Luxury train horror

22 April 2010 - 00:43 By SALLY EVANS and CHARL DU PLESSIS

Two women and a baby died and six passengers were critically injured when a Rovos Rail luxury train carrying scores of foreign tourists derailed near Pretoria.

The accident happened when the 19-carriage train with 55 passengers and 30 staff aboard was changing locomotives at the Centurion station, south of Pretoria, at about 12pm.

By late last night, 50 days ahead of the start of the World Cup, reports of the accident were being carried by international news organisations including the BBC, Daily Mail and Independent newspapers in the UK, as well as the Chinese People's Daily and the US's Houston Chronicle.

London's Daily Mail reported: "The accident comes only seven weeks before hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists are expected to descend upon South Africa for the World Cup."

Both women who died in the wreckage, whose names were not released by late last night, worked for the private railway company.

One of the women was pregnant and gave birth after going into spontaneous labour during the accident. Both the woman and the baby died.

The other woman is believed to have worked for the company for 15 years.

Emergency workers first at the scene, described it as "carnage and horrific" as some carriages had fallen on top of each other, trapping passengers inside.

One woman had to be airlifted to hospital after she sustained a broken pelvis. Others sustained broken bones, fractures and cuts.

They were taken to various hospitals around Pretoria, including the Steve Biko Academic hospital.

Of the 55 passengers, 40 were American, four were French, four British, four South African and two German. Most passengers were couples on holiday who had booked through Tusker Tours. The tour operator could not be reached for comment.

Joe Mathala, a Rovos Rail train manager who witnessed the accident, said: "I saw the coaches start rolling down, so we tried to get large rocks to put under the coaches. But it was a downward slope from Centurion. So, with the pressure of being on a slope together with 19 carriages, we needed a lot more people. We couldn't stop it on our own."

US Ambassador Donald Gips arrived at the scene.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who was hurt today. We're very much appreciative of the quick response of the South African rescue services. We are still trying to understand all the details so we can be as helpful as possible," he said.

The US Embassy's Sharon Hudson-Dean said last night that forty American tourists were traveling on the train: "It is our understanding that ten of them are now at a hospital. U.S. Mission staff has accounted for the location of all of the American citizens and have personally offered assistance."

British High Commission spokesman Gary Benham said: "We've been in contact with [our citizens] and we understand they're being looked after by the train company. They're not injured at all."

German ambassador Dieter Haller was also at the scene. His spokesman, Martin Schaeffer, said the German passengers were "fine physically but a bit traumatised and would be flying home soon".

Rovos Rail owner and managing director Rohan Vos told reporters at Pretoria's Bosman Street station that their trains had "always stopped at Centurion" to change from an electric to a steam locomotive.

Vos said yesterday that, for reasons still unknown, "the steam unit was waiting for a signal to reverse the train but the carriages started moving".

Despite applying handbrakes to three of the carriages, the enormous weight of the train and the steep gradient of the track meant it could not be stopped.

"About 10km down, 16 carriages derailed, some badly," Vos said.

The Pride of Africa luxury train, which left Cape Town on Monday morning, was expected in Pretoria yesterday afternoon.

An investigation has now been launched by Metrorail to establish the cause of the accident, but some have speculated that the train's vacuum brakes did not apply when the electric locomotive was uncoupled.

Vos said the accident was the first for the company in its 21-year history.

"Derailments happen, and they are usually not serious. Unfortunately this is quite serious," he said.

Exchanging locomotives has been standard practice on Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa trains for many years. The luxury train operator owns a fleet of steam locomotives, which it uses to haul the train over a few kilometres between its depot and Centurion in order to give its passengers a different experience.

The trains take tourists around South Africa as well as to Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Dar es Salaam.

By late last night, emergency workers were still at the scene removing debris and searching through the wreckage, and sniffer dogs had been sent in to establish whether other people had been trapped inside. - Additional reporting by Paul Ash