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Spain probe into rail crash that killed 80 focuses on speed

MADRID — Spain’s government and courts probing a train crash that killed 80 people in the northwest are focusing on whether it was speeding and if safeguards should have prevented the country’s worst rail accident in 40 years.

The Public Works Ministry ordered an investigation from an independent body in charge of looking into rail accidents as the train wasn’t on high-speed track at the moment of the July 24 accident and may have broken a speed limit of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, a ministry spokeswoman said Friday by phone. She asked not to be named in line with official policy.

“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 telephone Thursday. “The driver should not have been able to go this fast.”

There were 218 passengers on board when the train derailed on the Madrid-Ferrol route at 8:41 p.m. local time 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 a statement. Company officials didn’t immediately answer calls Friday for further information. Thirty-two people, four of them minors, remain in critical condition in hospitals, the Galicia regional government said Friday.

The tragedy occurred on a line that is part of the high-speed network that successive governments have made a symbol of the nation’s modernization. Security-camera video shown on Spanish television showed the rear of the locomotive whipping off the rails in the curve before passenger cars broke into pieces as they collided with a concrete wall along the track.

The train was traveling at 190 kilometers per hour as it entered the section of track, El Pais newspaper reported Thursday, citing a radio conversation between the driver and train-control staff. The driver was named as a suspect and called to testify by the court in Santiago investigating the crash, El Pais said.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Thursday 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 derailment happened between 3 kilometers and 4 kilometers from the station in Santiago, according to a statement from ADIF, the administrator of Spain’s rail network. Those tracks aren’t equipped with the European Rail Traffic Management System, said an ADIF spokesman for the rail operator Friday in a telephone interview, asking not to be named in line with company policy. The ERTMS monitors train speeds and overrides drivers if they breach restrictions, he said.

Spain’s 15,000 kilometers of conventional and high-speed track are currently equipped with a system that forces the train to slow down if an obstacle is detected ahead, he said. The ERTMS system has being rolled out on 2,500 kilometers of track, the spokesman said. Automatic breaking involves communication with a second security system on board the train, he said.

The accident occurred during the culmination of the St. James festivities in Santiago, the Christian religious and arts 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 northwest of the capital, near the Atlantic coast.

There are no material parallels with a crash south of Paris on July 12 that killed six people and in which the fault lay with the track, Wolmar said. The Alvia 730 train was built by a joint venture of Spain’s Talgo and Bombardier Inc., according to Cadena Ser wire service. The hybrid diesel-electric train has a top speed of 240 kph.

As many as 86 people died when trains collided near Seville in southern Spain in 1972. In 2004, 191 people were killed when groups inspired by al-Qaida planted bombs on commuter trains in Madrid three days before national elections.

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.

With assistance from Charles Penty and Katie Linsell in Madrid. Robert Wall and Angelina Rascouet in London, Frank Longid in Hong Kong, and Chris Cooper and Peter Langan in Tokyo.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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