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The Eschede train derailment

Sometimes even the safest technology is vulnerable to the not-so-perfect world around it. In the 34 years since the inauguration of high-speed rail, no line anywhere in the world had suffered a fatal accident. All that changed on June 3, 1998, on the Inter City Express line near Eschede in northern Germany, when a small improvement in comfort derailed this carefully managed system. High-speed trains generally run on solid “monobloc” metal wheels, but to dampen noise and vibration the Inter City Express (like many lower-speed light-rail systems) wrapped these in metal “tires” cushioned with rubber inserts. Inspectors examined the tires daily, but even ultrasound failed to detect a minute crack in one tire. It broke, causing a partial derailment. But the train continued upright and likely would have reached a safe stop if it hadn’t chanced to pass under an old-style roadway bridge that, unlike newer bridges, rested on a central pillar, which stood between the line’s two tracks. A swinging car clipped the pillar, and the bridge collapsed on the train, causing a massive pileup and 101 deaths. So it goes, all too often, when new, high-performance technology is inserted into older infrastructure built to operate with a greater margin of error. The high-speed train was a round peg in the square hole of an outdated rail corridor.

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