As Spain grieves for the 78 people dead after Wednesday’s deadly train derailment with memorial services planned for the victims, an increasing number of questions are being asked as to the causes of the accident and whether it was avoidable.
Festivities for Saint James, the patron saint of Compostela, have been cancelled and memorial services for the victims will be held instead. A judicial enquiry into the causes of the crash continues apace.
One of the two drivers of the train, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, with more than 30 years service to his credit, has been formally placed under investigation. Spanish media revealed that he had boasted of touching very high speeds on his Facebook page. “I’m at the limit and I can’t go any faster or they will fine me,” he posted along with a photo of a speedometer with the needle at 200 km per hour. That page has now been blocked.
Spanish rail authorities rule out any material or technical failure and have attempted to favour the human error theory. “The train had no operational problem whatsoever and had passed a technical check that very morning. The train’s record book showed it was in perfect working order,” the president of Renfe, Julio Gomez-Pomar Rodriguez told journalists.
While there is general consensus that excessive speed was the cause of the accident, specialists are asking if it could have been avoided by installing better preventive security measures on the track. The excessive speed certainly explains the very high casualty rate. Of the 222 persons on the train 80 died and 95 were injured over 30 of them critically.
“It was an accident just waiting to happen. Spain undertook an ambitious plan to develop a high-speed network in the 80s. But at some point Renfe ran out of money and the Spanish track is a tricky mix of high-speed [straight] and classic [curvy] track with different gauges. High speed trains travelling on such classic track have to take extra precautions,” Michel Chevalet, a specialist writer on science and technology told.
“On this particular part of the track linking Ourense to Santiago de Compostela, there are four kilometres where the high-speed track was not laid, probably because land acquisition cost too much. Trains have just a few seconds to go from speeds in excess of 180 km per hour to under 80 km per hour. The baffling aspect in security terms is that this bit of track used both by the AVE (super fast up to 250 km per hour) and the Alvia trains (upto 180 km per hour) is not equipped with the ERTMS or European Rail Traffic Management System which automatically blocks the train if the driver ignores warnings to slow down,” Mr. Chevalet explained.
This part of the track, considered particularly dangerous because of steep curves, is equipped with the AFSA system, which warns the driver when the train is over the speed limit but can block a train only when it is running at over 200 kilometres per hour. “Why was this allowed to happen? Not laying fresh track but converting the old gauge to accommodate faster trains meant that the Renfe spent substantially less. But was that wise?” Mr. Chevalet asked.
Renfe’s answer is that the curve is just four km short of a station and the driver has to slow down anyway. So in the eyes of the Transport Minister Rafael Catala, security was “adequate” and the accident was caused by “human error”.
But the Spanish railwaymen’s union ADIF said in a communiqué that the accident could have been avoided. The decision not to lay fresh track but to convert and adapt existing track “allowed substantial savings in investment and maintenance costs”, the union said.
“Unfortunately, the ERTMS system was not installed on the four kilometres of track before Santiago de Compostela,” Juan Garcia Fraile, the General secretary of the Spanish rail drivers’ union told Spanish national radio. Transport specialists say this bit of track was know to have caused problems in the past.