A crowded passenger train collided with a freight train here Friday, killing 6 people, injuring 170 and raising renewed questions over the privatization of Britain’s railways, which some experts contend has led to a serious deterioration in safety and service standards.
Train carriages were split open like tin cans and debris strewn over a vast area, with personal possessions and seats all over the site of the crash, which occurred at 1:20 p.m. at Southall station in West London. Police said at least 13 of the injured were in critical condition; it is feared some bodies may be stuck in the twisted wreckage, from which 16 people were pulled out.
The passenger train, an express, was traveling from Swansea, Wales, to Paddington station in London.
The cause of the collision was not immediately known, but faulty signal equipment was the subject of immediate speculation. The high-speed track is designed to allow trains to travel 125 miles an hour.
A spokesman for Railtrack, which owns and manages Britain’s rail network, said the freight train, which was carrying stones, among other things, collided with the passenger train as the freight train crossed the main line on its way to the Southall freight yard. The collision caused the engine to burst open in flames.
The engineer of the passenger train was being held Friday night for questioning, the British Transport police said. The freight engineer was released.
Police said scores of uninjured passengers walked away from the crash site. At least 12 fire trucks arrived within minutes to extinguish flames in the engine car and some of the front carriages. Fire fighters climbed over the wreckage to reach trapped passengers, as did medical personnel, some of whom were flown to the scene by helicopter.
Passengers said the train from Swansea was so crowded that some people were traveling standing up when the crash occurred.
“There was a blow and a huge ball of fire,” said Joginder Bhatia, who was near the site of the accident. “We ran out of the houses here, and people came out with first aid.”
Sue Orr, a passenger, said on Sky TV news that she saw a lot of people in shock, with bruises and cuts and blood on their clothes. “There’s people crying and trying to comfort each other,” said Orr, who was in one of the last cars. “It’s pretty horrific, really.”
The accident immediately drew sharp criticism about the condition of the privatized British rail industry, which has experienced several failures in service and has been the subject of complaints from the public and the news media over the last year. There have been no other major accidents since privatization.
Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the main rail workers’ union, cast some of the blame on how the industry has been fragmented, with the ownership of tracks, trains and maintenance services parceled out to different companies.