LATHEN, Germany – A high-tech train traveling at 125 mph crashed in northwestern Germany on Friday, killing at least 23 people in the first fatal wreck involving the magnetic levitation system.
The train, which runs primarily as a demonstration by its manufacturer, was carrying at least 29 people when it struck a maintenance vehicle carrying two workers on the elevated track. Mangled wreckage hung from the 13-foot-high track, with seats and other debris strewn below.
Police spokesman Martin Ratermann said the death toll rose to 23 after more searching was done in and around the train, which crashed about a half-mile from the station at the village Melstrup. Officials also reported 10 people were injured.
Magnetic-levitation trains use powerful magnets to float the trains just above the elevated track, allowing them to glide along without friction.
The 9:30 a.m. collision on a 20-mile track between Doerpen and Lathen near the Dutch border, shattered the front of the train, which came to rest still on its elevated guideway. Rescuers had to use fire ladders and cranes to reach the wreck.
The maintenance car was regularly used to check and clear the tracks of branches and other debris.
Rudolf Schwarz, a spokesman for IABG, which oversees the track, said the accident was the result of human error.
"At this time, the accident was not caused by a technical failure. It is the result of human error," he said.
The Transrapid train is made by Transrapid International, a joint company of Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp AG. The track is operated by Munich-based IABG mostly as an exhibition aimed at showing off Germany's advanced "maglev" technology, which has been led by ThyssenKrupp AG and Siemens AG.
Aboard the train were Transrapid employees, workers from a home nursing care company and people from local utility RWE. Klaus Schultebraucks, a spokesman for utility RWE Westfalen, confirmed several of the company's workers were aboard but he did not know how many nor if they survived.
"We only know a group of our employees were riding on the train," he said. "We don't have more information."
Schwarz said IABG was still getting the details of the accident.
"We're trying to get as many details as we can," he said, adding that the train, which can reach speeds of as much as 450 kph, or 270 mph, was going about 200 kph.
Tourists can sometimes ride the train for fun, but otherwise it is primarily used for selling Germany's maglev technology.
Kevin Coates, a former spokesman for Transrapid, said it was the first time that he was aware of a crash of a magnetic-levitation train.
"I have to believe that this is not a malfunction of the technology but a communications breakdown" between the operators and the maintenance personnel, he told the AP by telephone from Maryland, in the United States.
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.
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, Merkel traveled 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. The link covers 19 miles at up to 270 mph, and was built with ThyssenKrupp and Siemen's help.
The accident is another blow to hopes for the magnetic-levitation technology after a fire on the train in Shanghai last month.
The fire broke out in an electrical storage compartment aboard the maglev train as it was headed toward the city's international airport Aug. 11, generating large amounts of smoke but causing no injuries.
The technology has been around for years but so far has not caught on as conventional train networks have expanded steadily. Concerns include the amount of electricity the trains use at high speed and the precision with which the tracks must be built.
Officials are studying the possibility of a line between Munich and the city's airport.