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France train tragedy likely caused by faulty switch

The train company said that a steel clip that links two rails on a switch broke away.

The scene where a train derailed, at the station, in Bretigny sur Orge, south of Paris
The scene where a train derailed, at the station, in Bretigny sur Orge, south of Paris
Image: Michel Euler/AP/PA

THE TRAIN DERAILMENT near Paris that left six people dead and dozens injured was likely caused by a faulty part in the switch that allows trains to change tracks, the SNCF national rail company said today.

Investigators have been working today to determine the cause of the crash as the French transport minister warned that more victims could yet be found.

“This bond”, a kind of steel clip that links two rails on a switch, “broke away, it became detached and came out of its housing,” said Pierre Izard, the SNCF’s general manager for infrastructure today, with the company adding that it had ordered checks of some 5,000 similar devices on the network.

Praising the quick reflexes of the driver, who sent up the alert that halted all train traffic in the area, Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier virtually ruled out human error in the disaster, saying the probe would focus instead on the “rolling stock, infrastructure and the precise signalling area”.

On French radio earlier this morning, transport minister Culliver said:

Fortunately the locomotive driver had absolutely extraordinary reflexes by sending the alert immediately, which avoided a collision with a train that was coming the other way and just a few seconds later would have smashed into the cars that were derailing. So it’s not a human problem.

In France’s worst rail disaster in 25 years, the train derailed and crashed into a station platform on Friday afternoon, killing six and leaving 30 injured, eight seriously.

Rescue operation

(Image: Michel Euler/AP/PA)

Rescue teams worked through the night checking the wreckage of overturned carriages to see if any passengers remained trapped inside.

Cuvillier said earlier today that further “unfortunate discoveries” could not be ruled out.

He also told French television that work to right the overturned train cars could take a “very long time (because) the carriages are very intertwined.”

The bodies of five of the six dead have been extracted from the wreckage, said a source close the operation.

Witnesses said the crash site resembled a war zone, with one survivor describing having to walk over a decapitated body to escape an overturned carriage.

The regional train was heading from Paris to the west-central city of Limoges. It derailed as it passed through the station at Bretigny-sur-Orge, about 25 kilometres  south of Paris.

Four carriages of the train jumped the tracks, of which three overturned. One carriage smashed across a platform and came to rest on a parallel track; another lay half-way across the platform.

Passenger Marc Cheutin, 57, told AFP he had to “step over a decapitated person” after the accident, to exit the carriage he had been travelling in.

A witness who had been waiting for a train at the station, Vianey Kalisa, told AFP: “I saw a lot of wounded people, women and children trapped inside (the carriages).

“I was shaking like a child. People were screaming. One man’s face was covered in blood. It was a like a war zone.”

Proper conclusions

Guillaume Pepy, head of France’s SNCF rail service, told reporters that SNCF, judicial authorities and France’s BEA safety agency would each investigate the cause of the derailment.

A railway passenger association denounced what it called “rust-bucket trains” and the practice of coupling different types of trains together, demanding proper inspections.

Visiting the scene on Friday evening, President Francois Hollande said: “We should avoid unnecessary speculation. What happened will eventually be known and the proper conclusions will be drawn.”

Officials said the derailment happened at 5:14 pm local time, minutes after the intercity train left the Paris-Austerlitz station.

“The train arrived at the station at high speed. It split in two for an unknown reason. Part of the train continued to roll while the other was left on its side on the platform,” a police source told AFP.

Cuvillier, who also visited the crash site, said the train had been travelling at 137 kilometres an hour at the time of the crash.

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That was below the 150 kph limit for that part of the track.

(Image: Michel Euler/AP/PA)

Some 300 firefighters, 20 paramedic teams and eight helicopters were deployed to treat casualties at the scene and airlift the most seriously injured to nearby hospitals.

In total, 192 people were treated by emergency services, officials said. There were 385 passengers on the train, which means it was not overcrowded.

The accident occurred as many in France were leaving for the start of their summer holidays ahead of Bastille Day on Sunday.

Signs on the town’s municipal notice board announced that fireworks planned for Saturday evening had been cancelled.

In Brussels, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his condolences in a message to Hollande.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his shock at the crash in a statement yesterday.

- © AFP 2013.

The derailment was France’s worst rail accident since an SNCF commuter train crashed into a stationary train at Paris’s Gare de Lyon terminal in 1988, killing 56 people.

Related: At least six dead after train derails near Paris (pics)>

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