Days after the worst train crash in the past 70 years in Spanish history, questions have yet to be answered about the cause of the derailment Wednesday night. The incident killed 79 of the 218 passengers with 70 more injured, 22 in critical condition. This weekend the train’s driver, Francisco Garzon Amo, was provisionally charged with negligent homicide on multiple accounts. Amo has been released without bail, however, although he is required to report to court once a week, his drivers license has been rescinded, and he has been forbidden to depart from Spain without permission.
It remains uncertain how much the crash was a result of human error or technical problems. Regional head of the transport sector for the socialist General Workers’ Union, Eladio Rodriguez, tells The Guardian, “There have to be causes other than the alleged human error.” The results from the train’s “black box,” which holds critical data about what actually happened in the engine room Wednesday night have been released to the judge as evidence.
As usual, the high-speed train was given a full maintenance checkup before its six hour journey from Madrid to Ferrol, a town on the Atlantic coast of Spain. According to Renfe officials the train had no technical or mechanical problems. The BBC report by Richard Westcott focused on other variables that could have come into play. He makes note of the difficulty of maneuvering the curve going from 200km/hr to 80km/hr in seconds—which had been cause for concern prior to the crash but seems to be particularly concerned by the possibilities of one of the multiple safety systems used on board the train malfunctioning or, perhaps, gone unheeded by Amo.
In most areas of the Spanish rail system, BBC reporter Richard Westcott explains, the European Train Control System (ETCS) is used that would automatically control the speed and movement of the train, so the driver would have no ability to go over the given speed limit. However the curving portion of the journey where the derailment took place was controlled by a slightly less safety mechanism called the Anuncio de Senales Frenado Automatico (ASFA). Some experts have suspected the transition between the higher-tech ETCS and the dated ASFA systems to be potentially part of the problem. The older safety system, Westcott writes, “relies on a series of beacons to communicate with the driver’s cab-so does not have the constant communication of ETCS. The system gives audio and visual warnings to the driver if speed limits are surpassed, and will step in and brake if there is no response from the cab.”
The Irish Examiner quoted the Renfe train company as describing the driver as an experienced driver who would have known the route very well. Well enough to know the speed limit for the curve was 80km/hr and experienced enough to know that to apply the brakes over 2 miles before approaching the curve. Questions were asked regarding Amo’s tendencies towards reckless speeds when Facebook posts by Amo from March 2012 surfaced that boasted about speeding in the train and racing police cars.
But witnesses who transported the bloodied driver to the triage unit Wednesday tell of an altogether different attitude from Amo. One of the witnesses, a local resident named Evaristo Iglesias, told Antena 3 that the driver had told them he was going too fast and “he had needed to brake but couldn’t.” With the carnage of the train behind him, Amo had told Iglesias “that he wanted to die.”
The real cause, or causes, behind the derailment are still under investigation as authorities examine the data reports from the train’s black boxes. It is important to remember, as Juan Fraile, a member of the railway workers’ union, reminded USA Today that “we do not know what happened” without the reports from those black boxes.
As a sidebar, with the efforts being made from the Obama administration to develop a functional passenger rail system like those in Spain and across Europe and Asia, Americans have understandably raised questions about the possibility of a similar derailment taking place on their own soil. CNN’s Michael Pearson and Eliott C. McLaughlin ran a story on the CNN website to assure readers that even on the few high-speed tracks that have been laid in the states, it is highly unlikely that a complicated piece of machinery like the one that crashed in Spain could operate in the States.
According to an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, Steven Harrod, there are a few routes used by the Acela Express in the Midwest that could potentially reach the high speed that the AVE train was traveling (118 mph at the time of the crash). However these trains must navigate tracks and tunnels sometimes a 100 years old with far more curves than the flat plains of Europe that allow for much higher speeds. The Federal Railroad Administration reports on their website that these Acela trains must be made heavier than their European counterparts to keep them from derailing.
Still, America remains a long way from accomplishing a rail system nearly as efficient or safe as the state-run Renfe train company of Spain which, according to the European Railway Agency figures, is listed as the 18th safest out of the 27 countries.
Written By: Savannah Mealer