Runaway luxury train for tourists derails in South African capital, 2 dead

By Nkemeleng Nkosi, AP
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Runaway luxury train derails in S.Africa, 2 dead

PRETORIA, South Africa — A luxury train filled with foreign tourists, many of them Americans, sped downhill out of control before derailing in South Africa Wednesday, killing a pregnant woman and another crew member and trapping passengers in the mangled coaches.

Rail officials advised passengers and crew to jump from the train as it sped into Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, after their attempts to apply brakes did not work.

“I screamed at the others to tell them to jump off,” said Rovos Rail Managing Director Rohan Vos. “I jumped off while it was moving.”

The train was carrying nearly 60 passengers, and about 20 of them were injured, including 10 Americans, the U.S. Embassy and reports from emergency officials said.

The Rovos Rail voyage had begun in Cape Town and was close to its destination in Pretoria when it stopped for what is usually a routine change from an electric to a steam locomotive, said Nothemba Dlali of Metro Rail, which oversees rail service in South Africa’s major population centers. The train trip is billed as a re-creation of the golden age of travel.

Dlali said the train began moving after the electric locomotive was removed but before the steam engine could be attached, and gathered speed while rolling down a slope.

Seventeen coaches derailed just outside a station in Pretoria, said Johan Pieterse of the capital’s community safety department. Pieterse said two people died at the scene. Power tools had to be used to cut some passengers from the wreckage.

“Patients were strewn all over the scene,” said Werner Vermaak, spokesman for a private ambulance company ER24, the South African Press Association reported.

Emergency worker Chris Botha told SAPA the pregnant woman went into labor immediately after the crash, possibly from the force of the impact, but neither she nor her baby survived.

Crumpled cars on their sides with broken windows littered the site. Metrorail said it would take two days to clear the debris, during which rail service in and out of the capital would be disrupted and buses would be pressed into service.

The train derailment comes just seven weeks before hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists are expected to descend upon South Africa for the World Cup.

Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele said in a statement the derailment was an isolated incident that would not affect “the country’s ability and readiness to host the tournament.”

The passengers included 44 Americans, four each from France, South Africa and Britain, and three from Germany, for a total of 59, Vos said. The U.S. Embassy put the number of Americans at 40. The discrepancy could not be immediately resolved.

The embassy said 10 Americans were hospitalized.

U.S. Ambassador Donald Gips went to the scene to express condolences.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people impacted by this accident,” he said in a statement. “We want to thank the South African emergency response and others who assisted immediately, and we will continue working closely with South African authorities to help the affected Americans.”

The two-day Cape Town-Pretoria trip can cost from about $1,500 to nearly $3,000 per passenger.

Rovos Rail offers holiday trips across Africa. The trains combine Edwardian period features such as wood paneling with modern conveniences like air conditioning and hot showers.

The Rovos Rail website says the trains can carry as many as 72 passengers in 36 cabins. The routes were established in 1989 and run with restored locomotives. The oldest engine in the fleet is a 76-ton “Class 6″ locomotive originally built in 1893; the youngest is a 225-ton steam engine built in 1954.

The train travels around South Africa and to Namibia and Tanzania.

The train also traverses the famed “Cape to Cairo” route, a monthlong journey between Cape Town near the southern tip of South Africa and Egypt’s bustling capital. That journey can cost up to $56,000 per passenger.

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