Lathen (pronounced like “Lateen”) is a town of 6711 people (as of the 31st of December 2019) in the far northwest of Germany, 100km/62mi west-southwest of Bremen and just 15km/9.3mi east of the Dutch border near Emmen (both distances measured in linear distance). Sitting on the eastern edge of the town is the TVE (“Transrapid Versuchsanlage Emsland”/Emsland Transrapid Testing facility), a testing-facility for German maglev trains with a 31km/19mi test track.
Constructed between 1980 and 1987 the facility holds a workshop, control room, garage and small station with a visitor’s center. The test track consists of a 12km/7.5mi long straight running south-north and a turnaround on either end with a radius of 1000m/3280ft in the south and 1690m/5545ft in the north banked at 12°. A set of points on each end of the straight lets the trains navigate the turnaround, another set of points forms the turn-off into the workshop/garage at the main facility. Typical for a maglev train the track is elevated off the ground, sitting on 4m/13ft high supports.
The vehicles involved
In 1970 the “Transrapid 01” debuted as the first magnetic levitation (“Maglev”) train developed in Germany. The short, boxy vehicle never left the workshop, only being used to try the concept on a 6m/20ft long indoor track.
With the second generation making it onto an actual outdoors track and the third being a short, failed detour into hovercraft-territory the Transrapid 04 followed in 1973. Still not carrying passengers the streamlined, futuristic vehicle reached 253kph/157mph) in 1977. 2 Years later the fifth generation first carried passengers, although only at 75kph/47mph on a temporary track during the 1979 International Transport Exhibition. In 1988 the Transrapid 07 reached 450kph/280mph and was the first one to be seriously considered for a public maglev train network in Germany.
In 1999 the Transrapid 08 debuted, with a commercial use seen as certain it wore a DB (German national Railway) livery when it was presented, looking like a futuristic ICE (Germany’s high speed train). The three part train, capable of autonomous operation, hosted space for 311 passengers if fully furnished (the trains at the TVE had the rear section used for sensors, computers and data-logging) at 78m/256ft long and weighted 149.5 metric tons. It reached 501kph/311.3mph in testing while rides with visitors were limited to 450kph/280mph. It was praised for it’s strong acceleration, reaching 300 kph/186.4mph in 98 seconds. There were no safety-concerns, maglev trains cannot collide as two trains in one section are forced by the magnetic field to move the same speed in the same direction and if a red signal would be run (cutting power) the train would slide to a stop on the beam. The public had been offered tickets to ride the train on selected testing-runs for years, 1000 people visiting the facility each day proved both the success of the offer and the positive image of the Transrapid. Each trip took ten minutes and would cost 18€/22USD.
To clear snow or debris off the tracks and for various maintenance-work the TVE also owned a purpose-built diesel powered maintenance car which ran on truck tires on top and alongside the track. The vehicle weighted 60 metric tons at 10m/33ft long and featured a driver’s cab on one end and a container/shed holding the engine on the other, with a large flatbed storage area in the middle. Every morning before the first Transrapid was dispatched the maintenance-car would be taken around the track by two employees for cleaning and checks.
In the early morning of the 22nd of September 2006 31 people assemble in the visitor center of the facility, booked on the day’s first run. The day’s passengers are there on an invitation by the company operating the facility, meaning they will ride for free. The group consists of 7 employees of the company, 13 employees of a supplier, 9 employees of a local elderly care service and an uninvolved couple invited by an employee. At approximately 9am the Transrapid is ready for boarding and the passengers, along with the train’s crew, board the train. Two employees go into the rear section with the testing equipment while one takes a seat in the nose of the train, in front of the passengers. Sitting upfront on the day of the accident is a crew member named Andreas K. He’s an experienced employee, who has trained other drivers and crews.
The train is scheduled to depart at 9:40am, as usual the first lap of the day would be limited to just 170kph/106mph. This is done to take measurements of the track, see if it shifted. Andreas is not really driving, he does little more than push a button when cleared to depart.
At 9:30am the maintenance car finishes it’s lap of the track and stops at column 120, radioing the dispatch center for permission to operate the set of points to turn off the main track into the storage shed. They receive no reply. The employees stay in the driver’s cab on the northern end of the car, expecting a reply any minute while Mr. Schubsky, named “Mister Transrapid” by locals, stands at the forward end of the passenger cabin and explains a few things about the futuristic technology they’re about to experience. He likes to point out how the train is technically flying rather than driving, refers to the run as “flying at 0 feet”.
At 9:43am the Transrapid begins to move at slow speed, stopping after a few meters in a successful brake test. Now it sits at the station waiting for clearance to depart on it’s journey. 9 minutes later one of the dispatchers feeds power to the track outside the station, and his colleague radios the Transrapid with the permission to depart.
At 9:52:20 the Transrapid departs the station with a gentle jolt and quickly accelerates, making collision unavoidable.
57 seconds later someone triggers an emergency stop, 25m/82ft further down the track the train slams into the stationary maintenance car at 162kph/101mph. The impact is heard in Lathen itself, 2km/1.2 miles away. Andreas is killed on impact as the lightweight train digs itself under maintenance car, causing the roof to be peeled off the forward section as the wheel sets compress the walls. Due to the speed of the train the maintenance car is shoved back 300m/985feet, ending up entirely on top of the Transrapid’s forward section with the latter’s interior compressed under or in front of the 60 metric ton chunk of metal. A long hissing noise follows the impact as the wreckage grinds to a stop.
Seconds after the accident one of the dispatchers can be heard asking what happened, his colleague sums it up: “We forgot to move the maintenance car.” The crew members in the back of the train are barely injured, a minute after the accident one of them radios dispatch. “There was an accident. Send help.” Dispatch obliges, alarms the facility’s fire department. Around the same time Mr. Hegge, voluntary firefighter, is headed to the grocery store with his mother. He hears a bang and sees smoke rise up behind some trees. After dropping off his mother he heads to the origin of the smoke. He compares what he saw to a plane crashing onto a giant shelf. The train is torn apart almost to the end of the leading unit, parts of torn metal and destroyed interior dressings have fallen off the elevated track. A smell of burned rubber fills the air, sparks emit from the wreckage. He fears an explosion could kill survivors aboard the smoking, heavily damaged train, and he can see people moving inside the train, trying to punch or kick out windows. But he cannot reach the train. He calls the fire department, his descriptions trigger the needed large-scale response. Up above him the two employees on the maintenance car regain consciousness, moving to the driver’s cabin saved their life. They hear banging on the underside of their wrecked vehicle, after unscrewing the floorboards they manage to pull 3 survivors from the forward section of the Transrapid. The employees in the rear of the train use emergency slides to escape, similar to those found on aircraft, 15 minutes after the collision firefighters, ambulances and a crane reach the scene.
In minutes 200 responders have reached the scene, while medical personell and firefighters start cutting up the wreckage and trying to pull out survivors along with victims the police does their best to keep relatives and random civilians from the wreckage, directing the former to the visitor center where they give briefings every 30 minutes. The victims are lined up on the beam, photographed for identification and then lowered to the ground. By the early afternoon the last ambulances leave, all survivors have been recovered. The chief superintendent (“Kriminalhauptkommissar”) of the Osnabrück Police Department assembles all relatives he can find at the visitor center and reads off a lists. It’s the survivors, anyone not on that list is dead. Some relatives scream and cry, others just quietly sit down. The fire department brought chaplains to take care of the relatives, help handle the shock.
23 people are dead, including 2 crew members.
Among them Mr. Schubsky, six employees from the elderly care service and the invited couple, leaving their 4 children orphaned.
8 passengers escape the train with injuries, as do the two people on the maintenance car.
At 6:30pm Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, arrives at the site. She talks to one of the firemen, both can be seen fighting against tears. She leaves the site soon after, not wanting to be in the way of the experts. The wreckage is illuminated with floodlights while relatives brought candles and flowers to a makeshift memorial on the edge of the barriers set up a short distance away from the site.
The blame is quickly placed on the two dispatchers, both are arrested the day after the accident. Their negligence, forgetting about the maintenance car, killed 2 dozen people and injured nearly a dozen more, most of which severely. After interrogations and evaluations both are placed in protective custody, as they are seen to be at a high risk of suicide. Charges are also filed against their supervisors as well as the CEOs of the facility. Had Mr. Schubsky survived the collision he would have found himself charged as well, since he departed despite technically being easily within sight of the maintenance car. The order alone from the dispatch center does not start the train, pressing the button to start is still at the discretion of the crew member in the front of the train.
Four days after the accident Bishop Franz-Josef Bode holds a memorial service at the local church, attended by 1500 people. He reads from a letter addressed to Mr. Schubsky, written by his daughter. He talks about he and the chaplains on site were asked where god was that day, how he could let that happen. He admits, there is no good answer. He does not spell it out, but essentially going to the limits of new technology always holds a risk, human error cannot be eliminated. Later that day a recording from the service is aired on television, with lots of people tuning in.
The day after the service the papers are full of messages to the victims, the tragedy shook the small town to the core.
Most of the wreckage of the train sits on the track until November 2006, police patrols try to keep tragedy tourists away from it, before it’s removed on flatbed trucks.
The investigation finds several flaws in the operation. Mr. Schubsky couldn’t communicate with the maintenance car as the train and the maintenance car used separate radio systems, an electronic safety-mechanism that avoids power being given to the section occupied by the maintenance car wasn’t used (presumably) to save time.
In May 2008 the two supervisors were sentenced to pay 24 and 20 thousand Euros respectively (29 and 24 thousand USD). They are found guilty as they discouraged the use of the electronic safety-mechanism that would have kept the Transrapid from reaching the maintenance car. The trial against the two dispatchers is put on hold, their mental health has deteriorated to the point of not being fit for trial anymore. They’re eventually sentenced in June 2011, receiving suspended jail sentences of 18 and 12 months respectively.
While the facility loses the public transportation permits after the accident some testing restarts in July 2008. In May 2009 the newly arrived Transrapid 09 is allowed to take passengers around the course, but no longer from the general public.
The site today
Usage of the site ends in 2010, in late November 2011 the last 60 employees are let go. The accident did serious damage to the image of the Transrapid, except for one line in China none of the proposed routes ever materialized. The track is meant to be removed, the rest of the facility is meant to be reused.
Regardless the track still sits abandoned in 2020 as discussions about who pays how much for the removal continue. Already, the project cost 1.4 billion Euros/1.7 billion USD with nothing to really show for it. A revival is impossible, the electrical systems have been removed from the tracks already. The discussion-point are the 16m/52ft deep footers.
The facility itself lies relatively untouched, along with the official memorial next to it. The forward section of Transrapid 08 is scrapped after the accident, the center section is stored at an unknown location and the rear sits at the facility, inaccessible for the public.
The forward part of Transrapid 07, the part that was on display at Munich Airport, sits in the yard of the facility. While the outside shows severe signs of abandonment the interior is reported to still be pristine.
In 2017 Transrapid 09, made for a route in Munich that was cancelled the same year the train was built, is bought by relatives of the system’s inventor for around 200 thousand Euros and shipped off to their sausage factory in nearby Nortrup. The interior was mostly removed, part of it is now a conference room, the rest a museum. A video (German language) of the transport can be found here: https://youtu.be/ZJ-x6ms2zdI
In 2002 the Shanghai Maglev Train opens to the public, a 30.5km/19mi public Transrapid connection. Transporting passengers at up to 431kph/268mph this train, based on the Transrapid 08, was meant to be a “working prototype” of sorts, instead it remained the only Transrapid to ever be in public service. In 2011 a train completely constructed was introduced to service, meant to replace the German-made one.
Transrapid routes in Germany, the Netherlands, England, the USA, Switzerland or Iran never went beyond the planning stages, with Munich’s planned route to the airport getting the furthest with the train being built. All but the third generation are preserved in some way.