Schaefer, on a train in Europe, stalks the future at 170 mph

June 16, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer sits in the cab of one of Europe's supertrains, staring at the tracks coming at him at 170 mph.

"That's really moving," the governor says.

"He's holding on," jokes Hans von Lange, the president of a track-equipment company in Halethorpe, Md. He got the governor the seat in the cab. He's translating.

The governor may be a little uneasy. Just before he got on this Inter-City Express at the station in Stuttgart, a regular train plowed through a final bumper with an explosive bang and smashed into a wall. Seven ambulances took people to hospitals.

"What do you look for?" the governor asks the engineer, Martin Horn, who is staring down the track just as hard as Mr. Schaefer is.

"I concentrate on the track in front of me as far as I can see," Mr. Horn says. He's a very composed veteran of 20 years on the railroad.

"I think about failure alarms," he says. "Thinking ahead to what I should do about them."

"Sounds kinda like your job, governor," says another rider in the cab.

"Yes," he agrees. "It does."

"What kind of control does he have if he sees something?" Mr. Schaefer asks.

"He can bring it to a panic stop," Mr. von Lange says. At this speed, that means needing about two-thirds of a mile. Sensors in the roadbed tell the engineer what's going on about a half a mile ahead.

This low-slung streamlined engine puts out 13,000 horsepower. It's pulling 12 passenger cars. The whole train hurtles across the green German countryside like a long, white earthbound projectile.

Fifty of these trains operate every day between German cities. One is coming to Baltimore about July 1 to begin a nationwide promotion tour. A consortium of German companies wants to sell the trains to Amtrak.

Mr. von Lange's company, American Track Systems, is beginning to bring to the United States the modern track technology that high-speed trains need.

He and Mr. Schaefer are on the way to Frankfurt to visit ATS's German affiliate, BWG, -- Butzbacher Weichenbau Gesellschaft -- the Butzbach Switch-building Co., a pioneer in modern rail switching technology.

"How often does [Mr. Horn] work?" the governor asks. "This is really tiring, nerve-racking. He has to have visual contact all the time."

Mr. Horn explains that it's complicated, depending in part on speed. But after 5 1/2 hours, he takes a break. He began at 6 a.m., and he's on his second round trip between Stuttgart and Frankfurt, a 150-mile run that takes about an hour and 20 minutes. He stops at Mannheim, and he's not always driving at 170 mph.

He tells the governor he's 45 and has been a locomotive engineer for 20 years.

But he doesn't look much like some old-time engineer with striped overalls, wide-billed locomotive cap and an oil can.

There's no oil in this immaculate cab. Mr. Horn wears jeans, a handsome gray sweater and a blue-white checked shirt. He's got sandy hair flecked with gray, and his cab is full of computer screens with digital readouts.

Mr. Schaefer, who has driven everything from Baltimore's light rail streetcars to heirlooms from the B&O train museum, sits in the second engineer's seat. But he won't get to drive today. Not even governors get to run locomotives at 170 mph with a trainload of passengers behind them.

Mr. Horn pulls his train into the Frankfurt station at 11:18.34 a.m. He apologizes. He's four minutes late.

"I thought it was great," the governor says. "This is the way to go."

He is zipped out to a little country town called Butzbach at the head of a caravan of white Passat Volkswagens. The governor, who has supported a 55 mph speed limit for autos in Maryland, is being driven at about 90 mph by a guy whose language he doesn't speak. But he arrives safely at BWG

He spends four hours learning about sophisticated computer- designed railroad switching, and he watches steel rails being twisted, turned, milled, machined, fused, wrenched, bolted and banged.

He learns that BWG is supporting ATS in bringing this technology to Maryland. He learns that ATS may hire 100 to 150 Marylanders in about two years. He hears his shipping expert discussing a deal about using the port of Baltimore. Audrey Theis, his business resources person, urges Mr. von Lange to explore the Baltimore Community College machinist training program.

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