A train driver and Belgium's main railway companies were found guilty on Tuesday of causing a major crash which led to the deaths of 19 people after the driver ran a red light, in one of the deadliest rail accidents in Belgian history.
The Brussels police court ruled that the driver had indeed skipped a stop signal, despite claims by the man's lawyers that the light had not been red when the crash took place in Buizingen, some 20 kilometres south of Brussels, nearly a decade ago.
While the court found the driver guilty, he did not receive a criminal penalty, since the court ruled that the railway companies carried more responsibility in the accident for failing to put in place appropriate safeguards for the prevention of such disasters.
"The train driver is the last link in the [rail] safety apparatus — it will never be the only guarantee," the court's ruling said, according to reports by Belga news agency.
Railway manager Infrabel and national operator SNCB/NMBS were found equal parts responsible for the accident and the court slapped each company with a fine of €550,000.
SNCB originally faced a fine of €700,000 and Infrabel one of €650,000, in a lengthy trial launched in 2018 after years of investigations and which was further complexified when the court was made to hold new hearings in French, following changes in the court's jurisdiction which saw it originally hold the trial in Dutch.
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The train driver was initially facing a prison sentence, a request which prosecutors withdrew after a number of testimonies during the hearings.
The incident sometimes referred to as the Buizingen catastrophe or collision, cost 19 people their lives after two SNCB/NMBS passenger trains collided in the town of Buizingen in snowy conditions during the morning rush hour in February of 2010.
Following the verdict on Tuesday, both SNCB and Infrabel said it was "too early" to respond to the judgement, which the companies said they would study "thoroughly, Het Nieuwsblad reports.
A spokesperson with Infrabel said the railway management company was "committed to increasing safety on the rail network on a daily basis," adding that automatic braking systems were "rolled out at an accelerated pace," after the crash and that a new European safety system (ECTS) was being installed, with the entire network set to be equipped with it by 2025.
A representative for an association of victims of the accident said it was "satisfying" to know that those responsible for the accident would be punished, and that it would be "indecent" for the companies to file an appeal against the verdict.
"As victims, we will never be to completely dispose of this disaster, our loss will remain," the representative said. "We can now only hope that Infrabel and the NMBS will respect us as victims and not appeal. That would be indecent, that would be a shame."
The Brussels Times