At least 25 killed in magnetic train crash in Germany

Germany's prestigious Transrapid high-speed magnetic train ran into a maintenance wagon on a test track in the north-west of the country yesterday, killing up to 25 people and injuring 10 others in the worst accident in the vehicle's 35-year history.

Police said the Transrapid, which floats on a monorail using a magnetic levitation system, was travelling at 120mph when it crashed, catapulting many of the 29 passengers on board through the front panorama windows of the driverless train and causing two fires to break out immediately.

A police spokesman, Martin Ratermann, in Emsland, the district where the 30km (19-mile) test track is located, said late yesterday that the death toll rose to 25 after more searches in and around the train, which crashed about a kilometre from the station at the village of Melstrup.

Hermann Broering, a district councillor, said that 10 other passengers had been taken to hospital where they were being treated for their injuries, some of which were serious.

Television pictures of the scene showed fire crews struggling to enter smashed carriages that were balanced on a section of track raised some five metres off the ground.

Sections of the train's wreckage littered the area and ambulances were busy ferrying the injured to local hospitals in the surrounding area.

One eyewitness told Germany's N24 television channel that the train rammed the maintenance wagon, pushing it some 700 metres down the track before coming to a halt."As soon as the train stopped, fires broke out. The front of the train was completely destroyed," he said.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, left a conference in Berlin and arrived near 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.

She declined to talk about what effect the accident would have on Germany's maglev technology industry and whether it would affect plans for future lines. "Today we are in mourning," she said.

In May, Ms Merkel travelled to China to tout economic ties with the country, and went for a ride on the maglev train that links Shanghai's Pudong International Airport with the city's financial district.

Rudolf Schwarz, of the IABG company which runs the test track, said that human error appeared to have caused the crash.

"We are absolutely devastated by what has happened and we will be doing everything possible to find out exactly what caused the crash," said Mr Schwarz.

Some reports said the dead included relatives of the Transrapid test-track's employees who had been invited to go on a company-sponsored ride.

More than 250,000 passengers have used the train since it was set up as a tourist attraction and testing site in 1989.

The news of the crash prompted Wolfgang Tiefensee, the federal Transport Minister, to break off a visit to China.His ministry said he was " deeply concerned" and was making straight for the scene to console relatives of the dead and injured.

This was Germany's worst rail disaster since 1998, when 101 people died after an InterCityExpress derailed and smashed into a bridge near the northern town of Eschede in what remains the country's deadliest train crash.

The incident is expected to deal a serious blow to Germany's hopes of fully developing the Transrapid as a viable form of rail transport at home and as an export. The train, which is capable of record-breaking speeds above 280mph, only operates commercially in China where it provides the link between Shanghai airport and the city centre. Last month a fire broke out on one of the Shanghai trains, raising concerns for its safety.

Yesterday's crash will also have ramifications closer to home as the idea of introducing the high-speed "maglev" train to Britain has been championed vociferously by the Conservative Party. Last month, the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, while on a visit to Japan, warned that the UK was lagging behind other countries' high-technology transport links. He said: "Part of competing means having a transport system that was not built in the 19th century but is suitable to the age in which we're living."

Cliff Perry, of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, said: "The overall impression caused by maglev accidents at this stage is that of a technology which is still in its infancy, with some indications that its robustness is not yet fully proven."

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