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49 die as Argentine train hits station; Rush-hour crash blamed on a failing rail system

A train packed with morning commuters slammed into a downtown station on Wednesday, killing 49 people and injuring hundreds as passenger cars crumpled and windows exploded around them. It was Argentina's worst train accident in decades.

The cause wasn't immediately determined, but many pointed to a deteriorating rail system. Some passengers reported signs the conductor was struggling with the brakes before the crash, saying he kept overshooting platforms and missed one entirely.

The dead include 48 adults and one child -- most of whom had crowded into the first two cars to get ahead of the rush-hour crowds on arrival. Some 600 people were injured, including 461 who were hospitalized, Transportation Secretary J.P. Schiavi said.

"It was an accident like those in many other countries," Schiavi told a news conference, pointing to a newspaper clipping about a fatal crash in Los Angeles. "In recent years, we've made huge investments" in the system, he asserted.

As Schiavi spoke Wednesday afternoon, riot police faced off against angry passengers in the closed Once station, where emergency workers spent hours extracting dozens of people trapped inside the first car. Rescuers had to carve open the roof and set up a pulley system to ease them out one by one. Dozens of injured survivors on stretchers were lined up on the station platform.

The conductor, 28, who survived the crash, was apparently well-rested, Schiavi said, having just begun his workday.

"Tiredness, his (young) age, the problems that a conductor might face" are among the factors being investigated, he said. "This young person had just begun his shift moments before the accident."

The motorman was hospitalized in intensive care and hasn't given a statement, Schiavi said.

Passengers said the conductor seemed to struggle with the brakes, missing his stopping marks at station after station, though a labor union official said the train appeared to be in good working order.

"This machine left the shop yesterday and the brakes worked well. From what we know, it braked without problems at previous stations. At this point I don't want to speculate about the causes," union chief Ruben Sobrero told Radio La Red.

Most damaged was the first car, where passengers shared space with bicycles. Survivors said many people were injured in a jumble of metal and glass. Security camera images showed windows exploding as the cars crumpled into each other like an accordion, with a man on the adjacent platform scrambling across the tracks to escape the wreck.

President Cristina Fernandez canceled her day's agenda due to the accident, which raised fresh doubts about government investment in the train system millions depend on. While largely privatized, the system depends on huge state subsidies, and fares are relatively low compared with other countries in the region.