A Nordic Nightmare

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Fiona Donaldson marvels at the quirks of fate. Now back in England, she was among a group of eight headed home from a skiing holiday in northern Norway last Tuesday when the express train on which they were traveling collided head-on with a local train on the same track. At least 19 people were killed in one of the worst rail accidents in Norwegian history. Donaldson's entire party escaped relatively unscathed, but among those who perished was a young woman sitting just two rows behind her--in the seat the 31-year-old Briton had originally reserved. "It was completely random," Donaldson says. "We were just going along when there was a sudden massive jolt and we were thrown around the carriage as though it was a box somebody was shaking."

Both trains were moving at nearly 90 km/h, and the force of the impact was so great that the front part of Donaldson's carriage crumpled like an accordion. Diesel spilled from the express train's locomotive, and some who survived the actual crash died when they were unable to escape the resulting flames. Late into the evening more than 200 rescue workers who had converged on the scene of the accident near Elverum, 180 km north of Oslo, were still struggling to extricate survivors. The heat was so intense that some victims were burned beyond recognition, and days later the wreckage still glowed in the snowy landscape.

Questions quickly arose about the cause of the crash, although speculation that a delayed Y2K glitch may have played a role was immediately discounted. The most likely explanation involved human error, including the possibility that one of the drivers went through a red light. The Roeros line both trains were on has not yet been equipped with an automatic braking system, which stops any train running a red signal. Officials from the Norwegian state rail network (NSB) did, however, say that such an upgrade was due to be installed in the near future.

Both drivers died in the crash, so the investigation will have to reconstruct events without their testimony. A Norwegian television bulletin offered an especially tragic twist: rail traffic controllers reportedly observed the two trains on a collision course but were unable to warn the drivers because they could not locate their cell phone numbers. Trains on the Roeros line are not equipped with radios and the NSB acknowledges that "mobile telephones are the only method of communication for trains under way on the Roeros line."

Even after the wreckage is cleared and the track reopens, the Roeros line is unlikely to see much traffic. On Thursday, Norway's 1,100-member train engineers' union announced that it was boycotting the line until safety measures are improved.

With reporting by Ulla Plon/Copenhagen