Monday, July 29, 2013

Santiago Train Crash....The Accident That Should Have Been Avoided

The funeral service has been held today for the victims of last week's awful train crash in Santiago. The judicial investigation into what happened is also just underway, although for many it's already a closed case. Despite the fact that the black boxes recovered intact from the train have still not been opened, and that no serious investigation of all possible factors has yet occurred, for Spain's government and sections of the media it's a done deal. The train driver is to blame for everything. 

The accusation has enthusiastic support. La Razón and ABC, competitors in the bid to be the most servile conduit for the Spanish government's message of the day, have been the worst offenders with some truly appalling reporting. It may be the case that the driver didn't do what he needed to do in the section of the route where the crash occurred, but the reasons for pointing the finger so loudly and quickly at him have little to do with a real desire to know the truth about what happened. 

In what was fairly clearly a political manoeuvre, the police were ordered by the interior ministry to arrest and hold the train driver even though he was in hospital following the crash and showed no signs of going anywhere. In Spain it's the investigating magistrate who has to present any formal accusation and so it was that yesterday the driver appeared before the magistrate and, at least from what has been reported, recognised that he failed to reduce the speed of the train as he entered the curve where the fatal derailment occurred. He's facing charges of reckless manslaughter.  

The media and political campaign didn't need to wait for such needless legal formalities. The driver of the train had posted a photo on Facebook some time ago of the speed display on his train showing 200km per hour. That was enough for those looking for a summary trial, the driver had obviously caused the accident because he is a reckless, boastful, boy racer.  Now I've travelled many times on Alvia trains like that involved in the accident and similar ones running on high speed tracks built for the faster AVE, and they still go very fast - frequently at more than 200km per hour. So a train driver pointing out that he has hit 200km with a train like this isn't boasting about doing something that he shouldn't do.

What is really missing in such tragic circumstances is that someone from the government appears and makes clear that all necessary steps will be taken to ensure such an accident doesn't happen again. If that has happened, I haven't seen it. There hasn't even been a single press conference yet by the heads of the public companies involved, infrastructure (ADIF) or operator (RENFE). Instead the government, in what has now become almost a trademark procedure for PP administrations, looks for someone to blame and then acts as if responsibility for rail safety has nothing to do with the national government. It's that Prestige approach to crisis management all over again with that special "how dare you call me to account for what happens on my watch" arrogance. 

But there's more to it than this habitual attempt to evade any political responsibility, commercial motives have also played their part in this urgent campaign to blame the driver and only the driver. Spanish companies are bidding for high speed rail projects around the world and in some cases there are conditions for bidding that include a clean safety record. So the line where the accident occurred is no longer considered to be high speed since the accident, although it was presented as such and forms part of the planned AVE line connecting Madrid and Galicia. It's true that no AVE trains run on the line at the moment, but there are services running on it capable of travelling at speeds up to 250km per hour. That's not high speed?

The regional president of Galicia, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, who should be fully occupied with the consequences of dealing with those affected by the crash in his region instead decided to go for the idiotic 'Leyenda Negra' argument claiming that evil unnamed foreign interests are out to get Spain's successful high speed rail industry. Despite obvious differences, I'm reminded of the Paddington train crash in 1999; a product of a stupid and disastrous privatisation plan that left passenger safety at the bottom of the priorities list way behind the bonuses and fat profits that were being earned by those in charge of the rail infrastructure. It was another avoidable accident, and as in the case of Santiago there was a concerted campaign to attribute it to 'human error' rather than to deficient safety systems. 

So what do I mean when I write about deficient safety systems? How about this odd situation where, of 87 kilometres of high speed line built between Ourense and Santiago, the last 7km into Santiago were left with a safety system dating from the 1960's whilst the rest were equipped with a modern state of the art system. A modern and expensive system which is not being used at the moment, for reasons which have not been explained. Yes, the 7 km with the old system includes the stretch where the crash occurred. The driver should have braked 4 kilometres before the curve, says the president of ADIF. Which sounds like more than enough time until you do the calculation and understand that a train travelling at 190km takes little over a minute to cover that distance. An up to date safety system would have stopped that train. 

At first many people were also asking what such a potentially dangerous curve was doing on a high speed line, requiring a train to slow down to a maximum of 80km in a relatively short distance. It seems that this is far from being a unique case on Spain's high speed lines. Nor is it necessarily a bad solution in itself. The alternative is to either put a special AVE station well outside of Santiago city limits (Tarragona or Segovia style), to tunnel, or to bulldoze a significant part of the city to build a nice straight line for the fast train. The drive for speed above all else is a big part of the problem.

The AVE has become, in these times of crisis, an absurd trophy project that swallows huge resources at the expense of the rest of Spain's rail network. Both in terms of investment and because other train services around the country are being cut so that fares on the AVE can be discounted for expensive trains that have to run almost full to stand a chance of breaking even. This time it's prestige with a small 'p', the AVE offers tremendous inauguration and boasting possibilities for Spanish politicians from all governments since the 1990's and has become an untouchable icon of Spanish progress. So you have the bizarre way in which the new Madrid-Alicante line was introduced just before the summer, the authorities on the inaugural ride whizzed through ghost stations where a dirt road leaves the forecourt. Then those managing the line beg, borrow or steal the rolling stock from other high speed lines so that appearances can be maintained. Everything works fine until it doesn't. 

The technology already existed to prevent the Santiago accident, and it has existed for quite a long time. Placing all responsibility on the driver for anything that happens on a high speed rail line isn't just unfair, it's irresponsible. It seems hard to believe that everything will just continue as before with the driver as the scapegoat. You have to hope that, at the very least, when memories of the accident fade and the commercial bids have been submitted workers will be quietly sent in to put in place the safety system that such a section of track requires. You hope, but you can't be sure that's what will happen.