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Spain rail crash track ‘lacked high speed protection system’

The train disaster in Spain comes two decades after it completed its first high-speed railway linking Madrid in the centre with Seville in the south, in 1992. It would take 20 years to provide such service in other areas of Europe’s second most mountainous country.

Its network, although its development is still in progress, today carries some 23 million passengers per year along more than 3,000 kilometres of track at speeds averaging 222 kilometres per hour. The only country with a more extensive network is China.

In spite of the economic crisis, Spain this year has inaugurated two new lines. In January, one joined Barcelona with Figueres, at the French border, making international high-speed train travel possible with its neighbour – all the way to Paris.

Six months later, the Madrid-Alicante line was inaugurated, linking the national capital with the lower eastern coast, at the Mediterranean. From 2005 to 2013, Spain’s fast-rail kilometre total was multiplied by five. In that time, connected cities went from seven to 31.

The high-speed network has not yet tied the north-western region with Madrid, but the service has operated between Ourense, Santiago and La Coruña since 2011.

The accident in Galicia happened three kilometres from Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

The place is called Angrois. It was at a bend in the route, where the speed limit is 80 kilometres per hour. Trains normally pass that spot three minutes before arriving in Santiago de Compostela station.

The Alvia S730 train, without an automatic breaking system, was travelling at190 kilometres per hour.

Euronews interviewed Ricard Riol, a Spanish civil engineer and chairman of the Association for the Promotion of Public Transport.

Beatriz Beiras. euronews: “It is still too early to draw conclusions on the causes of the accident but some of the circumstances are becoming more clear. The wrecked train was high-performance, but not a high-speed AVE (‘Alta Velocidad Española’ – Spanish High Speed) train. How is that different from a high speed train?”

Ricard Riol, civil engineer: “Basically it has a maximum speed less than an AVE high-speed train, up to 250 kilometres an hour and it can run on high-speed lines and on conventional tracks.”

euronews: “How could the train go into that particular section of track, so close to the station at Compostela, at 190 kilometres an hour?”

Ricard Riol: “Generally that’s not possible on a high-speed line, such as Madrid-Barcelona or Madrid-Seville. But on that line it happens that trains entering Santiago de Compostela are not monitored permanently by the signalling system, they are only occasionally checked.”

euronews: “Is the system automatic?”

Ricard Riol: “It is an automatic system which only checks the train when it passes a detector on the track, whereas on a high speed line the system is controlled continuously from a central position via radio, so that the train is never going faster than the authorised speed.”

euronews: “With that monitoring system, what happens when the train goes faster than it should do?”

Ricard Riol: “In a continuous monitoring system, as is the case with the ERTMS (the European Rail Traffic Management System), as soon as a train goes even slightly faster than the maximum authorised speed, it’s halted automatically. That’s what happens on all high speed lines. This system which also operates on this same line – between Ourense and Santiago – stops three or four kilometres before Santiago station, and is replaced by a system used on conventional lines. And that high-speed system wasn’t in place where the accident occurred.”

euronews: “Do you think the curve where the crash happened could have been a factor in how serious this accident was? Is it normal to have such a curve on a high-speed line?”

Ricard Riol: “The curve exists because the line is approaching a populated area, there are high speed lines with curves like that, precisely to bring trains close to where people want to get on. What is serious is that this curve is not protected by a system of continuous signalling, which monitors the train all the time, but only with occasional monitoring on the track.

“The problem is not the route, but perhaps, the signalling system on the route. In fact, the safety system should be adaptable, flexible for any kind of route. Because as well as straight lines for travelling fast, high speed trains have to link up with the conventional network, to get into towns. And so, it is not about having routes that run in straight lines, but about lines being safe from A to B.”

euronews: “Spanish rail management organisations have opened an investigation. Do you think this will be enough?”

Ricard Riol: “I think there must also be an independent investigation that does not depend on the Ministry of Public Works to be able to compare the results, learn from the mistakes that have caused this disaster, because railway accidents are rarely the result of one error, rather are caused by consecutive errors. So there should be several independent investigations, as with the Paris-Limoges crash to determine responsibilities and improve automatic protection systems.”

euronews: “Spain has the second highest amount of high speed track in the world. Do you think after this accident that rail infrastructure needs redesigning?”

Ricard Riol: “The first thing that a railway should focus on, be it high speed or otherwise, is passenger safety. Therefore all regulations must be examined, above all the signalling, in plans now underway as well as future ones. If we have to stop the construction of new lines until we have new rules, then let’s have them. The most important thing is that the railways remain the safest form of ground transport.”

Ricard Riol, civil engineer and chairman of the Association for the Promotion of Public Transport, was speaking to euronews from Barcelona.

Copyright © 2014 euronews

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