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Thursday, 1 August 2013

He Was On The Phone!

Hardly had I pointed up the parallel between last week’s derailment near Santiago de Compostela, and the Southall crash in 1997 – the attempts in both cases to blame the driver and hope that the press doesn’t look too closely at other issues – than the black box recorders were examined and there was another convenient leak to the media, telling that Francisco José Garzón was on the phone.
Yes, when the train derailed, the driver was on the phone. The conclusion was straightforward: it was Him Wot Done It. But, as with all the other attempts to tell the press to “look over there”, this line did not hold for long before the black and white characterisation of events took on more of those inconvenient shades of grey. Someone from train operator Renfe made the call.

But calling the driver on his work mobile is restricted to emergencies. So the hunt was on for the culprit. Was it a controller? A signaller? To save them all a lot of fuss, Garzón came forward and explained that it was neither: the train’s guard (conductor or supervisor if you prefer) had made the call. Antonio Martín then explained that he was passing a request for the station stop at Pontedeume.

He wanted to be able to detrain a family group more easily, by having the train use the platform road nearest the station building. Given that the area – according to infrastructure operator Adif’s network statement – uses automatic block signalling, that would have required Garzón to contact Control. Hopefully, there was no suggestion that he did it from the cab while on the move.

Meanwhile, the rest of the information from the black box recorders – which clearly use the airline standard of taking both data and voice recordings – was being sidelined, which may be convenient for some participants, but was as revealing as the phone call from the guard. For starters, Garzón had applied the brakes when he realised where he was, and wiped 40km/h off the train’s speed.

So when the derailment came, it was doing 153km/h (95mph), which, although it would have been momentarily uncomfortable for the passengers, should not have resulted in disaster – if it had not been for those diesel generator cars tipping over, dragging everything else off the track and into the concrete retaining wall. And it’s not just my opinion, but also that of a professor of physics.

Quirantes Arturo Sierra is a physics professor at the University of Granada. He has explained that, because of its high centre of gravity, “the diesel generator van went off the road, dragging the rest of the cars”. Otherwise the train would probably not have derailed. So while efforts continue to blame Francisco José Garzón, don’t be surprised if Renfe quietly take the 730 series trains out of service.

There is more to come. And it would help the authorities if they came clean.


John Ruddy said...

I thought it was significant, the fact that the diesel generator vans tipped over first.

Question, Tim - does this crash have any lessons to be learned for the bi-mode IEPs that the DaFT have ordered that the train operators don't want.

Tim Fenton said...

That depends on where the diesel engines are located (thought Bi-Mode IEP had them under the floor). If the diesel engines are in power cars like the IC125, maybe it does, but the UK doesn't do speed limit transitions like the one where the derailment happened.

The Spanish problem is that they're trying to connect everywhere to the capital. If Madrid to Ferrol were to be run by loco-hauled stock, you'd need four locos.

The concept of the 730 is ingenious, and when it was unveiled I thought it pretty neat. But one look at what happened in that accident and I wondered if it was a concept too far.

Richard Gadsden said...

The alternatives are either electrify all the lines or attach a loco when you come off the electrics.

Virgin used to attach locos to the (electric) Pendolinos on the North Wales Coast Line, but it's a really bad option because you have to stop the train while you attach the loco.

I think the IEP hybrids are DEMUs with under-floor engines which use the same electric motors all the time, just powered from the pantograph when there is a catenary to collect from, and from the diesel on non-electrified lines.

Is there a good reason why the 730 uses a generator car rather than underfloor engines?

Is it just that it's a retrofit, tacking a generator car onto an existing electric train, rather than designing the engines in as the IEP has?

Tim Fenton said...

There would be no room for engines under the Talgo coaches - they're very low to the track - and structurally it would be very challenging.

It is also a retrofit, of course, and rather than having power head and coaches entirely separate, as the 130 has, the generator car has both a conventional bogie, and "leans" on a Talgo steering axle as it is articulated onto the adjacent coach.