Spanish Train Speed Probed as Crash Death Toll Reaches 80

The death toll from the July 24 rail crash in northwest Spain reached 80 people, making it the country’s worst such accident in more than 40 years. Questions were raised about the train’s speed.

The train carrying 218 passengers on the Madrid-Ferrol route derailed at 8:41 p.m. local time as it entered a bend on the outskirts of the city of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region, state-owned rail company Renfe said. The line is part of the high-speed network that successive governments have made a symbol of Spain’s modernization.

Security-camera footage of the accident broadcast on Spanish television showed the rear of the locomotive sliding off the rails as it took the curve and then disintegrating as it collided with a concrete wall alongside the track.

Images from the scene showed one carriage shredded by the impact and another thrown up a 5-meter (16-foot) embankment. The bodies of victims lay on the gravel alongside the rails, covered with blankets brought by locals who rushed to help after hearing an explosion. The death toll was given by a government spokeswoman who asked not to be named in line with official practice.

Among those killed in the accident, 53 people have been identified. Ninety-five remain hospitalized, with 36 of them in critical condition, the spokeswoman said.

‘Major Challenge’

“It’s a major challenge to identify the people who have died,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a televised statement from Santiago, where he inspected the crash site and visited survivors. “Unfortunately, in many cases, this isn’t easy, but we are very conscious that the families cannot live in a state of uncertainty.”

The accident occurred the day before the fiesta of St. James, a Christian festival that commemorates the saint known in Spanish as Santiago, when many locals return to the city from Madrid to join the celebrations. Relics of the apostle are held in the cathedral in the city of about 100,000 people situated about 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest of the capital, near the Atlantic coast.

Among the dead was one American, and five were injured in the crash, the U.S. said yesterday. Those numbers may change, said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.

“The American people grieve with our Spanish friends, who are in our thoughts and prayers,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “We stand ready to provide any assistance we can in the difficult days ahead.”

High Speeds

The train was traveling at 190 kilometers per hour (118 miles per hour) as it entered the section of track, which has a speed limit of 80 kph, El Pais newspaper reported, citing a radio conversation between the driver and train-control staff. The driver, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, has been named as a suspect and called to testify by the court in Santiago investigating the crash, El Pais said.

“The train was burning, people were screaming, ‘get me out of here,’ and we were pulling them out through the windows, using metal panels from the train as stretchers,” Isidoro Castano, a Santiago resident who rushed to help the victims, said in a video interview on El Pais’s website. “There were old people, young people, little children being carried out. It was hell.”

The premier 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 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 phone.

Driver Override

The section of the track where the accident happened appears to lack the European Rail Traffic Management System, which provides continuous data on train speeds and overrides the drivers if they breach restrictions, according to Wolmar.

“The driver should not have been able to go this fast,” Wolmar said.

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. He said the train appears to be an Alvia S-730, built by a joint venture of Spain’s Talgo and Bombardier Inc. The hybrid diesel-electric train has a top speed of 240 kph.

The number of fatalities may increase because parts of the wreckage are difficult to access, a spokeswoman for the Galicia regional high court said earlier by telephone. She requested anonymity citing court policy.

1972, Bombs

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.

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 numbers are provisional, but the injured and victim identification are the priority,” Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the president of the Galician regional government, said in an interview broadcast on RTVE.

In a statement, Rajoy said the country’s central government is working with the Galician regional administration to “mobilize all its resources” to deal with the emergency. Rajoy was born in Santiago de Compostela and studied there, according to his profile on the government website.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.