Almost a year after the event, the report into the derailment of a Madrid to Ferrol train on the A Grandeira curve approaching Santiago de Compostella, in which 79 people died, has been made public. And it is a most conveniently worded document, telling “The cause was excessive speed and lack of driver attention”, while not addressing the more disturbing aspects of the accident.
The train involved in the derailment was converted from a 130 series set, like this one seen at Alacant Terminal
We are told that “experts are recommending automatic braking systems”, but there is apparently no mention of the installation of the European Train Control System (ETCS) along most of the line from Ourense to Santiago, and that most of the trains working the sector were not using it. The ETCS sign-off point was approximately where the driver should have started to brake for the A Grandeira curve.
Moreover, the “automatic braking systems”, in the form of more “beacons” utilising the older AFSA safety system, had already been installed in the months following the accident to enforce the speed restriction. But the report focuses only on the inattention of the train’s driver, and the contribution of the guard in calling him on his company mobile – in flagrant violation of safety rules.
Signalling schematic of the accident area
So what is not being explored by the report? As I noted in the days after the accident (see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE), there was the unreliable ETCS installation – although overspeed protection is covered – and the twin issues of survivability in the Talgo carriages, along with the stability of the generator cars used in the 730 series trains.
Of the 218 aboard the train when it derailed, more than one in three died and nobody, it seems, emerged unscathed. Those are horrendous numbers. Stories of parts of the carriage interiors coming loose during the derailment should concern anyone interested in passenger safety. Moreover, the kind of crumple zone protection used in many conventional high speed trains would not be possible here.
Modern Talgo trains have their suspension legs at carriage corners – part of the passive tilt system – so there is no crumple zone to reduce the shock of sudden deceleration. And then there are the diesel generator cars, added during conversion from straight electric trainsets to allow working beyond the limits of electrification. These derailed first, dragging the rest of the train off the track.
Talgo trains are renowned for their low centre of gravity and stability: without the generator cars, the train might not have derailed. But the report does not go there, and nor does it question the appallingly high incidence of injury and fatality. True, if maximum speed limits are observed, there would be no similar accidents. But we live in a world where human frailty demands we provide for the worst.
Just blaming the driver will not make the problems that I identified disappear.