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Germany's High-Speed Train Crashes in Test Run, Killing 23

The magnetic-levitation Transrapid rams into a maintenance cart left on the elevated tracks.

September 23, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — A high-speed magnetic train crashed into a maintenance cart during a test run Friday in northwestern Germany, killing at least 23 people and scattering wreckage over the elevated tracks.

The Transrapid train with 29 passengers was traveling 120 mph when it crashed into the maintenance vehicle carrying two workers, authorities said.

Police said some of the dead were either thrown from the train or trapped in the center car. Search dogs were brought to the scene as rescue crews used cranes and ladders to reach the victims.

The three-car train was about a mile out of the station in the forest near the town of Lathen and had not reached its full speed of 280 mph when the collision shattered the front car. Those on board were Transrapid employees and their relatives and friends. It was believed to be the first fatal crash involving a high-tech train.

"The maintenance cart is usually clear from the tracks when the train leaves. We don't know what was different this morning," said Manfred Manke, a local prosecutor.

Transrapid spokeswoman Claudia Hohmann told German television: "We have to find out how the accident happened.... At the moment we have more questions than answers."

Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the crash site. "I wanted to be here today to show that I share my feelings with the people here in the area," she said. "This may be a small contribution to show that many people take part in sorrow and grief."

The crash occurred at a crucial time for Germany's magnetic-levitation train industry. This month, the nation's largest steelmaker, ThyssenKrupp, threatened to move the train's technology and jobs to China if the German government failed to build a $2.37-billion high-speed rail line connecting Munich to its airport, about 29 miles northeast of the city center.

"We have to decide whether we're going to close the books in Germany for this technology," ThyssenKrupp Chief Executive Olaf Berlien said this month. The steelmaker, engineering group Siemens and the German rail company developed Transrapid in the late-1970s. "In 18 months ThyssenKrupp will decide whether the technology will go to China."

German officials have been skeptical about the success of such high-speed projects. The technology uses magnets to suspend a train over a monorail track, allowing it to glide at speeds as high as 280 mph. Escalating costs forced the German government in 2000 to abandon a long-distance line between Hamburg and Berlin. Since then, the industry has proposed shorter tracks, such as the 23-mile stretch proposed for Munich.

Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee was visiting China at the time of the accident. He returned to Germany. Transrapid's magnetic-levitation technology is only in commercial use in Shanghai.

Times staff writer Christian Retzlaff contributed to this report.

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