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Derailed Express Struck by Mail Train; 43 Killed

August 31, 1985

ARGENTON-SUR-CREUSE, France (AP) _ A speeding overnight express train derailed on a curve Saturday and seconds later a mail train on the opposite track plowed into it, killing 43 passengers and injuring 85, police said.

Rail officials said the express, with about 300 passengers aboard, was traveling three times faster than it should have been going at the time because of trackside construction.

Many of those killed were British and Spanish tourists, the officials said. Ten of the injured were reported in critical condition.

Rescuers said some of the sleeper compartments, meant to accommodate four or six people, were compressed to a width of less than eight inches.

It was France’s third major train crash in two months and its worst since 1972, when 108 people were killed near Soissons on a train that entered a tunnel whose roof had collapsed.

Police arrested the locomotive engineer of the express, which was bound from Paris to Port Bou on the Spanish border. They said the engineer, Jean- Yves Brisset, 37, would be formally charged Sunday with manslaughter.

A police spokesman, who demanded anonymity, said Brisset told investigators he neglected a temporary speed limit posted at a trackside construction site.

The express consisted of 14 sleeper cars and a locomotive. It jacknifed upon derailment, and two of the cars, where most of the fatalities occurred, were lying diagonally on the opposite track, directly in the mail train’s path. The government ordered an immediate investigation of the entire safety system on the state-owned rail network, which carries nearly 800 million passengers a year.

Transport Minister Paul Quiles expressed his condolences to the victims of what he called ″a disaster caused ... by an obvious human error.″

″The responsibility seems quite clear,″ Quiles declared. ″One man made a mistake. It is simply a tragedy.″

Rescuers worked without letup cutting through wreckage to extricate the dead and injured.

More than half the dead remained unidentified in an improvised morgue in Argenton-sur-Creuse, a village of 7,000 inhabitants 188 miles south of Paris.

Henri Guicharnaud, French railways’ regional director for central France, told reporters the express was traveling at more than 62 mph where it should have slowed to a maximum 18 mph alongside the construction site of a new signal block.

The scheduled average speed on the train’s nightly 650-mile run to the southwestern tip of France is more than 75 mph.

Brisset noticed his error too late, Guicharnaud said.

″He slammed on his brakes and simultaneously switched on a flashing alarm signal in an effort to alert the driver of the oncoming mail train,″ Guicharnaud said. ″Unhappily, by that time it was too late.″

The stationmaster at Argenton-sur-Creuse spotted the express going into the curve at three times the permitted speed, but could not contact the other engineer, Guicharnaud said.

″Both trains were precisely on time and crossed exactly at the normal moment,″ he added.

The 15 railway and postal workers on the mail train were unhurt.

The Saturday wreck brought to 84 the number of people killed in French rail accidents in eight weeks. Nine people were killed when a train hit a truck on July 8, and 32 died on Aug. 3 in a head-on collision of two trains.

Rescuers on Saturday originally believed six bodies were trapped in the last of the crushed compartments to be opened. But when they finally pierced the tangle of steel more than 12 hours after the crash, they found the compartment empty.

The French national railway system promised full compensation for the victims.

The deputy director general of the French railways, Pierre Descoutures, said many victims were Spanish and British tourists vacationing in France or en route to Spain. Their names were withheld until their families were notified.

The two major labor unions in the French rail system issued separate statements blaming the accident on economy cuts imposed by the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand.

The Communist-led General Confederation of Labor said the disaster ″demonstrates that the policy of financial balance at any cost is a real danger.″

Auroux announced an immediate, sweeping inquiry into safety procedures on the entire rail network. ″We have had three major accidents in succession, and that is three accidents too many,″ he said.

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