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EU system could have prevented Spain disaster

Spain has suffered one of the worst train accidents in its history, killing more than 80 people. A European emergency braking system could have prevented the tragedy, but had not yet been installed.

Mari was hanging out her washing in the garden, when "a torpedo of noise and dust came crashing towards me." That's how she experienced the train crash on Wednesday evening.  The tragic accident left more than 80 dead and some 180 injured.

The location of the accident was only a few kilometers from the pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela. The crash was so enormous that one of the wagons was thrown onto a road five meters above the railroad tracks.

The reason seems to be clear to many who blame the " excessively high speed" of the train. The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that there was a recorded telephone conversation in which the train driver admitted that the train carrying some 218 passengers was traveling 190 kilometers per hour (120mph) into a curve where the maximum allowed speed was only 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph).

The phone call reportedly took place when the train driver was trapped in the train after the accident and hadn't yet grasped the extend of the crash. "If anyone's dead, then I'm the one to blame," he reportedly said.

Blackbox as evidence

Rail tracks (photo: Halász István)

The European Train Control System is meant to make rail routes safer across the EU

The authorities have not yet confirmed the conversation, but assume that exceeding the speed limit was the cause of the crash. The video of a surveillance camera shows how the train approached the curve and how not the driver's cabin but the wagons behind were thrown off the tracks.

Manuel Nicolás, spokesman of the union Comisiones Obreras, warned against making premature conclusions. Even if the train driver mentioned going at too high a speed, this does not necessarily mean that he acknowledged his guilt.

Security systems should ensure that not one cause results in a crash. Further information can only be found in the black box, which the prosecution has secured as evidence.

No modern security system

But Nicolas admits that the high-tech security system, which could have prevented the crash was installed on the train, but not along the tracks at the dangerous curve outside Santiago de Compostella, where trains need to slow down to 80 kilometers per hour.

The safety system, known as the "European Rail Traffic Management System" (ERTMS) could have automatically initiated the brakes, but along that particular section of track only an older control system is installed, which merely gives warnings.

A composite image of CCTV footage showing the moment that the train derails

The accident in Spain cost the lives of at least 80 people with many more injured

The reasons, so far, are mere speculation. Driving into cities, train drivers control the speed themselves, says Nicolas. "If a train has to brake that massively, a parallel security system would be very useful."

Juan Jesus Garcia Frailes of the train drivers' union has called for more investment in safety technology on Spanish rail lines The introduction of ERTMS across the entire country is in fact something the EU Commission had already decided on in 2005. It was meant to make cross border-train traffic easier. But there is a 12-year period granted for countries to implement the changes.

Third worst accident in Spanish history

Since 2005, Spain's rail tracks no longer belong to the state, but to the public company Adif to bolster competitiveness in passenger and cargo operations. Currently, some 1,786 kilometers of track are being monitored by ERTMS, and according to Adif that is more than in any other European country. There is no statement from officials as to why more has not been done.

Wednesday's train crash is the third worst in the history of the country. In 1944, more than hundred people died when a passenger train collided with a freight train in a tunnel in León. At the time, the Franco regime tried to cover up the accident and spoke of only 78 dead.

In another crash, in 1972, on the route from Seville to Cadiz, 86 people lost their lives. The most recent accident was in 2006 when an Intercity train derailed near the city of Palencia in the north of the country. Seven people were killed in that accident.

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