Spanish Train Crash Mystery: Why Didn’t Automated Brakes Stop the Disaster?

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ELOY ALONSO / REUTERS

Onlookers view the wreckage of a train crash near Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain, July 25, 2013.

“I should be going 80 [kmh] and I’m going 190 [kmh],” the driver of the train that crashed in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on July 24 reportedly told his company’s emergency service on the phone after the accident. The train derailed on a treacherous curve, killing at least 78 and injuring 130. The conductor, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, reportedly acknowledged on the call to his colleagues that he had been going more than double the speed limit of roughly 50 miles per hour. That raises a key question: Even if Garzon was reckless how is it that a technologically advanced train like the one he was driving didn’t automatically slow down?

Today, the conductor, hospitalized and under arrest on charges of recklessness, will testify before an investigating judge attempting to determine the answer to that question—as well as deciding whether Garzon should be charged with the murder of 80 people. In Garzon’s favor are the 30 years he has worked as a conductor, and his previously clean record. Today, Juli Gómez-Pomar, president of Renfe, Spain’s rail company, told the press that trains passed through the place where the accident occurred “six times a day, and that conductor had done it sixty times before.”

(PHOTOS: Spanish Train Derails on Treacherous Curve, Killing At Least 78)

But probably working against Garzon is a Facebook page, since closed, in which months earlier he posted a photograph of a speedometer marking 200 kilometers, and exulted: “What a joy it would be to run side by side with the Civil Guard, then pass them, setting off their radar guns. That would be quite a fine for Renfe (the Spanish train company), he he.”

Although the train that Garzon was driving, a series 730 train made by Bombardier and Talgo and used by Renfe for its Alvia service, is not as fast as Spain’s AVE bullet train, it still regularly reaches 240 kilometers an hour. Preliminary information, including closed circuit footage of the crash, suggest that the train was going at around 190 kmh (118 mph) when it derailed. As the train approached the curve its front engine jumped the track, slamming into a retaining wall, breaking apart the rest of the convoy, and causing several cars to flip over. The penultimate car was completely destroyed, and the rear engine burst into flame. Investigators are compiling and assessing evidence, including data collected from the train’s “black box.”

But even if Garzon was inclined to push the train too fast how could such a technologically advanced system not offer any protection against human error?

Santiago Pino Jimenez, director of communication for the Spanish Rail Conductors Union (SEMAF) believes it does and that there was a system error. “Human error alone could not account for an accident of this magnitude,” he says. “Either the wrong system was being used, or there was a flaw in the system.”

(WATCH: Moment of Impact Caught on Camera as Spanish High-Speed Train Derails)

One possible problem may lie with the train’s automatic braking system. Like the bulk of European high-speed lines, most of the Madrid-to-Ferrol track, on which the accident occurred, is controlled by an oversight mechanism called ERMTS, which essentially prevents the train from exceeding set speed limits. However, according to Spanish press reports, the section of track along which the accident occurred did not utilize ERMTS, but rather an older warning and automatic braking system called ASFA. That system operates only at certain points on the track rather than at every point, as ERMTS does.

In the coming days, interviews with Garzon and the other surviving crew members, as well as information retrieved from the black box, will help investigators determine the accident’s cause. Until then, Stephen Ward, an 18-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah who was onboard, and traveling to Ferrol to start his mission, didn’t want to speculate. Discharged from the hospital but sporting stitches in his scalp and a neckbrace, he was grateful that he had escaped a worse fate. “If it turns out that the conductor was to blame, I hope he’s held responsible. And if he wasn’t, I hope it’s not held against him. But it would be good if this never happened again.”

Qhelile Nyathi contributed reporting from London
MORE: Why a Train Crash like Spain’s is Unlikely To Happen in the U.S.

41 comments
cmgmcol
cmgmcol

@TIME @TIMEWorld and why aren't those trains monitored via GPS to prevent disasters like this one?

anasazix76
anasazix76

@TIME @TIMEWorld because there weren't automated brakes there. The important ask is why weren't there automated brakes in a dangerous place?

Alexandra Geneve
Alexandra Geneve

I heard on the news that there is no automatic braking system on the curve where the train derailed.

RocketSauce7
RocketSauce7

@TIME we can't possibly expect everything to be automated. Hindsight is 20/20. That view means humans aren't capable of anything.

Ninoslav Prijam
Ninoslav Prijam

probably was break time while inspecting the brakes.

leon1376
leon1376

Maybe I saw it wrong but the third carriage was first to leave the track. It then pulled the leading locomotive off. The "crack the whip" effect threw a carriage over the wall. I wonder how the computer animation will look when they finally piece this together. 

JakobStagg
JakobStagg

Every news report I read tells a different story. I doubt it can be all the different ways. Obviously, accuracy and truth are meaningless to the media.

Fahd Sherif
Fahd Sherif

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meamjw
meamjw

I have a problem with this article that no one else seems to notice: In the US, Engineers operate engines, not conductors. Possibly in Spain the terminology used in this article is correct. But given the many other errors and the fact that so many reporters/journalists use improper terminology frequently these days, I'm betting conductors do not operate the locomotives there either.

Worth, you're absolutely correct that the lead engine was not the first to tip over.

I think it is of minor importance whether the automatic speed controls were working as long as the manual ones were. The train was getting very close to the station and the engineer should have been already slowing for that. Furthermore, if he had been over this track so many times he should have known he was approaching a sharp curve too fast and have manually applied brakes. But naturally there is a tendency to hunt an excuse that makes the wreck no one's fault.

EliTilen
EliTilen

@TIME What would the driver have done to slow down?

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@lisaabend

"In Garzon’s favor are the 30 years he has worked as a conductor..."

that's not correct. he's been with the rail company for 30 years. he's only been driving for 10. it's called fact-checking.is it really that hard to do?


Worth
Worth

 There are a lot of errors in this article. How can it be a "treacherous"curve if the train had to go DOUBLE the speed limit to reach the point of derailing? And the article says "As the train approached the curve its front engine jumped the track" but you can clearly see in the video that some of the cars tipped over before the engine. Writer needs to put a little more thought into it. 

Craig Waitforit Palmer
Craig Waitforit Palmer

Anybody else find it just a little 'convenient' that this happens just as pressure on Rajoy is heating up in regards to corruption and slush fund allegations?

Michael K-Poh
Michael K-Poh

Why was he going that fast in the first place?

TIME
TIME

Apologies for the typo! Thanks for noticing Bing Laping-Horn Catherine Nelson Rachel DeTeso Mathis!

Jenny O'Neill
Jenny O'Neill

Do they not have regulators for that kind of thing in Spain?

Hi Hey Konnichiwa
Hi Hey Konnichiwa

Maybe he disabled them, if thats possible, so that he could break the speed limit ... for fun ... until it wasn't fun anymore. I mean, if the train was having problems wouldn't he have radio'd it in prior ...

ginebra
ginebra

@rrsoca Bueno, no son los únicos, entonces. Pero aunque sí tenga responsabilidad, de ahí a hacerlo un sádico y la encarnación del Mal...

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

with the train’s automatic breaking system.

Sigh. The author of course means 'braking'


Kryptocake
Kryptocake

@meamjw Really? 

I find that any time there is an accident like this people generally want to find someone to blame.


cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@TIME

how about this one

"In Garzon’s favor are the 30 years he has worked as a conductor..."

that's not correct. at all. he's been with the rail company for 30 years. he's only been driving for 10. it's called fact-checking. would it really kill you to do it just once

leon1376
leon1376

@Hi Hey Konnichiwa Think about what you just said. If you "disable the brakes" (an impossibility without alarms going off all over the place) and the train derails, guess who hits the wall first? That's right: you. Not only that, but I understand most of these trains have a "dead man's switch". If you take your hand off the controls, the train figures you've had a heart attack and the entire line comes to a stop.