Dozens injured as trains collide on France-Luxembourg border

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The Independent Online

At least four people were killed yesterday in a head-on crash between a passenger train and a freight train near the border of France and Luxembourg.

The crash, just inside France, was one of the worst in recent French railway history. French officials said a signalling error on the Luxembourg side of the border may have been the cause.

A double-decker, regional express train from Luxembourg to Nancy smashed into the northbound freight train seconds after entering France near Zoufftgen, north of Thionville in Lorraine. French railways said both drivers, 10 passengers and a track worker were killed. Local government officials would only confirm four dead and 12 trapped in the wreckage.

Up to 20 people were said to have been injured.

When the crash happened just before midday, on one of the busiest stretches of railway in western Europe, engineering work had forced trains travelling in opposite directions to use a single track. Trains were supposed to take turns but the southbound passenger service - a train express régional belonging to Luxembourg railways - was allowed to enter the line already occupied by the northbound freight train.

The two trains collided on a bend. Wagons and carriages from the passenger train were strewn at crazy angles by the trackside.

The French state railway company, SNCF, began an immediate investigation. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who was en route by plane to the French West Indies, flew back to France to visit the scene.

Rescue workers from France and Luxembourg set up a mobile casualty station at the trackside to treat victims. A helicopter ferried other injured passengers to hospitals on both sides of the border. "People are running in all directions," said Bernard Aubin ,a railway union leader who was at the crash scene. "There are still passengers trapped in the passenger train."

An SNCF spokesman said:"The accident happened close to engineering works. Only one track was in service and trains were passing alternately. For reasons which are still unclear, the two trains entered the single line at the same time."

Guillaume Pépy, executive director of the SNCF, , said: "The freight train passed a green light, indicating a free track [on the French side]. The driver did not pass a red light. There is no suggestion that [the freight train] was going too fast. It entered [the single line section] first."

The vice president of the Lorraine regional council, Bertrand Mertz, told a local television station that the accident "could have been caused by a signalling error in Luxembourg". Luxembourg railways declined to comment.

Most of the passengers were said to be French people returning from work in Luxembourg city.

French railways have an excellent safety record. They recently celebrated 25 years of high-speed trains without a serious injury on a train à grande vitesse. The last accident of this scale in France occurred almost four years ago when 12 people died after fire broke out in a German sleeping car on a Paris to Vienna night train.