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santiago crash anniversary

A year after Galicia rail tragedy, more questions than answers remain

A new judge has taken over the inquiry into the derailment of the Alvia train that killed 79 last July

Prosecutor Antonio Roma (in red jacket) and Judge Luis Aláez several days after the accident.
Prosecutor Antonio Roma (in red jacket) and Judge Luis Aláez several days after the accident. GETTY IMAGES

At first, investigating the train accident that killed 79 people and injured 140 on a curve near Santiago de Compostela a year ago today seemed easy enough.

Just minutes after the crash, the train driver Francisco José Garzón, 53, told anyone who would listen that he had gotten distracted by a phone call from the conductor and taken the curve at nearly 200km/h when the speed limit there was 80km/h. It seemed clear where the blame lay.

Besides Garzón, there are 12 other people under court investigation, all former execs at state rail manager Adif

But one year later, the case has become much more complex. Besides Garzón, there are 12 other people under court investigation, all former execs at Adif, the state company that manages railway infrastructure in Spain. The judge who investigated the case until recently, Luis Aláez, felt that these officers should have factored in the possibility of human error and provided the kind of technology that can automatically stop a runaway train.

Most victims feel this way, too, as do several experts. Others back the attorney’s view that the train driver was the only person who broke any rules.

On July 24, 2013, Garzón was driving a hybrid Alvia train, which can run on both high-speed and regular tracks, down a straight stretch of track covering the Ourense-Santiago line. He was going at 200km/h when his company cellphone rang. It was the train conductor, consulting him about an issue of minor concern. The conversation lasted 100 seconds, during which the Alvia covered six kilometers. Garzón forgot to brake, and the train derailed on the first curve it came upon because there was no automated braking system in place. Yet Adif and Renfe, the railway operator, claim that all responsibility lies with Garzón.

The high-speed Ourense-Santiago line does in fact have an automated speed control system called ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System). But it had been deactivated a year earlier on all Alvia trains because of system glitches. A year after the accident, things remain the same way, even though Renfe promised that the ERTMS would be operational again by January.

So the line only had conventional speed control mechanisms, and nothing to prevent speeding in the area of Angrois. Following the crash, Adif installed electronic transponders known as balises there and at 349 spots across the railway network. But the company insists that there was no rule forcing them to do this.

Still, Judge Aláez maintained the preliminary accusations against Adif execs for rushing to open the high-speed line while skipping essential safety steps. Three out of four expert witnesses found deficiencies, although two of these were accused of bias by Adif because they were hired by the train driver and by Renfe’s insurance company. Then again, only Adif’s expert witness said that everything was fine.

It also emerged that a chief railway engineer had already alerted his superiors about the potential “risk” posed by the Angrois curve just a few days after the line was opened.

One of the targets of the investigation is Andrés Corbitarte, head of circulation safety when the line was built and until two months before the accident. His testimony is considered crucial in the case, although he invoked his right not to declare during the preliminary investigation. Corbitarte was an expert witness in the case involving a 2006 accident on the Valencia metro that killed 43 people. At the time, he said that a balise would have prevented that accident.

Yet his defense now claims that the Angrois accident was completely unpredictable.

Train drivers union Semaf holds a completely different view. “It was the train drivers who prevented an accident from occurring there for an entire year, despite the fact that the spot was a trap,” said Semaf president Juan Jesús García Fraile.

“This is the way this country works: you take away the judge’s weapons and find a weak head to chop off, in this case the driver’s,” said Cristóbal González Rabadán, president of the main victims’ association, a few months ago. He and another victims group criticize Adif officials’ refusal to testify, and the fact that Public Works Minister Ana Pastor had to step in to ask her workers to cooperate with the law.

A year later, there is a new judge on the case, Andrés Lago, 41, who has a reputation for not backing down in the face of complicated cases involving powerful people. Meanwhile, a provincial court will decide if the Adif execs remain part of the case or not.