Belgian train drivers strike following high-speed crash

Belgian train drivers went on strike on Tuesday in protest at safety conditions, adding to international rail chaos after the collision of two rush-hour trains that left at least 18 dead.

Investigators again scoured 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 grave condition in hospital.

Many train drivers went on strike saying that poor working conditions contributed to the crash near the town of Halle, 15km south-west of Brussels.

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

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.

On the ground the rescue workers resumed the search of the wreckage to ensure that no more bodies remained hidden, and sifted for clues on what caused one of the worst rail accidents in Belgium’s history.

Brabant provincial governor Lodewijk De Witte said on 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 Blegique, under a picture of the smashed commuter trains.

“An avoidable tragedy?” the daily Le Soir asked.

Luc Lallemand, vice-chairperson 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.”

The Brussels public prosecutor’s office said accident investigators had resumed work at the crash site, in an enlarged security perimeter that 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.

State of shock
The high-speed crash happened at about 7.30am 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.

The Belgian Red Cross has issued an appeal for blood donors.

Late on Monday Infrabel and SNCB in a statement revised talk of a head-on collision, saying the trains had hit laterally “for unknown reasons”.

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. — AFP

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