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Did failure of rail safety systems cause Spanish railway crash

This curve is in a “safety black spot” between two different safety systems, one described by rail unions as being “from the Franco era”

Did failure of rail safety systems cause Spanish railway crashIt has been revealed that two of the victims of this week’s tragic train crash in Galicia were residents of Roche Alto in Cartagena who were on their way to Santiago de Compostela to spend a few days with family.

The two have been named as José Luis Valeiras Poch, aged 72, and 68-year-old Leonor Buendia García, who were planning to visit the former’s family in the north-west of the country, and they are now listed among the 67 victims thus far identified out of the 80 dead. It is expected that the other thirteen will be identified by DNA analysis during the course of today, with some of the corpses being so badly burnt that other forms of identification have not been possible.

Relatives of those listed as missing but as yet unidentified have been providing DNA samples to facilitate the identification of each corpse.
Police have today formally reduced the death toll to 78 following the identification of two survivors.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the accident, investigations and recriminations continue as to the possible causes of the tragedy, and the general consensus is that while the excessive speed at which the train entered the curve (estimated at 190 km/h) could be partly due to human error, a technical fault possibly compounded the driver’s mistake. The driver has admitted that he was travelling too fast, but rail experts say that something must also have failed in the braking system of the train.

Most of the high-speed track which the train was using uses the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which incorporates a series of devices known as balises, or markers, theoretically making it impossible for a driver to exceed the speed limit on given sections of track. The system slows the train down automatically as a computerized trip-switch is thrown in the braking system, and an early-warning system also informs the driver in advance that he should be reducing speed before ERTMS takes over and does the job independently.

However, it has come to light that the stretch on which the Alvia train derailed is not equipped with ERTMS: the system ends at the exit from the tunnel just beforehand, and instead on the curve itself the older ASFA system is deployed. This also uses markers on the track which oblige the driver to obey speed limits and operates an emergency brake if he fails to do so.

What appears to have happened is that the ERTMS should have been activated at the exit from the tunnel before the train reached the A Grandeira curve, where there is an 80 km/h speed limit, but the AFSA system doesn’t come into operation until after the point at which the accident happened. In other words, there is a “blind spot” between the end of one safety system and the beginning of the other.

Some are speculating that Adif is investigating the possibility of the ERTMS having failed to slow the train down from 220 to 80 as it should have done, and all of Spain’s main television channels are devoting their morning chat programmes to interviews with experts and lawyers in an attempt to get to the bottom of the story and to establish whether the driver will be charged with involuntary homicide through imprudence. One theory being put forward is that the driver did activate the emergency brake, but at the speed involved two kilometres would have been needed in order to bring the train to a halt.

Did failure of rail safety systems cause Spanish railway crashThe Cobas trade union representing rail workers is indignant at the “premature” blame being attached to the driver, who has been arrested by police, and points out the inadequate combination of the two safety systems. Adif and Renfe will indeed be hard pushed to explain why a high-speed train was using stretches of track where “the safety measures date back to the times of Franco,” as the union says. Other questions to be addressed are why there are curves like A Grandeira at all on a high-speed train route, and why trains are forced to slow down from 200 km/h to 80 km/h in such a short distance.

The finger-pointing and speculation are certain to continue for a long time, but let it be hoped that none of this will divert attention from the individual personal tragedies suffered by those involved in the accident and their families and friends.

Flags are flying at half mast throughout Spain, and one minute silences as a mark of respect have been observed by administrations as a universal gesture of solidarity for the families of the 80 victims of the accident.

The railway driver has been placed in police custody, and the government has asked for prudence and respect to allow the authorities to undertake a full investigation into the tragedy and its causes.

Images: Flags flying at half mast outside Cartagena town hall today and the Government cabinet observing one minute’s silence


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