Eighteen dead after head-on train crash

Belgian disaster may have been caused by driver missing red light
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The Independent Online

Belgium suffered its worst train crash for more than half a century yesterday when two commuter trains collided head-on south-west of Brussels. The death toll was estimated last night to be at least 18 – the worst in a Belgian rail accident since 1954. Although a senior regional official said that one of the trains had passed a red light, there were also reports that an electrical fault had caused a signalling error.

Over 100 people were injured – some severely – when the two trains smashed into each other in light snow near the station at Buizingen, near Halle, 15 miles outside Brussels, at around 8.30am. Both trains' leading carriages were smashed apart by the impact, which left dead and maimed passengers lying beside the tracks.

So extensive was the wreckage that all train services on the line as well as nearby lines – including the Eurostar to and from London and Thalys services from Paris – were cancelled for the entire day.

Pierre Quertenmont, 40, a passenger in one of the trains, said: "I could see two bodies beside the track as well as several limbs. There were injured people, blood everywhere. It was like a real vision of the apocalypse, so much so that I had to stop looking out of the window."

Between 250 and 300 passengers were aboard the two rush-hour trains as they crashed. Lode de Witte, the governor of the Flemish Brabant region which includes Halle, said the driver of a regional train pulling into the town had missed a red signal light and ran into a train leaving the station, which was 10 minutes late.

But Belgian television also reported that there had been an electrical failure in the area, which may have caused a signalling malfunction allowing the two trains to approach each other on the same track. Belgian national railways, SNCB, refused to comment until railway and judicial investigations had been completed.

The sheer force of the impact smashed one train deep into the front carriage of the other. Other carriages buckled or reared high into the air, bringing down overhead power lines.

The crash appeared to be the worst on Belgian railways since 1954, when 20 German soccer fans were killed in an accident near Louvain. The train line around Halle had been equipped with a safety system that ensures that trains automatically come to a halt if they pass a red light. But not all trains have yet been fitted with the system, transport authorities said.

A spokesman from the federal prosecutor's office, Jos Colpin, said the investigation could take up anything from a few days to several weeks. "It will take us a while. To start with, we don't even know how many bodies are still in the wreckage. It's enormously difficult for the emergency services."

At least 18 men and three women were killed in the accident and many more seriously injured, although the official figure continued to fluctuate during the day. Hours after the crash some bodies were still being extracted from the wreckage and the fate of the two drivers was unknown.

Belgian broadcasting channel VRT said 25 people had been killed, but the SNCB said it had not released an official figure. Up to 150 people were slightly injured and were treated in an emergency centre set up a short walk from the crash centre.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme flew back from a tour of the Balkans and visited the scene of the accident with King Albert. Shocked residents living near the tracks shuffled out under the falling snow in freezing temperatures to gape at the giant mangled wreckage just beyond their back gardens.

"The entire house shook and there was a terrifying almighty bang," said one couple in their thirties. "We had to hide the children so they would not look. It was too horrendous for words."

Survivors were taken by ambulance to two local emergency centres set up nearby and those more seriously injured were taken to local hospitals, a dozen of which were on stand-by as part of a local emergency operation.

"It all happened very rapidly, too quickly to take it in properly. The impact of the crash was very powerful and tipped our carriage over on to its side," said Giuseppe, a man in his thirties who was lightly concussed in the incident. "People stayed relatively calm until we saw the way that the two front carriages were piled up on top of one another."

Survivors praised the efficiency of the emergency services, which arrived within half an hour of the crash. Halle's mayor, Dirk Peters, explained that they had learnt the lessons from a practice emergency in 2005, when transport authorities simulated a crash with a high-speed Thalys train, which runs from Paris to Germany.

"It meant that everyone knew exactly what to do. We were able to mobilise things quickly and keep calm. It's one small blessing in all this," he said.