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After Bad Aibling: railway safety in Europe

After the crash in Bavaria, train travel safety is a hot topic. The EU doesn't have common standards yet, but a system called ETCS is being developed. DW explains it and looks back at recent train disasters in Europe.

The train crash that

killed 10 people near the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling

has shaken people's trust in train travel and prompted many politicians to voice their shock and sadness. Condolences have come from France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Russia's president Vladimir Putin.

"I regret this tragic loss of human lives in the train accident in southern Germany," EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said on Tuesday.

But in general, the railway is still a very safe means of transportation. According to EU statistics, the number of train accidents is falling every year. From 1990 until 2012, the number of train accidents in the European Union has fallen by around 70 percent.

A firefighter next to crashed Bad Aibling train. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Reisner)

It's not clear yet what caused the collision in Bad Aibling

Of course there's room for improvement. There is currently no unified system in place that has trains respond to the same signals. How exactly trains stop when a break signal doesn't work, a question that might have played a role in the Bad Aibling disaster, varies from country to country, because rail transport systems have historically developed on a national, not an EU-wide basis.

The goal is to get all railway route networks under one umbrella, so that train travel is equally safe in all EU member states - and that's what the European Train Control System (ETCS) was developed for.

Open-source software makes ETCS more affordable

The ETCS is supposed to replace the many incompatible safety systems operated in the EU, especially on high-speed lines. It deals with signaling and train protection, among other issues.

The basic idea of one common train and railway system has been around for decades. The specifications put forth by the ETCS are accepted Europe-wide, but there are several national exceptions to individual guidelines. Integrating all this into one standard that all trains from Rome to Stockholm and from Lisbon to Bucharest run on is a - rather difficult - work in progress.

One of the players tackling this challenge is the German Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS). Researchers at the institute are working to certify an open-source software for ETCS that is developed by Deutsche Bahn.

"OpenETCS" is supposed to lower costs and expenditure of the system's implementation. So far, there are no trains equipped with ETCS that fulfill all regulations of all European railways. The developers of the open-source software hope that their freely accessible, cost-efficient "openETCS" will be installed on all new trains that are being built now.

Recent train accidents in Europe

The overarching goal is to prevent as many accidents on European railways as possible. While smaller incidents like suicidal persons jumping in front of a train occur much more often than large-scale disasters - and have a much bigger impact on everyday train travel - there have been a number of accidents with several casualties over the last years.

Train wreck in Eschede, 1998. (Photo: picture alliance/Holger Hollemann)

The train in Eschede hit a bridge that partly collapsed on the train

The worst German train disaster in recent memory happened in Eschede in northern Germany, where a train derailed because of a broken wheel on June 3, 1998. The train came off the tracks at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour), and 101 passengers were killed.

On February 6, 2000, a train on its way from Basel in Switzerland to Amsterdam derailed in the western German town of Brühl. Nine passengers died, and almost 150 were injured. In the Spanish town of Chinchilla, 19 people died when a passenger-train collided with a freight train on June 3, 2003.

Most recently, a train derailment on July 24, 2013, in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain cost 79 lives. More than half of the 222 people on board were injured when the train jumped off the tracks at more than double the speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour).

In the Spanish derailment, the train driver was charged with homicide by professional recklessness. What exactly caused the Bad Aibling crash and whether human error played a role are still being investigated.

Watch video 02:23

Germany: train crash caused by human error?

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