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Spanish Train Driver Said to Be Arrested in Crash Probe

Spain Train Driver Said to Be Arrested as Fatal Crash Probed
A couple embrace as they leave the temporary morgue at Multiusos Fontes do Sar Sport Center in Santiago de Compostela on July 26, 2013. Photographer: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Spain arrested the driver of the train that crashed two days ago in the northwest killing 80 people, as judicial and government investigations focus on whether he was speeding.

The driver was detained yesterday evening in the hospital where he was treated and is being interrogated, said a Spanish police official today who asked not to be named. The Public Works Ministry ordered a probe from an independent body that looks into rail accidents, as the train wasn’t on high-speed track when it crashed and may have exceeded the 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour limit, a ministry spokeswoman said by phone.

There were 218 passengers on board when the train derailed on the Madrid-Ferrol route at 8:41 p.m. local time on a curve just outside the city of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region, state-owned rail company Renfe said. Thirty-two people, four of them minors, remain in critical condition in hospitals, the Galicia government said today. El Pais newspaper reported it was traveling at more than twice the allowed speed.

“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.”

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 portrayed 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 moving at 190 kilometers per hour as it entered the section of track, El Pais reported, citing a radio conversation between the driver and train-control staff.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy yesterday said that both the rail authorities and the courts are working to establish the reasons for the accident, without commenting on what they 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.

The tracks where the accident occurred 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.

Automatic Braking

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 is being rolled out on 2,500 kilometers of the track, the spokesman said. Automatic breaking involves communication with a second security system on board the train, he said.

The accident occurred during the culmination of the city’s St. James festivities, the Christian religious ceremony and popular 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.

Paris Crash

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.

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