CAPE TOWN — A passenger train burst into flames on Thursday after striking two vehicles at a crossing in a remote part of central South Africa, killing at least 18 people and injuring more than 260, the authorities said.
Mondli Mvambi, a spokesman for the provincial health department, said that a truck driver had miscalculated the train’s speed and tried to dash across the tracks at the crossing, just outside the town of Kroonstad, and that a passenger vehicle had also been involved.
“The death toll may rise,” Mr. Mvambi said. “Three burned carriages are yet to be lifted to check if anyone is trapped inside. It can take 36 hours. Rescuers are working as fast as they can.”
The national transport minister, Joe Maswanganyi, told news outlets that the truck driver had been taken to the hospital. “We are going to do a blood test to verify if he was sober or not,” Mr. Maswanganyi said.
Mr. Mvambi said the truck driver, though injured, had tried to run away after the accident but had been apprehended by the police and escorted to the hospital.
The train, operated by the state-owned Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, or Prasa, was carrying passengers home to Gauteng, the northern province that contains the city of Johannesburg, from the east coast after the summer holidays, a time when migrant workers traditionally return to their family homesteads in rural parts of the country.
Wealthier travelers can book private sleeper cubicles, but most passengers ride in seated rows near the front of the train. That section violently derailed after this morning’s collision.
Tiaan Esterhuizen, 32, a telecommunications engineer, was traveling with his extended family — 13 people in total, ranging from 5 months to 83 years old — when the crash occurred. He said he was making the journey by train for the first time, after a colleague was killed in a car accident during the holiday season last year. “We thought it would be the safer route,” he said.
Shortly after 9 a.m., while finishing breakfast in the dining car, Mr. Esterhuizen said, he “heard a big bang, followed by second big bang, then heard and felt the train derailing.” He said he sent out a plea for help on Twitter and joined a frantic rescue effort involving local farmers and, later, the authorities.
After evacuating his family, Mr. Esterhuizen said, he ran toward the front of the train, where he counted at least 12 derailed carriages. Several were already burning fiercely, spewing clouds of black smoke. Three women, trapped inside one of the cars, were crying for help, and Mr. Esterhuizen clambered over wreckage to reach them.
Someone shattered the windows with a fire extinguisher, but the women, crushed by their seats, could not be freed, he said. One repeatedly screamed that her baby was stuck somewhere beneath her. Another woman lay quietly as the flames drew nearer.
Ten minutes later, the entire carriage was alight, chasing the rescuers back. “Those women must have died,” Mr. Esterhuizen said. “We didn’t find the baby, either. It’s been very traumatic.”
The Railway Safety Regulator of South Africa, a government agency, says that 495 people died in train accidents in South Africa last year, with 2,079 injured — almost six daily.
Last year, 87 accidents occurred at level crossings. Since 2010, South African railways have experienced, on average, a “railway incident” — including collisions, derailments, fires and electric shocks — every 16 minutes.
Mthuthuzeli Swartz, the acting chief executive of Prasa, told local news outlets that 18 people died in the collision on Thursday, a figure that could not be confirmed by the provincial health authorities.
The crash appeared to be the deadliest since 2012, when the driver of a truck carrying farmworkers collided with a train at a crossing in Mpumalanga, a province in northeastern South Africa, killing 26 workers.
“The vexing question is why this frequency of railway occurrences remains so consistently high despite all the grand efforts of the R.S.R. and the licensed operators to reduce them,” according to the agency’s most recent State of Safety report, published last year.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Madelein Williams, said it had dispatched inspectors to Kroonstad and would release a report on the latest crash in the next 24 hours.
Russel Meiring, a spokesman for ER24 Emergency Medical Services, a private rescue provider, said that South Africa had seen some train collisions caused by incorrect markings at crossings, but that the problem was more often people taking a chance and thinking they could beat the train.
“These things move faster than they appear,” he said. “Some take more than a kilometer to slow down. Vehicles will always come off second best.”
Prasa has been embroiled in a series of corruption cases in the past decade, including a decision in 2013 to award a dubious contract, worth more than $300 million, for a new fleet of trains that exceeded the maximum height limit of South Africa’s railways. A high court judgment last year ruled the decision “criminal.”