The two U.S. servicewomen killed by a train Saturday were among the many hundreds of people in Germany killed or injured every year on the railroad tracks — and among only five U.S. Army Europe soldiers killed on the tracks in the past five years.

Spc. Latosha Vines and Pfc. Lena Karungi were killed Saturday when, needing to go to the bathroom, they walked a few steps from the train station parking lot east of Heidelberg and ducked behind some bushes against the tracks.

The two were hit by a regional train that one witness said he neither saw nor heard coming. The train was traveling at about 62 mph when it hit the women, according to the U.S. Army Europe Safety Office.

The train driver told authorities he saw the women and tried to stop. But trains don’t stop quickly. “And the more cars they’re carrying, the longer it takes them to stop,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Mike Nadeau, USAREUR chief aviation safety officer.

By the end of August, 52 people in Germany had been killed accidentally by a train, according to the Deutsche Bahn, the German railway system. Last year, 72 people died after being hit by a train.

A far greater number of deaths on the railways were intentional and classified as suicides, according to German authorities. So far this year, 418 suicides by train have been recorded; 710 were recorded last year, Deutsche Bahn officials said.

In 2003, the most recent year with complete statistics, 813 train accidents — including derailments, collisions with other trains, collisions with cars at crossings and with people on the tracks — left 173 dead and 935 injured, according to the German Federal Statistical Office.

Of the dead, 23 were passengers and 16 were train system workers. But the majority — 134 — were neither. They were “bystanders.” Many of those — 50 — were killed at railroad crossings, the single most frequent place for a train accident, according to the statistics.

German authorities said accidental deaths and injuries from trains are decreasing.

“We suppose because of better technical equipment,” said Lothar Fiege at the statistical bureau in Wiesbaden.

Crossings, especially, had been improved in recent years, Fiege said, with better markings and electronic gates — and in many cases had been eliminated. “Many crossings were changed to bridges,” he said.

As a result, the 335 accidents at crossings in 1991 were reduced to 294 in 1998 and 187 in 2003.

Within U.S. Army Europe, there have been five train accidents and five fatalities involving soldiers since 2001, according to the USAREUR Safety Office. Nadeau said the small number of soldiers, compared with the much higher number of Germans, killed on the tracks might be partly a result of an emphasis the commands have placed on safety around trains.

In addition to Vines and Karungi, two other soldiers — one in March and one in November 2002 — were killed while either sitting or walking on the tracks. The March death was in Italy; the others happened in Germany, Nadeau said.

Two soldiers fell victim to electrical lines overhead as they worked loading equipment onto railcars. In June 2005, a soldier climbed onto an M3 Bradley on a rail car and was electrocuted. In April 2003, another soldier was permanently disabled from a severe electrical shock while checking a Bradley loaded on a railcar.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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