Mistakes discovered after German train crash
24 September 2006, BERLIN - Prosecutors investigating how a futuristic test train crashed in Germany and killed 23 people said Saturday they were studying why control-room personnel failed to notice that a maintenance vehicle was still out on the high-speed track. The computerized train, which hovers on a cushion of magnetism, slammed Friday into a wheeled vehicle that trundles along the track every morning to check for fallen branches and other debris. Prosecutor Alexander Retemeyer said near the crash si
24 September 2006
BERLIN - Prosecutors investigating how a futuristic test train crashed in Germany and killed 23 people said Saturday they were studying why control-room personnel failed to notice that a maintenance vehicle was still out on the high-speed track.
The computerized train, which hovers on a cushion of magnetism, slammed Friday into a wheeled vehicle that trundles along the track every morning to check for fallen branches and other debris.
Prosecutor Alexander Retemeyer said near the crash site at Lathen in north-west Germany that two control-room staff should have checked by sight that the maintenance vehicle had returned to a siding before letting the magnetic-levitation (maglev) train depart.
The siding was visible from the room. The control room also had a log and a global positioning system (GPS) receiver that correctly located the maintenance vehicle's precise position at the time.
"With that information available, the train should never have been allowed to depart," said Retemeyer. "The staff in the control room are personally responsible if any vehicle is on the track."
The two staff had not yet been interviewed Saturday, he added, stressing it was too soon to say if they were to blame.
"We need all the facts before we can say who is responsible," he said.
The three-car TR08 prototype, which has carried half a million visitors since it was built in 1999, was being driven remotely from the control room at a calculated 179 kilometres per hour just before the collision.
It had a crew of five on board - two drivers at the front, one at the rear and two engineering staff - as well as 26 visitors. One of the front drivers seized manual control and applied the brakes, but too late to prevent the collision.
Rudolf Schwarz, chief executive of operating company IABG, voiced astonishment that they had not been watching: "You can see two to three kilometres ahead. We don't know why the emergency braking happened so late." Both front drivers were among those killed.
Apart from two US nationals, most of the visitors killed were from two German towns, Nordhorn and Papenburg.
The shattered TR08 was the third train to be tested on the 31.8-kilometre closed-loop track since 1984. The 60-ton maintenance vehicle it hit is not magnet powered, but has a diesel engine and runs on rubber wheels on the maglev's guide rails.
"We have to assume there was not much technological protection on the line," said Retemeyer.
The force of impact was so great that the Transrapid, which weighed about 150 tons, shoved the maintenance vehicle about 500 metres down the track. Flying debris sheared the crowns off nearby trees.
Of the 10 people who survived the first major disaster in the new technology's history, none were in critical condition on Saturday.
Two German companies, Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, have vainly tried for three decades to find a buyer for the new-style trains, which have a top speed of 450 kilometres an hour, but the enormous expense compared to trains on wheels has deterred most buyers.
The world's only commercial track, a 30-kilometre shuttle from Shanghai city to its airport, was built with German government subsidies. That service continued its operations as normal Saturday.
Christian Wulff, premier of the German state of Lower Saxony where the crash occurred, said the collision could not have happened on commercial maglev lines, because these would always have automated safety systems.
"If anything were on the track, a commercially operated train would be automatically halted," said Wulff in an interview. "This safety feature was not installed on the test line." He said he believed the overall maglev technology was a safe one.
German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, who rushed home Saturday from China where he had discussed a maglev sale and other issues, said at the scene, "There will be a thorough inquiry."
After suggestions that the crash might spell the end of maglevs, much as the 1937 Hindenburg disaster with 36 deaths ended the age of airships, Tiefensee warned that it was too early to draw conclusions about the commercial future of the technology.
The senior planner of the Shanghai track viewed the crash site Saturday, IABG's Schwarz said, adding, "Commander Wu was given first-hand information to make absolutely sure nothing like this ever happens there."
Relatives of the dead burst into tears Saturday as they were allowed to view the crash site.
It was Germany's deadliest railway crash since a high-speed Inter City Express passenger train crashed into a bridge support in the town of Enschede in 1998, killing 101 people in the nation's worst train wreck.
Subject: German news