As soon as it looked like Francisco José Garzón was going to be scapegoated for the derailment near Santiago de Compostela, which left 79 dead and many more injured, I pointed out that there were, whatever the driver’s actions, questions over the safety systems in use, the stability of the 730 series Talgo/Bombardier hybrid trains, and the way the coaches protected their occupants in a crash.
Now, as the idea of using Garzón as a scapegoat appears to be receding, infrastructure operator Adif is belatedly revisiting not just the approach to the derailment point, but all similar locations across the Spanish network, with a view to installing overspeed protection, which as I pointed out at the outset, was so sadly lacking in the 4km before the A Grandeira curve.
So how is Garzón’s situation changing? Well, after guard Antonio Martín asserted that he was not responsible for the derailment, despite having apparently broken the rules and phoned the driver on his company mobile on a matter which certainly was not an emergency, the investigating judge decided he would not prosecute him. How a reckless homicide charge then sticks only to the driver is not clear.
What more significantly undermines the charge laid against Garzón is the decision of Adif to retrospectively enhance the installation of the ASFA safety system by installing additional “beacons” which will enforce progressively lower speeds as trains approach speed limited curves like the one where the derailment occurred. This is despite previously insisting that provision was adequate.
ASFA is rather like the UK’s TPWS system: it prevents signal overruns, but can also be used to slow trains before junctions, or, as in this case, on plain track before severe speed limits. And another factor that chips away at the assurance that all was previously well is that the speed limit to be enforced approaching the A Grandeira curve will be just 30km/h, not 80 as previously.
That last speaks to the questions that have been raised about the stability of the diesel generator cars in the 730 series trains. It was the lead generator car that tipped over and left the track first, dragging the lead power head and the coaches behind it into the concrete retaining wall. All that this blog questioned at the beginning, and that can be addressed in short order, has now been addressed.
This is how the railway remains the safest method of land based travel: not by pretending that problems do not exist, but by admitting that they do, and solving them. As Renfe’s CEO put it, “Every day we have 4,600 trains running that are completely safe”. They have now: let’s hope it stays that way, if only for the memory of the family whose stop at Pontedeume prompted the guard’s fatal phone call.
There were four of them, but, sad to relate, two never made it home.