A crane is set up to help clear the wreckage of the train that derailed at the… (Etienne Laurent, European…)
PARIS — The French train accident Friday that resulted in at least six deaths appears to have been caused by a problem with a steel clip on a switch that enables trains to change tracks, according to the national rail company, SNCF.
The clip, located on a switch about 200 yards from the train station, "broke away, became detached and came out of its housing," said Pierre Izard, SNCF's general manager for infrastructure.
That probably led to the derailing of an intercity train departing from Paris, headed to Limoges, outside the Bretigny-sur-Orge station 12 miles south of the capital. In addition to the deaths, 22 people were seriously injured, two of whom remained in critical condition Saturday.
On Saturday, SNCF President Guillaume Pepy said that the faulty switch "constitutes the initial cause of the derailing," and that further investigation was necessary. As a result of the discovery, 5,000 similar clips were being checked for safety, the rail company said. Just 30 minutes before the crash, a train had passed over the same track without incident.
Those killed were a couple in their 80s, two young men, a woman from Limoges and a 60-year-old man. At the time of the crash, some of the victims may have been on the train platform, where large pieces of bent metal were strewn by the crash. On Saturday a minute of silence was observed at train stations around the country.
Experts were searching Saturday for other possible victims caught between the three most heavily damaged cars toward the back of the train, which tipped and rolled over and onto the platform. However, the "extraordinarily difficult" task of removing four of the cars with a 700-ton crane "to verify no victims are underneath" wouldn't begin until Saturday evening, Pepy said, and the wait for their removal "was longer than expected."
France's minister of transportation, Frederic Cuvillier, said human error was unlikely to be a cause of the accident, and he praised the train's conductor for sounding an alert that stopped all traffic in the area.
"Fortunately the locomotive driver had absolutely extraordinary reflexes by sending the alert immediately, which avoided a collision with a train that was coming the other way and just a few seconds later would have smashed into the cars that were derailing. So it's not a human problem," Cuvillier said Saturday on French radio.
He said that the train had been properly inspected for safety but that intercity trains needed "modernization," in contrast to the country's well-regarded high-speed trains. "We cannot be satisfied with moving material that is 30 years old," he said. "The situation is severe, with the degradation in recent years of traditional train lines, due to a lack of resources," he said.
An organization for railroad users, AVUC, has also publicly denounced the state of "trash trains" in France and called for their improvement.
Nearly 400 passengers were on the Paris-Limoges train that left the capital at the start of the Bastille holiday weekend and beginning of the summer vacation season. More than 190 people, including passengers and people who were on the train platform, received emergency treatment, mostly for shock and light injuries.
The Paris-Limoges line remained closed Saturday. Traffic at the Gare d'Austerlitz, from which the train had departed, was also heavily interrupted, and travelers were urged to postpone their trips.
Lauter is a special correspondent.