The death toll was expected to rise, with some of the 55 injured in a critical condition
The crash happened at 8.30am, some 15km south of Brussels when two suburban trains carrying about 300 passengers between them collided. The trains tipped high into the air and broke overhead power lines.
Most of the dead and badly injured were in the first two carriages of each train. Rescuers had trouble cutting them out as the carriages were on top of one another. Some victims suffered amputations and other severe injuries, witnesses and officials said.
Scores of passengers, many covered in blood or unconscious were carried on stretchers to ambulances and taken to hospitals.
The emergency services’ job was made all the more difficult by the slippy conditions and the continuing falls of snow. Many people were treated at the scene and at a nearby sports stadium, while an estimated 150 more escaped injury.
One train going from Liege to Quievrain was 10 minutes late and was leaving the station at Buizingen. A train coming in the opposite direction from Leuven seemed to have failed to stop when the signal light was red.
The regional governor of Brabant-Flamand, Lodewijk De Witte told a press conference he did not know if there was a signal failure or it was due to human error.
One young woman who was in the first carriage in one of the trains escaped without a scratch. She told the local television: “We heard a big explosion. Everything was smashed together. Everything was all over the place — people, things and seating. I was very lucky but I saw a lot of people badly injured.”
“It was a nightmare,” Christian Wampach, 47, said after medical workers bandaged his head. “We were thrown about for about 15 seconds. There were a number of people injured in my car but I think all the dead were in the first car,” said Wampach, in the third car of the Brussels-bound train.
“When we came out we saw dead bodies lying next to the tracks, some mutilated,” said Patricia Lallemand, who was in the same car as Wampach, and was unhurt.
Another passenger said his train had just left the station and was picking up speed when the impact occurred. “We were very lucky, it would have been much worse if we were going faster,” he said.
Normally the trains would have been carrying students but for the mid-term break this week. A third train was coming into the station at the time on a parallel track and luckily avoided becoming enmeshed in the accident by braking in time.
The area is also used by high speed trains including the Eurostar from London and the Thayles from Paris and Amsterdam. All their services were cancelled following the accident as debris was strewn over the area and high-tension lines were also brought down.
Spokespeople for the rail services said they did not know when normal service would resume.