Big Bang Theory

On a site that once belonged to the East German Railway, TÜV SÜD inspects trains for derailment safety and crash-surviving capabilities. When the wagons get banged up and parts go flying through the air, the engineers are one step closer to achieving their goal of making railway traffic even safer.


leg 11  ■  Istanbul ➡ Görlitz  ■  2,200 Km  ■  Arrival 23.11.2015, 10:30 am  ■  Travel time 145 hrs  ■  10°C  ■  Total distance 57,850 KM

The experimental set-up is really quite simple: at the right, a massive concrete wall, at the left, a tank wagon filled with concrete weighing a total of 80 tons, which will later be accelerated to exactly 24 kilometers per hour. The simplicity is deceiving, however, because this TÜV SÜD facility on the outskirts of Görlitz, in southeastern Germany, is a site of pilgrimage for engineers from all over Europe. This former rail yard of the East German Railway at the Polish border is one of the continent’s few testing centers in which passenger trains, freight trains and even subway cars and their components can be tested for their ability to withstand derailments and crashes.

Martin Herda, aged 32, stands in the cab of the V22 switch engine, built in 1976 in the country of East Germany. TÜV SÜD engineers discovered it in a junkyard after the fall of the Berlin Wall and whipped it back into shape. Nowadays the 24-ton vintage switcher with its 220-HP diesel engine reliably performs its duties.

On a cool November day, the facility is testing a new deformation system. Previously, railway vehicles were linked only by bumpers—also known as buffer stops—but these days the connections are high-tech devices that cost as much as small cars. Their job is to protect the expensive railcars and locomotives in the event of an impact.




Field-testing high-tech

Locomotives and cars out on the rails are equipped with two bumpers on each end, but for this test there will be just one each—on the end-loading platform and on the tank wagon. Because of this, the impact velocity has been halved to 15 kilometers per hour. Test Engineer Olaf Schüßler, aged 47, is responsible for the trial. He checks the high-speed camera one last time and activates the measuring technology. Then he gives the starting command by radio.

 Up in the cab, Martin  Herda slams his fist down onto the Bakelite button labeled “Typhon”; the horn blasts its deafening warning signal. The locomotive and tank wagon start moving with a deep groan. The test speed is finally achieved. Herda brakes the locomotive and immediately puts it into reverse while the tank wagon rolls on alone the final distance to the concrete wall. All the observers have gotten out of harm’s way. Only cameras and sensors monitor the impact. There’s a tremendous crashing noise, then silence.

The testing site near Görlitz has belonged to the TÜV SÜD Group since 2008. It covers 35,000 square meters and has 4 kilo-meters of tracks and 20 switches. Along with being crashed into walls, trains can also be tested for derailment safety by being pushed along an S curve.


Planned crumpling

Even the best energy-absorption systems are little match for railway traffic’s tremendous speeds. These systems are installed especially to neutralize typical switching accidents, prevent damage to the wagons and reduce hazards for passengers.

How well it works can be seen in Görlitz in the high-speed photographs of the crash: the deformation system crumpled exactly as it was designed to do. As if it was made of flimsy paper, the metal panel, more than 10 millimeters thick ruptured at the intended spot and buckled correctly.

Further back, the crash element resembles an accordion. The managing director of the manufacturer—EST Eisenbahn-Systemtechnik based in Wangen im Allgäu, Germany, near Lake Constance— who came especially to witness the test, is pleased. The test was successful, and the sensors on the totaled bumper show that the destructive energy was almost completely absorbed. The way has been cleared for this special bumper to be used on Germany’s rails.



When things really get banged up

A day on the TÜV SÜD testing grounds in Görlitz