An unattached rail joint may have caused a train derailment in France during a busy holiday weekend that left six dead, rail officials said yesterday. Nearly 200 people were injured and nine remained in critical condition.
The packed train, which left Paris on Friday evening with 385 passengers, jumped the track about 20 minutes into a three-hour journey as it traveled through Bretigny-sur-Orge Station. It crashed into the platform and some cars tipped over.
French Minister of Transport Frederic Cuvillier said human error has already been ruled out and attention has focused instead on the switching system, which guides trains from one track to another. Investigators found that a piece of metal in one joint in the switch linking two rails had disconnected from its normal position, Pierre Izard, an official with national rail company SNCF told reporters.
“It moved into the center of the switch and in this position it prevented the normal passage of the train’s wheels and it may have caused the derailment,” he said at a news conference.
Investigators were looking into how this happened since another train traveled safely through the station about 30 minutes before. In addition, they were trying to figure out why the train’s third car was the first to derail. The train was traveling at 137kph, below the 150kph limit.
Meanwhile, a powerful crane was transferred from northern France to the scene of the accident to remove damaged cars from the tracks in a difficult operation in which the arm of the crane must extend over buildings to reach the wreckage.
“The SNCF considers itself responsible,” rail company president Guilaume Pepy said. “It is responsible for the lives of its clients.”
The train was about 20km into its 400km journey to Limoges.
Passengers and officials in train stations throughout France held a minute of silence at noon to commemorate the accident.
While the death toll has not budged since hours after the crash, Michel Fuzeau, the head of the regional government, said that until an overturned train car is lifted, it was impossible to know if there could be more people trapped under it.
“This is only a hypothesis and we hope it’s not [the case],” he said.
By yesterday morning, Cuvillier said 30 people were still hospitalized, including the nine in critical condition. Most of the about 200 people injured were either treated at the scene or were hospitalized briefly before being discharged.
The crash was France’s deadliest in years, but Cuvillier said it could have been worse and praised the driver who sent out an alert quickly, preventing a pile up.
Cuvillier acknowledged criticism that France has not invested enough in maintaining transport infrastructure, but said officials could not yet “confirm that the dilapidation of the network was the cause of this derailment.”