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Germany: Train Disaster Deals Blow To High Speed Travel

Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Europe's high speed trains are meant to rival air travel for those in a hurry to reach their destinations.

Speed is their big selling point. Increasingly in recent years they have managed to bring an aura of glamour back to the railways in a number of countries. Now, however, there is an extra point of comparison between air and rail travel -- namely that when a train traveling almost as fast as a plane crashes, the results are equally horrific.

The full extent of Wednesday's disaster at the German village of Eschede, near Hannover, is still not clear. Rescuers were seeking more bodies amid the wreckage of the carriages which left the rails at 200 kilometers per hour and hit a concrete overpass. It's certain that more than 90 people have died in what is Germany's worst rail crash of the post-war era.

Significantly, this is also the world's first serious accident involving a high speed train, and thus will deal a blow to confidence in this form of travel. No-one knows the cause of the crash. One theory is that a rail maintenance worker's car was parked too close to the side of the track, and as the train passed, the vehicle was sucked forward into the path of the train. That could explain why the locomotive sped along safely while the carriages behind were derailed.

Harassed spokesmen at the Frankfurt press office of Deutschebahn, the train's operators, would say only that the cause of the crash is under investigation. The European rail community drew together in sorrow and shock, and remained tight lipped about the implications of the crash for confidence in their own high-speed systems. A spokeswoman (Dominique Martin) for France's national SNCF rail network expressed the mood of the moment:

"We don't make any comment. Okay. Except that we are very, so very sorry concerning what happened yesterday. And that's all".

France is the Europe's biggest operator of high speed trains, having more than 300 TGVs, as they are called, which travel at speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. It's proud of its safety record since 1981 of having run millions of kilometers without serious accident. But the spokeswoman refused categorically to discuss safety issues. The rail operators know that the sustained revival in the fortunes of the rail networks depends on strong public acceptance of high-speed travel.

Will the horror of Eschede deter rail customers? In London, British rail engineering expert Bernard Gambrill noted the high safety record of rail travel in general when compared with road or air travel. But he acknowledged that the effects of Eschede are difficult to foresee:

"Clearly people form their own judgment based on the cause of the crash, and we just do not know the cause as yet. The German rail authorities and the civil authorities will be investigating the causes of the accident, and it very much depends on the cause as to what people think of the safety or otherwise of high-speed rail travel".

Gambrill noted that the German trains are not so fast in operation as those in neighboring countries, normally traveling at 250 kilometers an hour or less, depending on the category of the track.

"Deutschebahn AG will tell you of the two types of rail networks for high speed trains. One is the NBS, the 'neubaustrecke', which is the new line which has been especially built. The second line is the ABS, the 'ausbaustrecke' which is the modification of the existing line to accept high speed trains".

It's not clear if there is any significance in the fact, but the stretch of line where the Eschede accident occurred is composed of the old, upgraded rails.