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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Crash railmen spoke different languages
Wreckage of Pecrot crash
A French-speaking signal made warning call, but in vain
By the BBC's Oana Lungescu in Brussels

A train crash in Belgium on Tuesday might have been averted if a Flemish-speaking signalman had not misunderstood a warning from a French-speaking colleague.

Eight people, including the two drivers, died and 12 were injured in what was Belgium's worst railway crash in a quarter of a century.

A recording of the signalmen's conversation, released by the Belgian national railway company, is part of the evidence being examined by an official inquiry into the causes of the disaster.

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One Belgian newspaper summed up the disaster: "Eight dead because of 30 seconds of misunderstanding".

According to rail officials, the cause of the accident is clear.

Train passenger is consoled
The crash was Belgium's worst for 25 years
The driver of an empty train ignored a red signal and drove along the wrong track for several kilometres before ploughing into an oncoming passenger train.

But the audio recording shows that, minutes before, a clearly agitated French-speaking signalman rang his Flemish-speaking colleague at the next station, asking him to stop the passenger train.

The second signalman is then heard saying: "I don't understand you, can't you speak Flemish?"

The French-speaker says "Wait", and later appears to hang up.

New cash

Mindful that Belgian linguistic disputes often turn into political rows, railway officials say that, by releasing the tape, they wanted to rebut press allegations that it was the Flemish-speaker who had terminated the call.

Both French and Flemish - which is similar to Dutch - are official languages in Belgium and the signalmen were not obliged to speak both.

But officials admit that, if the two had been able to communicate, the accident might have been avoided.

King Albert (right) with Transport Minister Isabelle Durant (centre) and Queen Paola
King Albert II went to the crash scene
In the wake of the crash, railway unions complained of constant overwork and chronic under-investment in the mainly state-owned network.

The Belgian Government has now announced a $14bn investment plan. Some of the money will be used to equip trains with radios and a protection system designed to prevent trains going through red signals.

A spokeswoman for the railway told the BBC that they would not draw any immediate conclusions about linguistic training for signalmen.

Graphic showing where the trains collided

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See also:

28 Mar 01 | Europe
Belgian crash 'was avoidable'
27 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Belgian train crash
27 Mar 01 | Europe
Eyewitness: Belgian train crash
27 Mar 01 | Europe
Europe's rail safety questioned
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Belgium
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