Strike after Brussels crash

February 16, 2010 12:00 am

, BRUSSELS, Feb 16 – Belgian train drivers went on strike on Tuesday as safety concerns surfaced the day after the collision of two rush-hour trains outside Brussels left 18 dead and caused international rail chaos.

EU experts joined investigators who resumed the grim task of scouring the wreckage of the trains amid fears that more bodies could be found. Some of the 100 injured from Monday\’s high-speed disaster were also in serious condition in hospital.

Many train drivers went on strike saying that poor working conditions had contributed to the smash near the town of Halle, 15 kilometres southwest of Brussels.

One of the two drivers of the crash trains was among the dead. The strike was spontaneously organised and rail unions were not involved.

The surviving driver was said to be in a serious condition in hospital with police awaiting an opportunity to question him.

Eurostar train services to and from London were cancelled for a second day along with all Thalys international services to France, Germany and the Netherlands because of the wreckage and the strike. Thalys could not say when services would start again.

Brabant provincial governor Lodewijk De Witte said Monday that one of the trains had apparently failed to stop at a red light and hit the other at high speed.

The train line where the crash happened is fitted with a security system designed to halt trains automatically at a stop sign.

However one of the trains was not equipped with the system, according to Marc Descheemaecker, a senior official for the SNCB national rail service.

The information caused concern among the train drivers, the Belgian press and beyond.

"Why?" was the one-word headline in the Libre Belgique, under a picture of the smashed commuter trains.

"An avoidable tragedy?" the daily Le Soir asked.

Luc Lallemand, vice-chairman of Infabel, which manages the rail network, was in no doubt.

"Yes" he replied, when asked if the accident could have been avoided. "It could have been avoided" if both trains had been fitted with the automatic braking system.

His SNCB counterpart Descheemaecker said: "In 2005 we opted for our own system and decided to equip all the trains but that can\’t be done all at once."

However EU transport spokesman Helen Kearns urged all parties to await the results of the official investigation, which she admitted could take months, before putting forward unsubstantiated theories.

The EU Commission had read such arguments "with some surprise," she told reporters.

"We don\’t think that at this stage the arguments can be founded on evidence," she added.

The Brussels public prosecutor\’s office said accident investigators had resumed work at the crash site, in an enlarged security perimeter which now includes nearby roads which were sealed off.

The prosecutor warned that it would take repair teams three days to fix the tracks after that work was completed.

The high-speed crash happened at around 0730 GMT on Monday as commuters headed to work in the capital.

Groggy survivors wandered around in a state of shock or burst into tears as they were taken to a nearby sports centre to be treated.

Governor De Witte said the bodies of 15 men and three women had been recovered.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme cut short a trip to the Balkans to head to the crash site along with King Albert II.

Messages of aid and condolences also came swiftly from the European Union, which has its headquarters in Brussels. EU president Herman Van Rompuy, himself Belgian, spoke of his "great shock and sorrow" at the accident.


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