Thursday, June 4, 1998 Published at 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Opinion: 'Accident must be seen in context'
A German Inter City Express (ICE) of the type which crashed
Rail Magazine columnist Christian Wolmar, writing for News online, says it is hard to imagine what greater safety requirements would have helped prevent the German rail crash.
There is a risk that there will be calls for greater safety requirements after the German rail crash. This could result in people taking to their cars, which is a much more dangerous form of travel.
The accident has to be viewed in the context that high-speed train travel has proved extremely safe.
Bullet trains were introduced in Japan in the 1960s and TGVs in France in the 1970s and there have been no casualties to passengers caused by rail accidents on these services.
The Eschede accident was, too, the first on the German high-speed ICE network.
One reason for this good safety record is that these trains operate mostly on dedicated track, which reduces the risk of collision with slower trains, as happened in the accident at Southall in the United Kingdom last year.
Although we do not know the cause of the accident in Germany, the two main possibilities to date are that a car fell on the track, or that the train was derailed by a fault on the rails, possibly as a result of trackwork being carried out.
If the accident was caused by a car, it was really a billion-to-one chance which is largely unpreventable.
Billions of pounds could be spent to make every rail bridge in Europe impregnable, but it would not be money well spent.
Cars have fallen onto tracks after ploughing through fields, so similar accidents might still occur even with such precautions.
If the accident was caused by trackwork, then clearly some maintenance procedures are at fault, but they are the routine sort of things which any railway should be carrying out anyway.
A particular individual may well be at fault in this case, but, again, no end of precautions would prevent a recurrence.
Past lessons learnt
Accidents with disastrous consequences such as this one always result from a particular unfortunate set of circumstances, rather than from a single cause.
This is because the lessons learnt from past accidents have resulted in safety improvements.
In this case, the two bits of bad luck were that the train derailed and that it then smacked into the bridge, bringing it down, before there was any chance for the driver to apply the brakes.
The derailment itself would not have been enough to have caused the accident.
A French TGV derailed a couple of years ago when old First World War trenches undermined the foundations of the track during a rainstorm.
However, even though it was travelling at full speed, 186mph, it stayed upright and there were no casualties.