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South African train crash kills 2, rattles World Cup preparations

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Today’s deadly train crash near Pretoria is a blow for South African tourism at a time when the country is desperate to succeed as the first-ever African host of the World Cup.

A vintage luxury train derailed as it arrived in Pretoria from Cape Town, killing two crew members and injuring dozens of passengers, most of them American tourists and some from Europe.

The accident comes as South Africa faces growing scrutiny over its hosting of the World Cup, only 50 days away, with newspapers reporting yesterday that less than half of the expected 500,000 tourists will actually make the trip for the international soccer championships.

The Rovos Rail “train safari” advertises itself as “the most luxurious train in the world,” and uses restored antique carriages. Two women who worked on the train died in the crash. One of the women was pregnant and she gave birth to a stillborn baby shortly after the accident. Rail staff had reportedly told passengers to jump from the train after its brakes failed as it approached Pretoria.

“I screamed at the others to tell them to jump off,” Rohan Vos, managing director of Rovos Rail, told media. “I jumped off while it was moving.”

The accident happened when the train, which was carrying 55 passengers, uncoupled from its electric locomotive to switch to a steam engine, what should have been a routine changeover. The switch somehow failed, for reasons still unclear, and the train began racing downhill, out of control.

Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele sought to reassure South Africans and foreign visitors, in a statement saying that the train derailment was an "isolated incident" that would not affect "the country's ability and readiness to host the tournament."

Prospective tourists to the soccer championships, which kick off June 11, have been put off by South Africa’s notorious violent crime rate and inflated airfare and accommodation prices. Only 220,000 visitors are expected for the World Cup, down from original estimates of 500,000, and revised estimates of 350,000.

Despite reports of dropping numbers of foreign tourists, South Africa has been a top international tourism destination in recent years, with visitor numbers remaining strong despite a global recession that hurt tourism in other parts of the world. South Africa’s game reserves, stunning landscapes, wines and the beauty of Cape Town have proved huge draws.

Luxury rail travel, including the famous “Blue Train,” is a pricey but popular way to see the country. The Rovos Rail train costs from $1,500 to $3,000 per passenger for the two-day trip from Cape Town to Pretoria.