ZOUFFTGEN, France - A double-decker passenger train from Luxembourg collided head-on with a goods train in north eastern France on Wednesday, killing at least five people - fewer than first thought.
Rail officials said the trains were traveling on the same stretch of track because of maintenance work on an adjoining line, and slammed into each other in a wooded area near the Luxembourg border.
The force of the collision sent some freight trucks climbing up above the passenger train, hurling carriages out over the trackside in a giant 'V' and pushing other freight wagons down the opposite embankment.
"It is terrible. There was a head-on collision," Patrick Hatzig, a vice-president of the Lorraine regional council, told Reuters from the site of the crash.
Initial reports indicated as many as 13 people had died in the crash, but French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the actual number of dead appeared to be lower, adding that fewer people were traveling on the train than first believed.
"We know that there are five victims now," he told France Info radio after visiting the crash site. "Are there more? It's very difficult to say right now ... but it seems unlikely"
French television said three bodies were still trapped in the twisted metal of the passenger train, but work to release them had been suspended because the wreckage had become too unstable for emergency staff to work in safely.
Officials said at least two people were in a serious condition in hospital.
The passenger train consisted of just three carriages and was heading from Luxembourg to the French city of Nancy.
Seconds after crossing into France, at around 11.45am (10.45pm NZT), it slammed into the goods train, which had 22 wagons and was making its way to Luxembourg.
"We imagine that the trains were traveling at a high speed," said SNCF spokesman Guillaume Pepy.
France is proud of its rail network and Wednesday's crash appeared to be the worst train disaster in France since at least November 2002, when fire swept through a sleeper car on a Paris-Vienna express train, killing 12 people.
Pepy said the freight train had been given a green light to continue its journey by French signalers as it headed toward the Luxembourg border. It was not clear if the passenger train had also received a green light as it left Luxembourg.
The SNCF and French judicial authorities have opened separate crash investigations.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker both visited the scene.
"I am stunned. I am thinking about all those who caught this train and never made it to their loved ones," said Juncker.