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High-tech levitating train collision kills 23 in Germany

Maintenance car had not cleared from test track

LATHEN, Germany -- A high-tech train that floats on powerful magnetic fields smashed into a maintenance car on an elevated test track yesterday, killing 23 people, including at least one American -- the first fatalities on a maglev train.

Initial indications were that human error, not 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 miles per hour but can reach speeds of up to 270 miles per hour.

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 23 dead and 10 injured. Seats and other wreckage were left strewn beneath the track.

Martial arts teacher Ernest Lieb, 66, of Muskegon, Mich., was among the dead, his wife Jennifer said. He was in his native Germany to conduct a seminar on karate .

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.

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 miles per hour.

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 said 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.

Chancellor Angela Merkel left a public policy conference in Berlin and arrived at the scene by helicopter. Wearing black, she said thoughts were with the victims. ``I want to show that I am with them," she said.

Merkel declined to 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 said 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 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, in which 101 people died, involving a conventional high-speed train at Eschede in 1998.

Despite the accident, the Transrapid didn't actually derail.

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