A massive train derailment in Spain near the major pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday night claimed 78 lives and injured over 140 persons.
It has been alleged that the train was travelling at over twice its authorised speed when it went off the rails at a steep curve.
Several wagons were thrown up in the air or rolled over. The scene was one of utter carnage, suffering and destruction. Not since 3 January 1944, when an estimated 500 to 800 persons were killed in a train crash in Torre del Bierzo in Spain’s Leon province has the country witnessed such a major train disaster.
Back in 1944, the Franco dictatorship was in power and news of the disaster was suppressed with the government announcing just 78 deaths and 75 injured. The real toll was closer to 800 dead.
Wednesday’s crash took place on the eve of major festivities at the basilica of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region and the train was carrying over 200 passengers, mostly visitors and pilgrims. The accident took place just four kilometres short of the next station. Some 20 persons remain seriously injured and the identity of three of them has not been established.
Within minutes of the crash and before he realised the gravity of what had happened, the train driver, who suffered minor injuries but remained trapped in his cab, radioed the railway command centre and said he had been driving at 190 km per hour. The driver said his ribs and back ached and that he was unable to get out. “We are only human! We are only human!” he is reported to have said, again and again, over the radio. “I hope that there are no deaths because they would weigh heavily on my conscience.”
In a call to the digital newspaper La Voz de Galicia he moaned: “I derailed, what do I do, what am I going to do…?” The driver did not explain why he was driving at twice the authorised speed and whether the train had developed problems with its brakes or other technical glitches.
The train that derailed was not of the superfast AVE variety that can reach speeds of 300 km per hour, but an Avia, another intercity link that usually travels at about 150 km per hour.
Despite the excessive speed reported by several passengers and the driver himself, experts said speed alone could not cause such a derailment. The daily El Pais quoted a rail engineer from the Adif state-owned rail infrastructure company as saying the track had been adapted for the AVE high-speed trains, but the signalling system had not. The engineer said he was unaware of the exact circumstances of the accident, but that other factors, involving either the track or the train itself, could have come into play.
The accident has once again opened up the debate on the cost and security of high-speed trains. Spain’s Renfe national rail company has been hoping to sell locomotives and other infrastructure to India.
Jose Antonio Garcia Barez, chief of coordination and support in Renfe’s international division told The Hindu that Spanish trains were sturdier, safer and more reliable than those offered by other major European operators such as Germany’s Siemens or France’s TGV. However, France recently admitted that a commuter train crash outside Paris 10 days ago had occurred because local networks had been ignored to promote high profile fast-speed projects.