An unattached rail joint may have caused a train derailment in France during a busy holiday weekend that left six dead, rail officials said Saturday. Nearly 200 people were injured, including nine in critical condition.
The packed train, which left Paris early Friday evening with 385 passengers, jumped the track about 20 minutes into a scheduled three-hour journey as it travelled through Bretigny-sur-Orge station. It crashed into the platform and some cars tipped over.
Human error has already been ruled out, according to Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier, and attention has focused instead on the switching system, which guides trains from one track to another. Investigators found that one joint in the switch had disconnected from its normal position, Pierre Izard, an official with the 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 had travelled 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 137 km/h, below the limit of 150 km/h.
"The SNCF considers itself responsible," the rail company's president, Guilaume Pepy, said. "It is responsible for the lives of its clients."
The train was about 20 kilometres into its 400-kilometre journey to Limoges.
Passengers and officials in train stations throughout France held a minute of silence at noon to commemorate the accident. Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to take trains this weekend for the coast, mountains and to see family. Summer weekends are always busy on France's extensive rail network, but this weekend is typically one of the busiest since the country celebrates Bastille Day on Sunday.
While the death toll has not budged since hours after the crash, Michel Fuzeau, who is the head of local 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 told reporters.
Search for victims continues
He said special equipment was expected to arrive in order to remove the cars. By Saturday morning, Cuvillier, the transport minister, said 30 people were still considered injured, including the nine in critical condition.
The crash was the country's deadliest in years, but Cuvillier said it could have been worse and praised the driver who sent out an alert quickly, preventing a pileup.
Cuvillier acknowledged that there was some criticism that France hasn't invested enough in maintaining infrastructure.
"But for the moment we have no information that allows us to confirm that the dilapidation of the network was the cause of this derailment," he said on French television.
Keira Ichti, who lives in the town where the train crashed, said she was terrified when she found out about the accident because her daughter works at the station. "(It was) total panic. My heart was beating so fast. I had no strength," said the 56-year-old.
She later found her daughter outside the station.