Simple fault caused 102-death train crash

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THE death toll in Germany's worst train disaster since the Second World War rose to 102 yesterday as rescue crews discovered yet more corpses buried a yard deep in the sandbank along the tracks.

It was thought late on Friday night that the gruesome job of searching for bodies had been completed, but as the cranes drag away the debris of the train, more are being revealed. Two railway workers who were by the track on Wednesday when the Inter City Express (ICE) train ploughed into the bridge at Eschede have still not been found.

For relatives crammed into the sports hall of the village in north Germany, the special counsellors can offer little comfort. About 20 of the victims have been identified, but most of the rest are mangled so badly that it may be weeks before they can be named. Their family and friends must wait in the hope that their missing loved ones may still turn up somewhere else.

"We don't want any relatives to have to go from body to body, because it's unbearable. It's arms and legs and heads. It's awful," said Christian Jung, a spokesman for the Hanover medical school hospital.

But other questions are being answered. There was no car on the tracks, as suspected on Wednesday, and sabotage has also been ruled out. The accident was caused by the fracture of a metallic rim encasing one of the wheels. That such a simple fault could wreak so much havoc has come as a shock to safety-conscious Germans.

The most disturbing aspect about the Eschede tragedy is that there was nothing freakish about the sequence of events that led to the death of more than 100 people. A broken wheel was bound, by the laws of physics, to slip off at the points, as it did on the approach to Eschede station. There was little clearance between the train and the pillars supporting the road bridge that connects the houses on the two sides of the tracks. And the pillars had been built for slower trains, and not designed to withstand an impact at 125mph. At the moment the jutting-out carriage connected with the bridge, the passengers were doomed.

Whatever faults lay with the train, they were not revealed by a routine service on the eve of its last journey. The 59 surviving trains of the first-generation ICEs were hurriedly dispatched to the workshops, but no further cracks have been found.

The German media have been shocked by revelations that, while the high- tech ICE trains have elaborate sensors for detecting overflowing toilets and malfunctioning air conditioning systems, there is nothing to alert the driver about a derailment, let alone a broken wheel. German Railways yesterday announced that such a detection system would now be fitted.

Officials insist that once checks are completed, the trains will be allowed to resume their journeys at speeds in excess of 125mph, on tracks built for half that.