MADRID — A rail crash in northwestern Spain Wednesday night killed at least 78 people, the highest death toll on the country’s railroads since the 2004 Madrid bombings. Questions were raised about the train’s speed.
The train carrying 218 passengers on the Madrid-to-Ferrol route derailed at 8:41 p.m. local time Wednesday night as it entered a bend on the outskirts of the city of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region, state-owned rail company Renfe said in an emailed statement. The line is part of the high-speed network that successive governments have made a symbol of Spain’s modernization.
Security-camera footage of the accident broadcast on Spanish television showed the rear of the locomotive sliding off the rails as it took the curve and then disintegrating as it collided with a concrete wall alongside the track.
Images from the scene showed one carriage shredded by the impact and another thrown up a 5-meter (16-foot) embankment. The bodies of victims lay on the gravel alongside the rails, covered with blankets brought by locals who rushed to help after hearing an explosion. The death toll was given by a government spokeswoman who asked not to be named in line with official practice.
“It’s a major challenge to identify the people who have died,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a televised statement from Santiago, where he inspected the crash site and visited survivors. “Unfortunately, in many cases, this isn’t easy, but we are very conscious that the families cannot live in a state of uncertainty.”
The accident occurred the day before the fiesta of St. James, a Christian festival that commemorates the saint known in Spanish as Santiago, when many locals return to the city from Madrid to join the celebrations. Relics of the apostle are held in the cathedral in the city of about 100,000 people situated about 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest of the capital, near the Atlantic coast.
The premier said that both the rail authorities and the courts are working to establish the reason for the accident, without commenting on what the causes may have been. He declared three days of national mourning.
The train was traveling at 190 kilometers per hour as it entered the section of track, which has a speed limit of 80 kph, El Pais newspaper reported, citing a radio conversation between the driver and train control staff.
“The key point is how come this train was going too fast, despite it being a modern train with many safety systems,” Christian Wolmar, a transport historian and the author of “Broken Rails,” an analysis of Britain’s train network, said by phone.
The section of the track where the accident happened appears to lack the European Rail Traffic Management System, which provides continuous data on train speeds and overrides the drivers if they breach restrictions, Wolmar said.
“The driver should not have been able to go this fast,” he added.
There are no material parallels with a crash south of Paris on July 12 in which six people died in which the fault lay with the track, he said. The train, which Wolmar said appears to be an Alvia S-730, is built by a joint venture of Spain’s Talgo and Bombardier Inc. The hybrid diesel-electric train has a top speed of 240 kph.
The number of fatalities may increase because parts of the wreckage are difficult to access, a spokeswoman for the Galicia regional high court said by telephone. She requested anonymity citing court policy.
Spain opened its first high-speed rail line in 1992 and currently has the world’s third-largest network, with 2,515 kilometers of tracks, according to figures from the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer, a global organization of rail operators.
The derailment happened between 3 and 4 kilometers from the station, according to a statement from ADIF, the administrator of Spain’s rail network.
“The numbers are provisional, but the injured and victim identification are the priority,” Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the president of the Galician regional government, said in an interview broadcast on RTVE.
In a statement, Rajoy said the country’s central government is working with the Galician regional administration to “mobilize all its resources” to deal with the emergency. Rajoy was born in Santiago de Compostela and studied there, according to his profile on the government website.
In 2004, 191 people were killed when groups inspired by al-Qaida planted bombs on commuter trains in the Spanish capital three days before national elections.
With assistance from Charles Penty in Madrid, Robert Wall and Angelina Rascouet in London, Frank Longid in Hong Kong and Chris Cooper in Tokyo.
© 2013, Bloomberg News