Children were aboard doomed TGV test ride, French rail says

Eckwersheim (France) (AFP) - Children were aboard a high-speed train that derailed during a test run in northeast France, an unprecedented accident that claimed 11 lives, the French rail company said Sunday.

"A few children... were among the injured," an SNCF spokesman said.

"The investigation should determine the number of people present on the train (and those who) were not authorised to be on it," he said.

Officially, 49 technicians and railwaymen were assigned to conduct a test run Saturday of the next-generation of the TGV, France's flagship high-speed train, which was due to go into service next spring.

The accident near Strasbourg killed 11 and injured 37, of whom 12 remain in critical condition, according to local deputy prosecutor Alexandre Chevrier.

Investigators Sunday were trying to determine how many more people were travelling on the train.

The train ended up partially submerged in a canal in the town of Eckwersheim.

It had struck a bridge before jumping the track and breaking in two, the SNCF said Sunday.

"Some of the cars fell in the canal, and the others in a field," a spokesman said.

On Sunday, workers used a crane and steel cables to hoist the wreck out of the water as dozens of passers-by looked on.

SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy told French radio that investigators had been given the list of those authorised to be on board.

"Whether it's railwaymen or guests, people on the list or people not on the list, SNCF will be responsible for all the victims," he said.

The probe will determine who rode along with the test team and "in what circumstances were they allowed to board this train. SNCF does not approve this practice... a train test is a train test," Pepy said.

Investigators were unable to say how many children were aboard. Asked about their assertion Saturday that five people were missing, Chevrier said they were still trying to piece together "how many passengers may have boarded and how."

He had said earlier that "no body was found" during searches on Sunday, "only body parts that may have belonged to victims already accounted for."

The unprecedented crash of the new TGV ("train a grande vitesse" or high-speed train), was "a huge shock", Pepy told a news conference earlier.

- 'Inexplicable' -

"So far the accident is inexplicable," he added.

Pepy said sabotage or an attack had not been ruled out, but were considered unlikely causes.

A senior official in the Alsace region on Saturday blamed "excessive speed" for the disaster.

The train was running at around 350 kph (217 mph) when it derailed, a source close to the inquiry said Saturday.

The Strasbourg probe into "involuntary homicide and injury" has in hand the train's black box data storage units.

While there have been derailments of French TGV trains in the past, Saturday's was the first to claim lives.

The worst train accident in France in recent years occurred in July 2013 when a commuter train derailed in a Paris suburb killing seven people and injuring dozens more.

The new trains are designed to speed the journeys between Paris and eastern France, eventually extending to Luxembourg.

But it was now "reasonable to assume" that the high-speed Paris-Strasbourg line would not be opened next April as planned, SNCF board member Jacques Rapoport said.

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