A spokesman said that all 60 Inter City Express (ICE) trains were being taken out of action immediately. The train that careened out of control on Wednesday morning in the northern German town of Eschede was part of the fleet of first-generation ICE trains that began operation in 1991.
Officials are still at a loss to explain what caused the train to crash, derailing and slamming into a concrete overpass, killing at least 100 people. However, it emerged yesterday that some of the carriages on the train came off the track and were dragged for miles before ploughing into the road bridge.
A spokeswoman for the federal transport ministry said that a broken wheel on the first car behind the lead locomotive may have been a factor. She did not elaborate.
Regional government officials confirmed that federal railway experts had found evidence of one of the coaches slipping off the track four miles before the train reached the bridge. It appears that it was dragged along the rail bed until the train went over points shortly before the road crossing at Eschede. The wheels then jumped the track and uncoupled the car from the train. This might explain why the engine cab found itself free of its passenger load - and how the driver escaped unscathed.
Industry observers pointed out that survivors of the crash remembered hearing a jolt minutes before the carriages crumpled in the ensuing impact.
"These trains travel at hundreds of miles an hour, so you cover miles in minutes. The noise people apparently heard could have been wheels coming off the track," said Mel Holley, deputy editor of Rail magazine.
The theory that the express jumped off the tracks after hitting a car which had plunged into its path has already been discounted. This is in part because the ICE's safety system can detect objects on the track and brake as necessary.
National pride is at stake with the ICE network. Some French newspapers have already reminded readers of the untarnished safety record of the high-speed Train a Grand Vitesse (TGV) network.
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