John Giles  /  AP
Emergency crews worked into the night Friday after a train derailed near Lambrigg, England.
updated 2/24/2007 10:10:02 PM ET 2007-02-25T03:10:02

A defective rail line likely caused a high-speed commuter train crash in northern England that killed one passenger and sent cars hurtling down an embankment, the rail company’s owner said Saturday.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, speaking after he visited the scene of Friday’s crash, said authorities investigating the cause told him they suspected a problem with the rail line. He also said lives were probably spared because the train — a new model introduced in 2003 — was “built like a tank.”

“If it had been any of the old trains, the injuries and fatalities would have been horrendous,” he said.

The Glasgow-bound Virgin train, carrying 120 passengers and staff, crashed Friday night in countryside near the town of Lambrigg, 270 miles northwest of London. A total of 77 passengers were injured, five seriously.

Authorities were also examining railroad switches and investigating whether they had been left in the wrong position, throwing the carriages off the track, said Chief Superintendent Martyn Ripley of the British Transport Police.

Officials were focusing on one set of switches in particular, said Thomas Edwards, lead inspector for the Rail Accident Investigation Board.

Rescue workers had to search along muddy country lanes to locate the scene of the accident in the remote area. Local farmers had arrived ahead of them to help evacuate the injured. They were transported to hospitals by Royal Air Force helicopters.

“We are amazed that we didn’t have more fatalities on the scene — we have been very fortunate. It is little short of a miracle,” Ripley said.

Cumbria police said an 84-year-old woman died of her injuries in the hospital.

The front two carriages of the Pendolino train, which has a tilting mechanism that enables it to reach speeds of 125 mph, had been hurled off the track and down the embankment. Seven other carriages snaked behind, with one on its side.

Virgin Trains spokesman Lee West said the train was traveling at 95 mph at the time of the accident.

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