By Barbara Schmid and Frank Dohmen
Police and employees of Deutsche Bahn investigate a derailed high-speed train in Cologne.
SPIEGEL has learned that on Friday morning, the Cologne Public Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into German national railway Deutsche Bahn because it may have known about problems with a high-speed train before it derailed on Wednesday, thus endangering passengers and the national rail network.
The high-speed train, part of German rail's fleet of ultra-modern, third-generation ICE trains, derailed shortly after leaving Cologne's central station en route to Düsseldorf on Wednesday afternoon, bringing train travel between the heavily-trafficked stations to a standstill for hours. The national railway, Deutsche Bahn, was forced to cancel 90 train connections and recall all its newest ICEs to maintenance sites for inspection.
Public prosecutors now have evidence that the train's wheels or axels may have been damaged earlier -- possibly when it departed from a station at the Frankfurt International Airport. Passengers allegedly repeatedly complained to train crew of hearing suspicious noises.
Prosecutors suspect that the train travelled with a defect wheel or axel along the high-speed line between Frankfurt and Cologne, with speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). The line, which is Germany's fastest, is considered a national prestige project and a crucial link in the European Union's high-speed rail network.
Deutsche Bahn declined to answer questions from a SPIEGEL reporter about the incident early Friday. However, the chairman of Deutsche Bahn's board, Karl-Friedrich Rausch, said the safety of its passengers was the company's "highest priority" and that the railway had recalled all the trains in the ICE third-generation series in order to conduct multiple safety inspections. "We're not taking any chances," he said.
Experts from Germany's railway regulatory authority and police have been dispatched to investigate the exact cause of the incident. And the Cologne Public Prosecutor's Office has also appointed a expert to probe the accident.
None of the train's 250 passengers were injured in the accident in Cologne. The train had only travelled a few meters and passengers were able to evacuate via a normal platform.
An earlier generation of ICE trains was involved in the world's worst-ever high-speed rail disaster in 1998. An ICE train traveling from Munich to Hamburg derailed near the city of Eschede, killing 101 people and injuring 88. A broken wheel rim caused the deadly train crash.
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