How Spain’s Train Tragedy Is a Blow to Spanish National Pride

Already living with mass unemployment and an economy and society in the grips of austerity, Spaniards suffered another blow to their morale when a high-speed train derailed last week.

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Oscar Corral / REUTERS

Rescue workers pull victims from a train crash near Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain, on July 24, 2013

Correction appended: July 30, 2013, 2:40 a.m. E.T.

The man at the helm of the train that derailed in northwestern Spain on July 25, killing 79, admitted his responsibility on Sunday night. Appearing before an investigating judge in Santiago de Compostela, conductor Francisco José Garzón Amo confessed that a “distraction” led him to enter the tight curve at an excessively high speed, causing the train to jump the track and slam into a concrete retaining wall. It was the same explanation that Spanish railway officials, denying a system failure and instead blaming human error, had been urging all weekend. But Garzón’s acceptance of guilt failed to completely resolve questions about whether something had gone wrong with Spain’s famed high-speed-rail network. And because that network is perhaps the country’s most successful example of technological innovation, those doubts extend not merely to its transportation industry, but to Spain’s very identity.

In his testimony, Garzón confirmed that the train was moving at 190 km/h through a curve where the speed limit was 80. The Madrid-Ferrol line upon which the train was traveling combines high-speed and conventional track, and railways officials took pains to point out both that the crash was a result of human error and that it occurred on the latter, not along the AVE (the acronym stands for Spanish High Velocity) section.

They had good reason to want to protect the AVE’s reputation. When it was launched in 1992, the high-speed train seemed nothing short of miraculous. Sleek and comfortable, with chicly-attired attendants who handed out candy and headphones for the overhead movies, the AVE cut the journey from Madrid to Seville from six hours down to 2½ and, perhaps even more remarkably in a country not known for its punctuality, promised to refund any fare if the train arrived more than five minutes late. Since then, the network has expanded to connect the capital with Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante and Málaga; other high-speed lines are under way for Bilbao, Cádiz and Galicia. “Every region in the country wants its own AVE, whether they need it or not,” says Ricard Riol, president of the Barcelona-based Association to Promote Public Transportation (PPT). “It’s become a symbol of economic and technological progress.”

It is also big business, and one of the few positive elements in an otherwise dismal economic scene. In 2012, the country won an $8.6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia to build a high-speed line that connects Medina with Mecca. Since then, it has continued to expand internationally — with projects under way in California, Kazakhstan and Russia, a full 60% of the company’s $6.6 billion annual earnings now comes from exports. And that percentage may go up: Spain is currently bidding on a $15.9 billion contract in Brazil to build a high-speed line that would connect Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Possibilities like that help explain why the AVE is the leading example of what the government, eager to attract foreign investors, labels “the Spanish brand.”

Galician regional president Alberto Núñez Feijóo no doubt had that label in mind when he spoke to the Spanish press on July 27. “It’s obvious that there are many interests, including economic interests, on the part of certain companies or suppliers,” he said. “Spain is one of the best in the world in high-speed connections and safety, and many countries might wish that weren’t the case.”

Some speculate that the accident will diminish Spain’s chances in the Brazilian bid. “Of course it will negatively affect the AVE’s reputation, because it calls into question what has been, up until now, a sacred cow: its safety record,” says Riol of the PPT. “But we can’t talk of an international conspiracy. Spain has to accept its responsibility. Whether its Eurovision or this accident, we can’t always be throwing the blame for our failures onto foreigners.”

If that’s so, some of that responsibility may lie with the train’s braking system. Along the high-speed parts of its rail network, Spain employs the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which not only monitors track constantly for speed and other conditions, but is capable of overriding the driver if it detects any anomalies. However, conventional track in Spain, including the section where the accident occurred, relies on an older system called ASFA. It uses periodic signals to detect velocity and alert the driver. In other words, explains Juan Antonio Santamera, president of Spain’s College of Road, Channel and Port Engineers, “The ERTMS is a type of automatic pilot that has proved to be very reliable. The ASFA doesn’t control speed.”

The contents of the train’s two black boxes have not yet been revealed, but several engineers have suggested that a crash of this magnitude likely had more than one cause. “Despite attempts to nail the cause down to a single person, accidents of this type are usually a conjunction of human and technical factors,” says Elias Fereres, president of the Royal Spanish Academy of Engineering. “In this case, I think the most important lesson that will come out of it is that more redundancy — backup — is needed in the security system.”

But whatever the exact ratio of human and technical error proves to be, the accident also represents another blow to Spanish national pride. The economic crisis has popped the bubble of prosperity in which Spaniards lived as recently as five years ago, while massive corruption scandals involving the royal family and the highest levels of government have eroded Spaniards’ confidence in their own democracy. Even Leo Messi, star of Barcelona’s acclaimed soccer team and, for many (except Real Madrid supporters) a national hero despite the fact he was born in Argentina, has been charged with tax evasion. “The crisis made us realize that our prosperity was fleeting and that our political class was not at the level that a country like this deserves,” says Jaime González, a columnist for the national ABC newspaper. “So we took solace in what we had left, which was our success in sports, and the Spanish brand, of which the AVE is the leading representative. Then something like this happens, and it’s as if we’re stripped of even that. So we become even more pessimistic.”

There was, however, one bit of brightness among the overwhelming sense of tragedy. After the accident occurred, locals poured out to offer assistance in any way possible, endangering themselves to help extract victims from the wreckage, then bringing blankets and water to the injured and lining up by the thousands to donate blood. In the accident’s aftermath, more than one columnist called the humanitarian response the “real Spanish brand.” It may not be economically or technologically advanced, but at least it’s sustainable.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the president of the Association to Promote Public Transportation. He is Ricard Riol, not Roil.

32 comments
xmariachi
xmariachi

This article is not only biased, but utterly directed to show an interested take. There are many errors in the piece, as some readers have noted in the comments. But the part about "national pride" really makes me vomit: there is absolutely no evidence of it (and none is presented in the article). The only way to link this with national pride, is that it has generated a wave of solidarity, unity,  friendship and true condolences from the whole of Spain with the people that suffered it; and it has been consistently shown on the media that Spanish people are proud of the village neighbours and people around Galicia that went there to help. 

It seems that Abend pursues drama even where there is not, and tries to generate a punchy headline - even if not true. In this very week, national pride has largely been hurt by corruption blows and a (non-)debate (put on first day of holidays to reduce buzz) that sends the message that corruption is in Spain to stay, and there's nothing that can be done about it. That, and the sluggish economy and highest-than-ever unemployment, is a blow to Spanish pride. And many other things. But not this.

This article is just a journalist showing her own cultural judgment and prejudices, and not relating the news objectively. Linking any piece of news to the macro-economic, well-known industrial facts. This article could have been written from anywhere just reading a few headlines out there and two google searches and hoping it is true. It shows a lack of knowledge about the country and its people. Or either, a lack of ethos.

Honestly, I'm not subscribed to TIME to get this.

PaulGibson
PaulGibson

I firmly believe that the basis for this entire article is fraudulent. The train that had the accident is NOT an AVE train. How can Time magazine allow such irresponsible journalism.

cdblnr
cdblnr

This reminds me of a similar train wreck in the USA involving the US economy and a reckless engineer named Commie Obamie.

samueljmm
samueljmm

Why do people write such non-sense articles?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

If there was a journalism award for "Most Unsubstantiated, Hyperbolic Titling of an Article," it would have to go to this author - Lisa Abend of TIME Magazine.

Rather lazily, Abend uses the example of a famous Spanish soccer player and well-known Spanish newspaper columnist to then claim that an entire country's [emphasis added] national identity has suffered a major blow.  No where does Abend provide any statistics or even anecdotal evidence of local Spaniards to show a such a blow to the national pride.

More accurately, the article should have been titled, "Another Lesson In How Train Wrecks Occur," or something of the like.  That sort of title would focus on the subject matter of the article, and not mislead readers into thinking that Spanish pride in general is somehow diminished.

TIME Magazine should know better to enforce such standards among its journalists.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

I believe the author is mistaken. The accident was horrible, but not a knock against national pride. I've not heard anyone in Spain considering the issue in connection to national pride. Besides, it is my belief that neither the French nor the Swiss consider their recent train accidents (with less but enough casualties) as blows to national pride.

PeterEdwardHarrington
PeterEdwardHarrington

So they would feel more comfortable having you believe the safety of everyone aboard was the responsibility of one man, with no back up system or technological aid to kick in if, as all humans do eventually, he made a mistake? The 'spark' cause may have been this poor chap's lack of attention, but that factor should have been engineered out by a fail safe system.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

This is a lot less about national pride than it is about the arrogance of one man who caused the wreck and the charity of the many who came to help.

AlexMarin
AlexMarin

The Train was crashed by it's engineer conductor, what language do you need to hear it to believe it... Human Error is to blame...

JosepMEsteve
JosepMEsteve

Since the accident, corruption doesn't fill the front pages one day after another. Weird, isn't it? Mr Rajoy, a galician that was responsible for the "Prestige" oil spilling is now trying to save his head again with lies. Are Spaniards stupid enough to trust him again? I don't think so. We won't let him use peoples reaction as his own, specially when this is a coward president that hides from facing journalist's questions. Anyway, congrats for your report, Lisa. ;)

pablomuzas
pablomuzas

@TIME @TIMEWorld Spain's national pride is high due to remarkable reactions of people, standing in queues at hospitals to donate blood

JPitillas
JPitillas

@LisaAbend Very interesting take. I haven't read any article like this in Spanish... "a country not known for its punctuality" so true...

zivbnd
zivbnd

What I can't figure out is the sheer magnitude of the error. He didn't exceed the speed limit by 20 or 30 kph, he blasted into that corner at 190 kph, a full 110 kph over the limit. His ASFA system should have been warning him for more than a minute that he was way overspeed. The speed should have been dropping 2.5 miles or 4 kilometers before the location of the wreck. He knew the route, he knew the corner was coming and he simply didn't start to slow until it was way too late.

This has more than a little resemblance, seemingly, to the Costa Concordia disaster.

alurlyrx
alurlyrx

Just curious if the high-tech train is so innovative, why didn't it have a fail safe device that slowed it down to the designated speed limit before it started into the curve regardless of the operators instructions? 

spike338
spike338

USA! USA!!  we don't EVER have any speed train accident.

we decided long time ago NOT to have speed train.  -:)

we drive... which killed more....

LisaAbend
LisaAbend

@zivbnd According to Spanish media reports, in his testimony before the judge the conductor said that he confused the tunnel that preceded the curve with another (that had a straightaway) in which the higher speed would have been appropriate. 


zivbnd
zivbnd

@alurlyrx   The main European system would have, but the AFSA system used in Spain gives warnings but doesn't take over control of the speed.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@spike338 For an American, you write really poorly.  Did you NOT graduate from elementary school?  Or are you in remedial classes in middle school?

FYI, our train accidents tend to kill more than THEIR train accidents do, on average.  (We have more rails, more passengers and more train wrecks.)

PLUS we kill 35,000-40,000 in car accidents each year.

Let's not go too far in that nationalism on this subject. Comparatively speaking, the U.S. rather sucks.

Ontherocks
Ontherocks

@zivbnd @alurlyrx The main european system is used in Spain too. You know, Spain is in Europe, so I dont know why you assume the system is not used here. 


That system you are refeering is used in high speed trains, while this train was not a high speed train (although seen from the USA I guess any train in Europe is high speed).

AFSA system is used in the majority of the railway systems that are not high speed.