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Train drivers strike after deadly Belgium crash

Belgian train drivers went on strike 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.

world Updated: Feb 16, 2010 22:40 IST

Belgian train drivers went on strike 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.

Travel mayhem was set to continue Wednesday after Eurostar announced the cancellation of services between Brussels and London for a third straight day.

Thalys high-speed links to France, Germany and the Netherlands were closed Tuesday while travel in Belgium was badly disrupted by a wildcat driver strike over poor work conditions blamed for contributing to the horrendous accident.

On the ground EU experts joined investigators in the grim task of scouring the wreckage of the trains.

Some 100 people were injured in the crash, with several in such grave condition that it was feared the death toll could rise.

One of the train drivers was among the 15 men and three women killed.

Police were waiting to interview the surviving driver who was badly injured in the crash, which occurred Monday near the town of Halle, 15 kilometres (nine miles) southwest of Brussels, and may be able to shed some light on its cause.

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

The train line involved 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 as a row over rail safety flared up involving rail network operator Infrabel, national train operator SNCB, the union and the European Commission.

"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 Infrabel, 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."

Descheemaecker said delays in harmonising European rules on automatic braking systems meant it would take until 2013 to equip all SNCB trains with the technology.

That version of events was quickly dismissed by the EU Commission.

"We don't think that at this stage the arguments can be founded on evidence," said commission spokeswoman Helen Kearns, urging all parties to await the results of the official investigation.

An EU transport expert added: "We have absolutely not prevented the Belgian state or the SNCB from installing a national security system."

The Brussels public prosecutor's office said accident investigators had resumed work at the crash site after sealing off several nearby roads.

The prosecutor warned it would take repair teams three more days to fix the tracks once investigators have completed their work.

The high-speed crash happened at around 8:30 am (0730 GMT) 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.

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