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.