Experimental train crashes in test

Stephen Beard Sep 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: In Germany today at least 25 people were killed in a train crash. It wasn’t your average locomotive, though. A high-speed train crashed on a test run at more than 100 mph. It’s the first fatal wreck involving the expensive new mag-lev technology. From the Marketplace European Desk in London, Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: The driverless train — called “Transrapid”— was doing 125 mph when it hit a maintenance vehicle on the elevated monorail track. Twenty one passengers died and 10 more were trapped inside the carriages.

The train uses magnetic levitation. Lifted by powerful magnets, it floats above the track. Unhindered by friction it’s capable of speeds up to 280 mph. An accident was almost inevitable, says mechanical engineer Cliff Perry:

CLIFF PERRY: Innovation and speed together carry risk. And in this case, a tragic mix of an infant technology and some speed.

The two German companies that developed Transrapid, Siemens and Thyssen-Krupp, will have to go back to the drawing board. They may decide the train needs a driver or extra electronics to monitor obstacles on the line.

Transrapid already costs $62 million a mile. Rail expert Christian Wolmar says it’s going to get a lot more expensive:

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR: I think this is a major setback for a technology that has not yet been proved, and which shows that it might be even more costly than it was thought previously.

Another problem is the train’s monorail is supported by concrete stilts more than 16 feet above the ground. German rescuers said that made their job more difficult today.

The only Transrapid trains in commercial use are in Shanghai. Last month there was a fire on board one of those trains, which had already raised safety concerns.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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