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Toll could rise from Belgium train crash: operator

BRUSSELS – "A certain number of people, I don’t know how many, have been reported missing since yesterday," Infrabel spokeswoman Fanny Charpentier told AFP.

"The toll could get worse," said the spokeswoman, adding that search teams were discovering body parts among the carnage caused when two commuters trains collided outside Brussels during the Monday morning rush hour.

Belgian train drivers staged a wildcat strike on Tuesday charging that poor working conditions were a factor in the accident, worsening the disruption to rail travel in and to Belgium.

Eurostar said its services between Brussels and London would remain shut down for a third day Wednesday.

Fellow high-speed train operator Thalys announced the partial resumption of its Paris-Brussels service Tuesday, though a spokeswoman was unable to give any timetable for travel Wednesday.

Rail network operator Infrabel said work to clear the tracks would not be completed for some ten days as investigators pore over the crash site seeking to determine the cause.

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 and may be able to shed some light on its cause.

Some 150 others were injured in the accident near the town of Halle, 15 kilometres (nine miles) southwest of Brussels, with several in serious condition.

A row quickly blew up as those involved sought to apportion blame.

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.

"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."