Spain Probe Into Rail Crash That Killed 80 Focuses on Speed

By Angeline Benoit and Ben Sills | July 26, 2013

The Spanish judicial and government probes of a train crash that killed 80 people are focusing on whether the driver was speeding and why safeguards didn’t prevent the nation’s worst rail accident in 40 years.

The Public Works Ministry ordered an investigation from an independent body in charge of looking into rail accidents as the train wasn’t on high-speed tracks at the moment of the July 24 accident and may have broken a speed limit of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, a ministry spokeswoman said today by phone. She asked not to be named in line with official policy.

“The key point is how come this train was going too fast, despite it being a modern train with many safety systems,” Christian Wolmar, a transport historian and the author of “Broken Rails,” an analysis of Britain’s train network, said by telephone yesterday. “The driver should not have been able to go this fast.”

There were 218 passengers on board when the train derailed on the Madrid-Ferrol route at 8:41 p.m. local time as it entered a bend on the outskirts of the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest region of Galicia, state-owned rail company Renfe said in a statement. Company officials didn’t immediately answer calls today for further information. Thirty-two people, four of them minors, remain in critical condition in hospitals, the Galicia government said today.

The tragedy occurred on a line that is part of the high- speed network that successive governments have made a symbol of the nation’s modernization. Security-camera video shown on Spanish television showed the rear of the locomotive whipping off the rails in the curve before passenger cars broke into pieces as they collided with a concrete wall along the track.

Double Speed Limit?

The train was traveling at 190 kilometers per hour as it entered the section of track, El Pais newspaper reported yesterday, citing a radio conversation between the driver and train-control staff. The driver was arrested yesterday in the hospital where he is being treated and is being interrogated, said a police official today who asked not to be name in line with government policy.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy yesterday said that both the rail authorities and the courts are working to establish the reason for the accident, without commenting on what the causes may have been. He declared three days of national mourning.

The derailment happened between 3 kilometers and 4 kilometers from the station in Santiago, according to a statement from ADIF, the administrator of Spain’s rail network.

Speed Safeguards

Those tracks aren’t equipped with the European Rail Traffic Management System, said a spokesman for the ADIF rail operator today in a telephone interview, asking not to be named in line with company policy. The ERTMS monitors train speeds and overrides drivers if they breach restrictions, he said. The system works well in parts of Europe where it has been installed, European Commission spokesman Joe Hennon told reporters today in Brussels.

Spain’s 15,000 kilometers of conventional and high-speed track are currently equipped with a system that forces the train to slow down if an obstacle is detected ahead, he said. The ERTMS system has being rolled out on 2,500 kilometers of track, the spokesman said. Automatic breaking involves communication with a second security system on board the train, he said.

Pilgrimage for Pious

The accident occurred during the culmination of the St. James festivities in Santiago, the Christian religious ceremony and arts festival that commemorates the saint known in Spanish as Santiago. Many locals return to the city from Madrid to join the celebrations, and pilgrims from around the world traditionally converge on foot and attend mass in the cathedral, where relics of the apostle are said to be held. The city of about 100,000 people is situated about 600 kilometers northwest of the capital, near the Atlantic coast.

There are no material parallels with a crash south of Paris on July 12 that killed six people and in which the fault lay with the track, Wolmar said. The Alvia 730 train was built by a joint venture of Spain’s Talgo and Bombardier Inc., according to Cadena Ser wire service. The hybrid diesel-electric train has a top speed of 240 kph.

As many as 86 people died when trains collided near Seville in southern Spain in 1972. In 2004, 191 people were killed when groups inspired by al-Qaeda planted bombs on commuter trains in Madrid three days before national elections.

Spain opened its first high-speed rail line in 1992 and currently has the world’s third-largest network, with 2,515 kilometers of tracks, according to figures from the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer, a global organization of rail operators.

(With assistance from Charles Penty in Madrid , Katie Linsell in Madrid, Robert Wall and Angelina Rascouet in London, Frank Longid in Hong Kong, Chris Cooper and Peter Langan in Tokyo and Andrew Clapham in Brussels. Editors: Todd White, Eddie Buckle)

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