Officials Probe Cause of Magnetic Train Wreck That Killed 23 in Germany

German prosecutors brought in technical experts Saturday to help them probe why a high-speed magnetic train crashed into a maintenance vehicle on a closed, elevated test track, killing 23 people.

The wreck of the Transrapid train sat atop its elevated guideway near Lathen in northwestern Germany as investigators gathered evidence before a visit and news conference by Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee.

The Transrapid uses maglev technology, short for magnetic levitation, in which the train skims over its guideway on powerful magnetic fields without touching a track. That cuts friction and enables speeds up to 270 mph.

Initial indications were that human error, not sophisticated maglev technology, was to blame for putting the maintenance vehicle on the track at the same time as the Transrapid train, prosecutors and company officials said.

The train was going about 125 mph with 29 people aboard when it struck the maintenance vehicle, hurling it up and into the roof and upper part of the train.

Police spokesman Ewald Temmen said prosecutors would go over the scene Saturday with technical experts while investigators sought to identify all the victims. They included American Ernest Lieb, 66, a martial arts expert from Muskegon, Mich., who was visiting his native Germany to conduct a seminar on karate.

Other victims have not been publicly identified. Officials said they included workers for utility RWE, Transrapid International, the company that makes the train, and a nursing service. The 20-mile track, operated by Munich-based IABG, is mainly used to show off maglev technology, but tourists are allowed to ride the train as well.

One IABG employee was killed, said local councilor Harmann Roering. "I know he has ridden it more than 50 times," Roering said. Another victim was a single mother of a 16-year-old daughter who was not aboard.

Roering said people in the region, where some 300 jobs depend on the maglev facility, were shaken by the tragedy. He underscored "how important the Transrapid project is for the region. There are many small and medium-sized businesses that have developed and their existence comes from the facility."

Maglev technology has been around for years, and Germany has been eager to export the Transrapid, whose maker is a joint company between industrial giants Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp. But the technology has not caught on even as high-speed train service has expanded using the conventional wheels-and-rails approach. Concerns have included the expense of building new lines.

The Chinese city of Shanghai has the world's only commercially operating maglev train. Officials in Germany are studying the possibility of a line between Munich and its airport. Japan has been experimenting for years with a maglev line that has clocked a record top speed of 361 mph.

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