Lathen, Germany — A high-tech train that floats on powerful magnetic fields smashed into a maintenance car on an elevated test track Friday, 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 of up to 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 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.
The closed 20-mile 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.
American martial arts expert Ernest Lieb, 66, of Muskegon, Mich., was among the dead, his wife, Jennifer, told The Associated Press. She said he was in his native Germany to conduct a seminar on karate.
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 Friday'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 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.