Paris rail crash 'due to Potters Bar-style fault'

Friday's derailment, in which at least six died, raises major questions over track maintenance

A rail crash that killed at least six people in the southern suburbs of Paris appears to have been the result of a track fault similar to the one that caused the Potters Bar disaster in Hertfordshire 11 years ago.

The state rail company SNCF said that Friday's derailment, which also left dozens of people injured, was caused after a metal bar that connected two rails had become detached close to Brétigny-sur-Orge station, causing the train to derail. It is France's worst rail accident in 25 years and there are fears that the death toll could rise.

Two senior British rail sector sources told The Independent on Sunday that the tragedy mirrored the Potters Bar crash, which resulted in seven deaths, and became synonymous with the need for root-and-branch health and safety reform in the industry. One of the sources said that this points fault was "usually a sign that maintenance is not up to scratch".

The second senior figure added: "The question mark will always be around whether the maintenance schedule has been met – it's a very repetitive job. The question that will be asked is whether the job was done properly."

The connecting bar on the French track had loosened and detached about 200m from the station. Witnesses described the area as being like a "war zone". Three separate inquiries into the crash have been launched and they are likely to focus on how the bar came loose.

The transport minister, Frédéric Cuvillier, hailed the smart reactions of the train driver for preventing further deaths. In a radio interview he said: "Fortunately, the driver of the locomotive had absolutely extraordinary reflexes in that he sounded the alarm immediately, preventing a collision with another train coming in the opposite direction and which would have hit the derailing carriages within seconds. So, it is not a human problem."

Six carriages were derailed on Friday afternoon and one ended up sitting on the station platform. There were 385 passengers on board the train, which had just started making its way from Paris to Limoges, a 400km journey that would have taken just over three hours.

The mayor of Brétigny-sur-Orge, Bernard Decaux, said: "Everybody was running in all directions. It was panic. It was an apocalyptic scene."

Accounting apprentice Ben Khelifa's commuter train was on the adjacent track. The 20-year-old said: "The train was unrecognisable. There was nothing but metal scraps. The train just collapsed."

He added that he was one of a number of passengers in his carriage who went to help to pull trapped survivors out of the wreckage. "People were screaming. People were asking where their children were," he said.

Guillaume Pepy, the head of SNCF, pledged thorough checks of the network's switching systems, starting yesterday.

"We know that the SNCF's equipment needs to be renovated," he said, "but it is premature to make a link between the state of the infrastructure, the material used and the accident."

Speaking from the station, President François Hollande said: "We will definitely find out what happened, and there will be conclusions to draw from this. But first let's think of the victims. Let's think of the families, and salute all personnel who responded."

On Friday, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, passed on his condolences and added that the "British embassy is in close touch with the French authorities and stands by to provide any assistance required".

The Potters Bar crash was one of the primary reasons why the engineering group Jarvis eventually collapsed eight years later. Jarvis had been looking after the section of track where the derailment occurred and at times it struggled to win work because of the damage to its reputation caused by the crash.

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