Train collision in Australia kills up to 12 commuters

RESCUE WORKERS were still cutting into the wreckage of Australia's second-worst rail disaster last night, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Up to 12 people may have died.

Eighteen Britons were on the trans-continental Indian Pacific tourist train from Perth to Sydney yesterday. All of them escaped unhurt.

Stephen Bradford, chief executive officer of Great Southern Railways, the British-based firm that has owned and operated the Indian Pacific since it was privatised two years ago, said: "Our information suggests there were 18 people from the UK among the 27 international tourists on the Indian Pacific. To our knowledge, none of them were injured."

Survivors praised the driver of the inter-city passenger train, which was heading for Sydney in the morning rush hour with 450 people on board when it crashed into the back of the Indian Pacific.

Just before the impact, the driver slammed on the emergency brakes and ran back into the front carriage, shouting at passengers to brace themselves and get down. One passenger said: "His action probably prevented a much more horrific accident." Police said the driver survived.

Rail authorities said the double-decker commuter train may have been travelling at 50mph (80kph) when it crashed near Glenbrook, a small town at the base of the Blue Mountains, 35 miles from Sydney. The commuter train's front carriage crashed into the Indian Pacific's tail carriage, which was stacked with cars. The crash destroyed much of the two-deck commuter train's lower level, where all of the dead and many of the 50 injured passengers were.

Michael Irik, a passenger on the commuter train, said: "Seats went flying, people went flying, goods went flying."

Graham Field, an ambulance spokesman, said it was lucky the back car of the Indian Pacific was loaded with passengers' vehicles. "If the last carriage of the Indian Pacific was carrying passengers, we would have had a lot more dead and injured," he said.

The cause of the accident was still unclear last night. The Indian Pacific, a luxury twice-weekly train between Australia's east and west coasts, had stopped inexplicably by the Blue Mountains, near the end of its three- day journey. The commuter train had started its journey in Lithgow, about 90 miles west of Sydney, on the western side of the mountains. Officials from the New South Wales (NSW) State Rail Authority, which runs the train, said the driver was unaware of the stationary Indian Pacific in front of him until he turned a bend in a cutting and saw it.

Simon Lane, of State Rail, indicated that a signal failure could have been to blame. He said "all the evidence we have been able to ascertain" indicated that the signal system had worked "completely safely". But he acknowledged there was a possibility of a "minor defect" that could have caused a red signal to stay locked in place. The NSW state government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the accident.

Emergency workers had recovered the bodies of a boy, four women and a man from the wreckage by Thursday night. Another body was visible. Bob Carr, the state premier, said up to 12 people could be dead.

Irene Barnes, a passenger on the Indian Pacific, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that a short announcement made just before the collision gave a hint that something was wrong. "I heard them say, `Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but we will be delayed here for a while because of the signal.' And then, all of a sudden, we were in the air, the whole lot of us flying around everywhere."

The crash brought back chilling memories of Australia's worst train disaster, in 1977. More than 80 passengers died when a bridge collapsed on to a commuter train in Granville, a suburb of Sydney.

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