On June 3, 1998, a catastrophic train disaster occurred in Eschede, Northern Germany – the worst high-speed train crash ever recorded. Inter City Express (ICE) Nr. 884 “Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen” was traveling at 200 KM (124 mph) when it derailed and crashed into an overhead concrete bridge pillar. The incident caused 101 deaths and 88 injuries, making it the deadliest rail accident in Germany’s history.
What went wrong? Investigations revealed that a single small crack on the metal rim of one of the wheels was responsible for this tragedy. This fracture had been caused by fatigue in the wheel material which had been weakened over time due to intensive usage; in fact, more than 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) had been travelled by the same wheelset prior to the accident.
The accident could have been prevented if regular inspections and maintenance were conducted with greater frequency and scrutiny; however, at that time, trains were only inspected after they had exceeded certain mileage benchmarks which this particular ICE train did not quite reach before its fateful journey. In addition to this, safety regulations were not enforced stringently enough to ensure complete compliance; this is likely why the faulty wheel was not detected during previous inspections as well as why other safety issues such as lack of crashworthiness protection or damaged signal systems were also missed.