A train derailment near Paris that killed six people was caused by a fault in the tracks, France's state rail company said yesterday, as the transport minister urged upgrades to ageing regional lines.
The SNCF said the derailment on Friday, which also left dozens injured, was caused by a connecting bar that had come loose at a set of points at the station at Bretigny-sur-Orge, about 25 kilometres south of Paris.
The joint bar "broke away, it became detached and came out of its housing", said Pierre Izard, the SNCF's general manager for infrastructure.
It "lodged itself at the centre of the points, prevented the normal progression of the train's wheels and seems to have caused the train's derailment", he said.
The company said the points had been checked on July 4 and that it was immediately ordering checks of some 5,000 similar joints on its network.
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said human error was not to blame for the accident and praised the train's driver who prevented a collision with an oncoming train.
"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," he told French radio yesterday.
A minute of silence was held at noon yesterday on all French trains and in all stations for the victims of the accident, which took place as many were leaving for summer vacations ahead of the Bastille Day holiday today.
The local prefect's office said the dead were four men and two women, aged between 19 and 82.
Nine people had also been seriously injured in the accident, including two who were in critical condition. Health officials said at least 50 people had been treated for injuries.
A railway passenger association denounced what it called "rust-bucket trains" and the practice of coupling different types of trains together, demanding proper inspections.
Witnesses said the crash site resembled a war zone, with one survivor, passenger Marc Cheutin, 57, 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.
Officials said the derailment happened minutes after the intercity train left the Paris-Austerlitz station.
"The train arrived at the station at high speed. It split in two for unknown reasons. Part of the train continued to roll while the other was left on its side on the platform," a police source said.
Cuvillier, who also visited the crash site, said the train had been travelling at 137km/h at the time. That was below the 150km/h limit for that part of the track.
Officials dismissed reports from police unions of a group of people pretending to be part of rescue efforts and attempting to steal from the victims, and of gangs throwing stones at emergency workers.
Cuvillier said he was unaware of any reports of victims being robbed.
He said one person was arrested for trying to steal a mobile phone from a rescue worker, but that it was an "isolated incident".