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Western Press Review: Catastrophic Train Crash Calls For Analysis

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba/Esther Pan/Lisa Kammerud

Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- German and other West European commentators and analysts are focusing much of their attention on yesterday's catastrophic crash of a high-speed train in northwestern Germany. The tangled wreck of the Wilhelm Conrad Ruettgen ICE (Inter-City Express) has so far yielded over 80 dead, but more are assumed not to have survived the impact of an apparent train derailment at 200 kilometers per hour, and many other passengers were seriously injured. With Germany in mourning today, commentary is somber while at same time asking why the accident occurred.

DIE WELT: The circumstances of the tragedy must be closely examined

The daily Die Welt says that, "first of all, our attention and sympathy should go to the families and friends of the dead and the seriously wounded victims." The paper writes in an editorial: "Amid the general dismay, we should not forget that the circumstances of the tragedy must be closely examined. First reports say a car fell (from an overpass) onto the track of the high-speed train, that the train hit the vehicle and derailed." The paper then asks: "How could the car have broken through the (overpass') side barriers to hit the bridge? How unusual must the driving conditions have been to make such a result possible? Was it in fact a car accident that led to the disaster or was there another, entirely different reason for the crash?" It concludes: "The next several days will doubtless bring answers to these questions. And then it will have to be shown why the high-speed train tracks, on which the conductor had practically no warning, must not be better protected in the future."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: This terrible event might turn into a catastrophe for the whole German train system

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung also asks questions in its editorial: "Why did the train-derail and hit the overpass' supporting columns? Did work on the tracks have anything to do with the accident? Or perhaps --a chilling thought-- was there sabotage involved?" The paper continues: "These are questions that were impossible to answer on Wednesday. It is therefore too early to assign guilt and responsibility. If, however, the cause of the disaster had something to do with the construction of the train or the tracks, then this terrible event will turn into a catastrophe for the (whole German) train system. Eschede, the town near where the crash occurred) is bad enough. It would be even worse if the fear of such an accident drove more people to use their cars for long trips."

TAGESSPIEGEL: The train was safer than other means of transportation. No one thinks that anymore

Der Tagesspiegel, published in Berlin, says "it would have been a good week in Berlin if the number one topic of conversation were only a train delay. But," the paper writes in its comment, "as of yesterday it suddenly seems quite trivial if a train is a half-hour, one hour or two hours late at the station. What matters is: it arrives. The Wilhelm Conrad Ruettgen never arrived." The comment continues: "At the Hamburg main station and in (nearby) Altona, spouses and friends waited in vain. A technical system in daily use for the past six years, whose trains covered half a million kilometers annually and traveled well under their maximum possible speed, had a serious crash....Even before the invention of the ICE, the train's route (from Munich to Hamburg) had for long been a north-south racetrack....Countless trains have traveled it. It was (said to be) safer than other means of transportation. No one thinks that anymore."

BREMER NACHRICHTEN: The causes must be quickly and objectively revealed

The daily Bremer Nachrichten writes in its editorial: "The accident occurred on a very safe means of transportation: the high-tech ICE, the pride of the nation's train system and one of Germany's technological stand-outs. Either it was human error, or 'unknown' circumstances --like the first report of a car on the overpass-- or a technical failure, or 'only' a whole series of unlucky occurrences that led to the terrible catastrophe." The paper concludes: "The causes must be quickly and objectively revealed. And if it appears that the modern ICE system itself was not at fault, then the rest of the train system must bear the consequences."

EL MUNDO: Precautions must be greatly increased

Spain's El Mundo notes in its editorial that "the ICE engine, made by (the German company) Siemens, is the same used by the Spanish AVE (high-speed train)." The paper writes: "There are many hypotheses that might explain the disaster --excessive speed, poor condition of the rails, some obstacle on the track. But the magnitude of the event can only be understood as a combination of chance or fatality with high technology." El Mundo's editorial goes on: "A conventional train, which travels far slower, might also derail, but the consequences would be much less serious. Traveling at 200 km/hour in a train saves a tremendous amount of time but also increases exponentially the consequences of an accident. The one in Eschede, carries a lesson: precautions must be greatly increased."

LE PARISIEN: The ICE does not benefit from certain classic technological supports

Several French dailies comment on the train accident, a few noting that France's high-speed trains use a different system than Germany's. In a commentary in the mass-circulation Le Parisien daily, Jean Darriulat calls the ICE "a swift and luxurious" train. But he also remarks that "the ICE does not, however, benefit from certain classic technological supports, notably those for the couplings between train cars --an essential element for 'sticking to the track' in a high-speed train." The commentary continues: France's "TGV, (for train de grande vitesse - high-speed train), put in service in 1981, 10 years before the German ICE, is totally revolutionary, which has given it a quasi-monopoly in international markets. Spain, the United States, Canada and South Korea have adopted, or will adopt, the TGV....The cars on the French train are in effect suspended between roll-over bars that constitute a veritable spinal cord." Darriulat recalls a 1988 TGV accident, when a truck stalled on the tracks was hit by a train traveling at 110 km/hour. Although the conductor and a passenger were killed, he says, the train did not derail or collapse, as did Germany's ICE yesterday.

LIBERATION: It's a heavy blow for the Deutsche Bahn

In a news analysis for the daily Liberation, Pascal Thibaut says that "Eschede will down in history as the most serious rail catastrophe in postwar Germany." He writes: "The catastrophe that overtook the ICE (Wilhelm) Conrad Ruettgen is the first serious accident for the high-speed German trains put into service in 1991. It's a heavy blow for the Deutsche Bahn (German rail system). The ICE is its prestige train, representing 30 percent of its overall business." The analysis also points that the car found at the accident site "belonged to the Deutsche Bahn and almost certainly fell after the collapse of the overpass, beneath which work linked to the signal system had been going on."