TORNADO jets and army helicopters patrolling main lines were among the more drastic measures taken in Germany before Christmas in a short-lived but deadly serious battle to prevent saboteurs derailing trains if a DM10m ransom were not paid. German Railway was first alerted by telephone calls to its Frankfurt headquarters last September from a group calling itself ’the railway friends’. Attempts to establish contact bore no fruit, and the first attack occurred in late September. More sabotage followed during October and November, but no serious damage was done until December 18 when a freight train bound for Italy was derailed at Anklam on the Stralsund - Berlin main line. DB quickly established that this was the work of the ’friends’, and the operation to find the culprits was stepped up.

That the ’friends’ had some knowledge of railways was obvious from their activities, which included loosening track bolts on 20m sections of the Hannover - Berlin high speed line. An ICE ran over a damaged section at high speed without harm, but mindful of the Eschede accident last June, DB agreed to special security measures that included running sweeper trains on certain routes; meanwhile aircraft with infra-red cameras and 400 police were deployed to try and locate the criminals.

Police made two arrests on December 23, one at a rendezvous agreed for handover of the ransom money, and the suspect admitted three attempts to sabotage the DB network. It turned out that he had received training as a track worker in former East Germany. DB soon restored normal operations, but there is no doubt it was lucky that the wreckers’ efforts failed.