efforts to run replacement services, hiring in stock from Austria and Switzerland.

DB's drastic action followed a meeting with Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens, the consortium of suppliers that had built the ICE-T fleet, at which DB had asked the builders to provide 'clear guarantees for safe operation of the ICE-T vehicles'. Their response had not satisfied the operator, and it decided to instigate detailed checks of the axles before releasing the trains back into service. We understand that DB has only one workshop in München able to undertake this task, limiting the checks to two trains a week. This means that passengers can expect disruption to last well into the New Year.

In the meantime we invite readers to reflect on what happened after a fire on a coach travelling along a motorway near Hannover on November 4 led to the deaths of 20 people. To our knowledge no safety authority called for other coaches to be withdrawn for fire safety checks. Perhaps it is time for road safety rules to be brought into line with the standards required for railways - no fewer than 4 949 people died on German roads in 2007.

The news of the aborted flotation and DB's latest wheelset problems combined to make headlines across Germany. ICE-T trainsets are currently running with the tilt function disabled.