The Spanish train crash in Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people last week has sparked questions about whether high-speed rail is safe. In fact, it’s among the safest ways to travel, and technology that already exists can make the type of human error that led to tragedy in Spain nearly a non-issue. Future high-speed rail in California will be equipped with that technology.
The driver of the Spanish high-speed rail train that crashed, 52-year-old Francisco José Garzón Amo, took a turn at more than twice the legal speed — 190 kilometers an hour (118 mph) instead of 80 (50 mph). He should have applied the brakes two-and-a-half miles before the curve but, he says, he experienced a “lapse of concentration” and thought it was a different curve. The train derailed and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.
Now that the train’s black box has been uncovered, we know more about why his concentration was compromised. Garzón was on the phone with RENFE, the train company, getting instructions for the train’s final stop in Ferrol, a small city in the northwestern corner of Spain. It appears from the black box tape that he may have also been rustling maps “or some other similar paper document.”
Train conductors in Spain are allowed to use the phone while on the job and are in fact equipped with a work phone, though a Renfe spokeswoman said Wednesday a driver shouldn’t answer the phone unless it’s safe to do so.
Garzón was “provisionally” charged Sunday night with “79 counts of manslaughter and numerous offences of bodily harm, all of them committed through professional recklessness.” Sixty-six people remain in the hospital, with 15 of them listed in “critical condition,” according to a EuroWeeklyNews story from this morning. The already horrific death toll could easily rise.
The train was traveling the Madrid-Ferrol line, which combines high-speed and conventional track. According to journalist Lisa Abend, writing in Time, “railways officials took pains to point out both that the crash was a result of human error and that it occurred” on the conventional track, not the special AVE high-speed rail track. Those parts of the track are monitored constantly for speed and a traffic management system can override the driver if it detects a problem, similar to the positive train control technology that Congress has mandated on all U.S. tracks and trains by the end of 2015.