German prosecutors are examining recordings of railway radio communications today, following the horrific high-speed train crash that killed 23 people.
A hi-tech train that floated on powerful magnetic fields smashed into a maintenance car on an elevated test track – the first fatal accident on a maglev train.
Initial indications were that human error, not sophisticated maglev technology, was to blame for putting the maintenance vehicle on the track at the same time as the Transrapid train.
The train was moving at 125mph at the time of yesterday’s accident but can reach speeds of up to 270mph.
The speeding train’s low nose scooped up the maintenance car, hurling it against the front and along the roof of the sleek, advanced train. Rescuers had to climb fire ladders and use cranes to reach the 13ft track to clear debris and retrieve the 23 dead and 10 injured. Seats and other wreckage were left strewn beneath the track.
Maglev trains – short for magnetic levitation – use powerful magnets that allow the train to skim along its guideway without touching it, reducing friction and increasing speeds. The Transrapid, which floats about half an inch on a cushion of magnetism, was made by Transrapid International, a joint venture between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp.
The closed 20-mile track, built in 1985 near the north-western towns of Doerpen and Kathen, consists of two loops connected by a long straight section. It is operated by Munich-based IABG mostly as an exhibition aimed at showing off Germany’s maglev technology.
Aboard the train that crashed were Transrapid employees, workers from a nursing care company and people from local utility RWE.
The Chinese city of Shanghai has the world’s only commercially operating maglev train. Officials in Germany are studying the possibility of a line between Munich and its airport. Japan has been experimenting for years with a maglev line that has clocked a record top speed of 361 mph.
The maintenance car, which had two workers aboard, was used to check the tracks and clear them of branches and other debris. IABG employees told The Associated Press the track’s control centre had to get an all-clear that the maintenance vehicle was out of the way before starting the train.
Rudolf Schwarz, a spokesman for IABG, said: “At this time, the accident was not caused by a technical failure. It is the result of human error.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned a public policy conference in Berlin and arrived at the scene by helicopter. Wearing black, she said her thoughts were with the victims.
Merkel would not talk about what effect the accident would have on Germany’s maglev technology industry, which she worked to promote during a trip to China in May. While there, she rode the maglev train that links Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport with the city’s financial district.
But she added that “at this point I don’t see any connection with the technology. The technology is a very, very safe technology”.
Ekkehard Schulz, the chief executive of ThyssenKrupp, agreed. “I remain convinced that this is a safe travel technology,” he told broadcaster ZDF.
Maglev supporters say the trains are nearly impossible to derail because they wrap around the guideway and have no wheels.