Cause of Spanish train crash still uncertain

25 July 2013
By Edd Gent
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Rescue workers pull victims from a train crash near Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain

Rescue workers pull victims from a train crash near Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain

The driver of a Spanish train has been put under investigation after at least 78 people died when it hit a sharp bend at speed.

In one of Europe's worst rail disasters the train derailed and caught fire near Santiago de Compostela with dramatic video footage from a security camera outside the northwestern city showing the train, with 247 people on board, careering into a wall at the side of the track as carriages jack-knifed and the engine overturned.

El Pais newspaper said one of the train’s two drivers told the railway station by radio after being trapped in his cabin that the train entered the bend at 190kmph (120mph), twice the permitted speed.

One of the drivers of the train was under formal police investigation, a spokeswoman for Galicia's Supreme Court said today, and investigators are now urgently trying to establish why the train was going so fast and why failsafe security devices to keep speed within permitted limits had not worked.

Professor Roger Kemp, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “The big question is why the train was (reportedly) running at more than twice the speed limit.

“As the driver was leaving the high-speed line to join a much slower route before entering the station, there must have been at least prominent visual warnings to reduce speed, if not audible warnings and an electronic speed supervision system.

“It has been reported that investigators are studying the possibility of a failure of the braking system or other equipment and, until this investigation is complete, it is not possible to say what caused this accident.”

Spain's rail safety record is better than the European average, ranking 18th out of 27 countries in terms of railway deaths per kilometres travelled, the European Railway Agency said. There were 218 train accidents in Spain between 2008-2011, well below the European Union average of 426 for the same period, the agency said.

The disaster happened at 8.41pm (6.41pm GMT) last night but cranes were still removing the wreckage of the train, which was operated by state-owned company Renfe, this morning.

The eight-carriage train, built by Bombardier and Talgo and was around five years old, was travelling from Madrid to Ferrol on the Galician coast when it derailed, Renfe said in a statement. The train left Madrid on time and was travelling on schedule, a spokeswoman said.

Both Renfe and state-owned Adif, which is in charge of the tracks, had opened an investigation into the cause of the derailment, Renfe said. The official source added that no statement would be made regarding the cause until the black boxes of the train were examined, but that it was most likely an accident.

According to El Pais newspaper, citing sources close to the investigation, the driver who reported the high speed told the station: "We're only human! We're only human!"

He reportedly added: "I hope there are no dead, because this will fall on my conscience."

The incident comes just weeks after a six people were killed and more than 20 injured in a train crash at Bretigny-sur-Orge, south of Paris.

Peter Sheppard, from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: "Railways generally have a very high safety record, but it is disappointing to see two recent major incidents (France and Spain) where there has been a significant loss of life.

"However, and this is based on news reports only, it would seem that both are as a result of human error and not the technology involved."

He continued: "The former case, France, appears to be a maintenance issue, the latter case, Spain, based on the first reports, seems to be as a result of a significant over-speed, although there could well be other factors as what is perceived by passengers is sometimes different to reality.

"What has to happen when the inquiries are complete is to determine if there is any methods by which technology could have intervened, prevented or given early warning of these accidents and either supported the infrastructure maintenance teams or advised/intervened in the cab."

Spain is struggling to emerge from a long-running recession marked by government-driven austerity to bring its deeply indebted finances into order.

But Adif, the state railways infrastructure company, said no budget cuts had been implemented on maintenance of the line, which connects La Coruna, Santiago de Compostela and Ourense and was inaugurated in 2011.

It said more than 100 million euros a year were being spent on track maintenance in Spain.

Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "It is still too early to say with any certainty exactly what happened but accident investigators are likely to be looking at a number of factors which could have caused or contributed to this accident.

"They will be looking at the role of the signalling and speed advice system, as well as the role of the driver. They will also be investigating whether there were any other technical or component causes like rail breakages, train defects or damage caused by vandalism that could have contributed to the accident."

She continued: "Another key issue which will need to be investigated is the performance of the train vehicles and whether any design improvements or adjustments could have protected more people from harm.

"Rail travel remains one of the safest ways to travel, with far fewer deaths and injuries than other forms of transport such as car travel. The UK also has the joint-safest railway safety record in Europe."

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