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ACCIDENT

Hunt for clues begins as French rail crash kills six

Investigators worked Saturday to determine the cause of a train crash near Paris that claimed six lives as the French transport minister warned that more victims could yet be found.

Hunt for clues begins as French rail crash kills six
Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP

Praising the quick reflexes of the driver, who sent up the alert that halted all train traffic in the area, Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier virtually ruled out human error in the disaster, saying the probe would focus instead on the "rolling stock, infrastructure and the precise signalling 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 told French radio Saturday.

In France's worst rail disaster in 25 years, the train derailed and crashed into a station platform on Friday afternoon, killing six and leaving 30 injured, eight seriously.

Rescue teams worked through the night checking the wreckage of overturned carriages to see if any passengers remained trapped inside.

Cuvillier said earlier Saturday that further "unfortunate discoveries" could not be ruled out.

He also told French television that work to right the overturned train cars could take a "very long time (because) the carriages are very intertwined."

The bodies of five of the six dead have been extracted from the wreckage, said a source close the operation.

Witnesses said the crash site resembled a war zone, with one survivor describing having to walk over a decapitated body to escape an overturned carriage.

The regional train was heading from Paris to the west-central city of Limoges. It derailed as it passed through the station at Bretigny-sur-Orge, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Paris.

Four carriages of the train jumped the tracks, of which three overturned.

One carriage smashed across a platform and came to rest on a parallel track; another lay half-way across the platform.

Passenger Marc Cheutin, 57, told AFP he had to "step over a decapitated person" after the accident, to exit the carriage he had been travelling in.

A witness who had been waiting for a train at the station, Vianey Kalisa, told AFP: "I saw a lot of wounded people, women and children trapped inside (the carriages).

"I was shaking like a child. People were screaming. One man's face was covered in blood. It was a like a war zone."

Guillaume Pepy, head of France's SNCF rail service, told reporters that SNCF, judicial authorities and France's BEA safety agency would each investigate the cause of the derailment.

A railway passenger association denounced what it called "rust-bucket trains" and the practice of coupling different types of trains together, demanding proper inspections.

Visiting the scene on Friday evening, President Francois Hollande said: "We should avoid unnecessary speculation. What happened will eventually be known and the proper conclusions will be drawn."

Officials said the derailment happened at 5:14 pm, minutes after the intercity train left the Paris-Austerlitz station.

"The train arrived at the station at high speed. It split in two for an unknown reason. Part of the train continued to roll while the other was left on its side on the platform," a police source told AFP.

Cuvillier, who also visited the crash site, said the train had been travelling at 137 kilometres an hour at the time of the crash.

That was below the 150 kph limit for that part of the track.

Some 300 firefighters, 20 paramedic teams and eight helicopters were deployed to treat casualties at the scene and airlift the most seriously injured to nearby hospitals.

In total, 192 people were treated by emergency services, officials said.

There were 385 passengers on the train, which means it was not overcrowded.

The accident occurred as many in France were leaving for the start of their summer holidays ahead of Bastille Day on Sunday.

Signs on the town's municipal notice board announced that fireworks planned for Saturday evening had been cancelled.

In Brussels, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his condolences in a message to Hollande.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his shock at the crash in a statement Friday.

The derailment was France's worst rail accident since an SNCF commuter train crashed into a stationary train at Paris's Gare de Lyon terminal in 1988, killing 56 people.

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Painful’ – is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Following a survey that said Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was the best in Europe, we asked Local readers what they thought...

'Painful' - is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Recently, Paris Charles de Gaulle was voted the best airport in Europe by passengers.

The 2022 World Airport Awards, based on customer satisfaction surveys between September 2021 and May 2022, listed the best airport on the planet as Doha, while Paris’s main airport came in at number 6 – the highest entry for a European airport – one place above Munich. 

READ ALSO Paris Charles de Gaulle voted best airport in Europe by passengers

Given CDG’s long-standing reputation doesn’t quite match what the World Airport Awards survey said – in 2009 it was rated the second-worst airport in the world, while in 2011 US site CNN judged it “the most hated airport in the world” – we wondered how accurate the survey could be.

So we asked readers of The Local for their opinion on their experience of Europe’s ‘best’ airport. 

Contrary to the World Airport Awards study, users erred towards the negative about the airport. A total 30.8 percent of Local readers – who had travelled through the airport in recent months – thought it was ‘terrible’, while another 33.3 percent agreed that it was ‘not great’ and had ‘some problems’.

But in total 12.8 percent of those who responded to our survey thought the airport was ‘brilliant’, and another 23.1 percent thought it ‘fine’, with ‘no major problems’.

So what are the problems with it?

Signage 

One respondent asked a simple – and obvious – question: “Why are there so many terminal twos?”

Barney Lehrer added: “They should change the terminal number system.”

In fact, signage and directions – not to mention the sheer size of the place – were common complaints, as were onward travel options. 

Christine Charaudeau told us: “The signage is terrible. I’ve often followed signs that led to nowhere. Thankfully, I speak French and am familiar with the airport but for first time travellers … yikes!”

Edwin Walley added that it was, “impossible to get from point A to point B,”  as he described the logistics at the airport as the “worst in the world”.

And James Patterson had a piece of advice taken from another airport. “The signage could be better – they could take a cue from Heathrow in that regard.”

Anthony Schofield said: “Arriving by car/taxi is painful due to congestion and the walk from the skytrain to baggage claim seems interminable.”

Border control

Border control, too, was a cause for complaint. “The wait at the frontière is shameful,” Linda, who preferred to use just her first name, told us. “I waited one and a half hours standing, with a lot of old people.”

Sharon Dubble agreed. She wrote: “The wait time to navigate passport control and customs is abysmal!”

Deborah Mur, too, bemoaned the issue of, “the long, long wait to pass border control in Terminal E, especially at 6am after an overnight flight.”

Beth Van Hulst, meanwhile, pulled no punches with her estimation of border staff and the airport in general. “[It] takes forever to go through immigration, and staff deserve their grumpy reputation. Also, queuing is very unclear and people get blocked because the airport layout is not well designed.”

Jeff VanderWolk highlighted the, “inadequate staffing of immigration counters and security checkpoints”, while Karel Prinsloo had no time for the brusque attitudes among security and border personnel. “Officers at customs are so rude. I once confronted the commander about their terrible behaviour.  His response said it all: ‘We are not here to be nice’. Also the security personnel.”

Connections

One of the most-complained-about aspects is one that is not actually within the airport’s control – public transport connections.  

Mahesh Chaturvedula was just one of those to wonder about integrated travel systems in France, noting problems with the reliability of onward RER rail services, and access to the RER network from the terminal.

The airport is connected to the city via RER B, one of the capital’s notoriously slow and crowded suburban trains. Although there are plans to create a new high-speed service to the airport, this now won’t begin until after the 2024 Olympics.

Sekhar also called for, “more frequent trains from SNCF to different cities across France with respect to the international flight schedules.”

The good news

But it wasn’t all bad news for the airport, 35 percent of survey respondents said the airport had more positives than negatives, while a Twitter poll of local readers came out in favour of Charles de Gaulle.

Conceding that the airport is “too spread out”, Jim Lockard said it, “generally operates well; [and has] decent amenities for food and shopping”.

Declan Murphy was one of a number of respondents to praise the, “good services and hotels in terminals”, while Dean Millar – who last passed through Charles de Gaulle in October – said the, “signage is very good. [It is] easy to find my way around”.

He added: “Considering the size (very large) [of the airport] it is very well done.  So no complaints at all.”

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