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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
German rail crash trial opens
crash site
A defective wheel may have caused the tragedy
The trial has begun in Germany of three rail workers accused of responsibility for the country's worst post-war rail disaster.

The men are blamed for the deaths of 101 people who were killed when a high-speed ICE train smashed into a bridge near the town of Eschede in June 1998.

Crash site
More than 100 people died in the crash
About 50 survivors and relatives of the dead came to court to watch the proceedings.

Some 36 lawyers representing the victims' interests were also present.

During the preliminary hearings of the trial, which is expected to last months, prosecutors will argue that two senior officials at the national rail service, Deutsche Bahn, and an engineer at a wheel manufacturing plant were to blame for the crash.

Forty-five witnesses and 10 experts are expected to give evidence at the court in Celle, near the site of the accident.

The three defendants are accused of manslaughter and causing bodily harm through negligence. They deny the charges.

Broken wheel

The Munich to Hamburg express ploughed into a bridge near Eschede at around 200 kilometres per hour (124mph).

An accident report blamed a broken wheel which had suffered "material fatigue".

The three men are accused of not ensuring that the wheels were properly tested before fitting or that systems were in place to detect defects.

The investigation found that a rubber binding on the wheel had come loose, jamming and destabilising the carriage.

The train derailed while crossing points and careered 300 metres along the track before smashing into a bridge.

Particularly worrying for Deutsche Bahn was that the train had been checked the night before and no problems were discovered.

Compensation offered

The court must decide whether it is right to blame the tragedy on individuals.

A separate civil action is also under way.

Deutsche Bahn has already offered to pay almost half a million dollars for each victim.

More than 200 million euros ($200m) has already been distributed between the families.

The hearing is expected to last until October.

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The BBC's Tristana Moore in Berlin
"Prosecutors say three workers were responsible for ensuring the wheels were safe"
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