German maglev crash kills 23

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Joerg Sarbach, Associated PressWreckage of a high-speed magnetic train is lifted from the elevated tracks in Lathen, northwestern Germany, yesterday after it hit a maintenance vehicle and went off the tracks, killing 23 people. Firefighters were using ladders to reach the injured at the accident site.

A high-tech train that floats on powerful magnetic fields smashed into a maintenance car on an elevated test track yesterday, killing 23 people and injuring 10 -- the first fatalities 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 125 mph but can reach speeds as fast as 270 mph.

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 13-foot-high track to clear debris and retrieve the dead and 10 injured. At least one American was killed. 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 AG and ThyssenKrupp AG.

Monroeville-based Maglev Inc. has Transrapid as its partner to supply the technology for a long-discussed, 54-mile system that would reach a speed of 240 mph on a route connecting Pittsburgh International Airport, Downtown, Monroeville and Greensburg. It is a candidate for $950 million in federal demonstration funds, but the Bush administration has been in no hurry to proceed.

Maglev, state and local officials and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have visited Germany and ridden on the test track where yesterday's crash occurred.

The closed 20-mile German track, built in 1985 near the northwestern towns of Doerpen and Kathen, consists of two loops connected by a long straightaway. 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.

German prosecutors seized records of the radio communications on the train line and were examining yesterday's crash.

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 that the track's control center must get an all-clear that the maintenance vehicle is out of the way before starting the train. They spoke anonymously because they were not permitted to talk publicly about the information.

IABG spokesman Rudolf Schwarz said: "At this time, the accident was not caused by a technical failure. It is the result of human error," he said.

Germany's 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. "I want to show that I am with them," she said.

Ms. Merkel declined to discuss what impact the accident would have on Germany's maglev industry, which she worked to promote on 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: "At this point, I don't see any connection with the technology. The technology is a very, very safe technology."

Ekkehard Schulz, chief executive of ThyssenKrupp, agreed. "I remain convinced that this is a safe travel technology," he told broadcaster ZDF.

Maglev supporters contend that the trains are nearly impossible to derail because they wrap around the guideway and have no wheels. A broken wheel was blamed for Germany's worst train accident, involving a conventional high-speed train, at Eschede in 1998 in which 101 people died.

Despite the accident, the Transrapid didn't actually derail, but, it came to rest on the track itself.

Monroeville's Maglev Inc. calls its proposal the "Pennsylvania Project," which is vying for federal demonstration funds against proposed lines linking Baltimore with Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas with Los Angeles.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has been providing some matching funds for years so the local group can get federal planning money. The Port Authority of Allegheny County is a local sponsor, albeit as a "pass-through" agency, with no financial participation of its own.

The Pennsylvania Project has been languishing for several years in the environmental assessment process' final steps.

The magnetic levitation concept dates to the 1890s, when a French-born American, Emile Bachelet, conceived it and worked for 20 years to apply it to a train.

Post-Gazette staff writer Joe Grata contributed to this report.


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