Paris train crash investigation under scrutiny in wake of Santiago derailment

Incident a fortnight ago killed two passengers and four people on platform

French railway employees and rescue workers inspect the wreckage of a derailed intercity train at the Bretigny-sur-Orge station near Paris on July 13th. Photograph: Reuters

French railway employees and rescue workers inspect the wreckage of a derailed intercity train at the Bretigny-sur-Orge station near Paris on July 13th. Photograph: Reuters


The train crash that killed at least 80 people in Spain has refocused attention in France on the derailment near Paris a fortnight ago in which six people died.

Two passengers and four people who were waiting on the platform were killed when the Paris-Limoges train came off the track while passing through the suburban station at Brétigny-sur-Orge.

The French railway company SNCF completed its preliminary investigation into the crash on Wednesday, the day of the Spanish catastrophe, and the prosecutor of Evry opened an investigation for “homicide and unintentional wounding” on the same day.

Despite the use of the word “homicide” SNCF president Guillaume Pepy said at this stage “neither the police nor anyone else” had evidence indicating that the French derailment was intentional.

The prosecutor’s office, however, reported that at least two suitcases were stolen from passengers on the wrecked train.

Surveillance videos in the station showed individuals leaving with suitcases they did not have when they entered. Some of the stolen belongings were subsequently recovered at the Châtelet metro station in Paris.

Stones thrown
The prosecutor also confirmed that stones were thrown at five firemen who participated in the rescue on the night of July 12th.

A controversy has arisen over the failure to secure the crash site. “There were so many people, rescuers and railway workers, that evidence was handled and moved,” an investigator told Libération newspaper.

Mr Pepy tacitly admitted that the scene of the crash was altered. “We took photos. There were about 50 people on the site. We collected everything that was lying around – pieces of the fishplate, etc – so that nothing would be lost. These actions will not in any way change the work of the metallurgical experts.”

A 10 kilo fishplate – a splice bar that was held in place by four 12 cm bolts – was found in the midst of the switching system, some 200m from the Bretigny station. The mystery is how the fishplate was displaced, whether by human intervention, vibrations or the hot weather.

“The investigation will naturally be oriented towards the cause of the absence, the breakage or unscrewing of the bolts,” Evry prosecutor Eric Lallement said. “The movement of this fishplate seems to be at the origin of the catastrophe.” He doubted a priori that it was caused by malevolence.

Delay criticised
The prosecutor’s office has been criticised for taking nearly two weeks after the crash to open its investigation, because Mr Lallement was on his summer holiday.

Mr Lallement also said the maintenance of the line, which underwent a “visual” check eight days before the crash, would be investigated.

In the wake of the crash, the government is re-emphasising president François Hollande’s campaign promise to shift from the high-speed TGV lines, which serve 300,000 passengers, to the slower, “everyday” trains taken by four million people daily.

Three days before the crash, prime minister Jean-March Ayrault announced he would end “the logic of big, pharaonic, all-TGV projects” to concentrate instead on local trains. Of the five TGV lines promised for 2017, only one, linking Bordeaux and Toulouse, will be completed before 2030.