Another perspective on the Spanish Train Derailment

Sorry. It has been a very busy summer for me so I am finding it hard to take the time to write a new post.  However, I finally had a chance to put my thoughts together on the Santiago de Compostela train derailment in Spain late last month.  What a nightmare!  Talk about an accident that should have never happened.  Even worse, last week it surfaced that the probable cause of the accident is that the engineer was talking on his cell phone at the time with representative from the Spanish rail operator, RENFE!

Not good.  Not good at all.

As you can imagine, I have received a lot of emails from friends about this crash and how it appears to be a setback for the high speed rail effort in the US.

Not so.  Not at all, in fact.

In case you have been in a cave (or stuck on the back of a boat as I have) here is a brief synopsis of the accident.  The train involved WAS a high speed Alvia train used for high speed routes in Spain and is capable of speeds of up to 155 mph (250km/h), however the train WAS NOT operating as a high speed train at the time.  Rather, it was operating as a conventional regional train on conventional tracks.

The train crashed approximately 2 1/2 miles outside of the Santiago de Compostela station on July 24th, enroute from Madrid to Ferrol. Of the 222 people onboard, 140 were injured and 79 died.

However, what has made this derailment truly memorable is that security camera footage of the derailment actually occurring.

Although this accident seems like a huge setback for high speed rail in the US, let’s dissect why this derailment is not a setback.

First, this train was not operating on a high speed line at the time.  It was an express route (similar to Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner Service), and not a high speed route.  Had the track been upgraded to a high speed rail route, the train would possibly not have derailed. In fact, this track was designed to only handle trains at 50 km/h, not the 100 km/h that the train was traveling.

Second, in the US there is a new (and controversial) system being installed called Positive Train Control, or PTC for short.  This is an electronic system that monitors the train’s current speed and compares it to the track the train is running on.  Had the Alvia train had a PTC system, the train would have sensed that it was running faster than the posted speed and would override the engineer and apply the brakes.

Granted in the US PTC won’t (arguably) be fully implemented until 2015 in the US.  However, Amtrak has a PTC type of system already installed on the tracks it wholly owns which is the Northeast Corridor and in Michigan. Also, PTC will become common place before any new high speed networks in the US are built.

Third, there was nothing wrong with the track or the train.  With it now all over the news that the engineer was on the phone while speeding; most people will remember the accident for the engineer being on the phone and not malfunctioning of the equipment.

Finally, when you look at Spain’s overall rail history their rail system is much safer than the US.  For example, between 2000 until 2013, Spain had a total of 5 accidents (not including terrorism) whereby train passengers were injured or killed.  In this same time period the US had over 23 accidents where a train passenger was injured or killed.

Note of interest: on July 3rd, 2006 there was a similar accident in Valeria, Spain where by the train derailed due to over speeding as well.  So perhaps Spain should evaluate a PTC system.

So, while the video of the Alvia train derailing will remain in traveler’s mind for some time, I don’t see it as true setback to high speed rail.  After all, people will just remember it as the train crash due to a cell phone call. In fact, my guess is that this accident will just become one of the many train wreck videos on Youtube.

The unfortunately a lot of people did die or were injured in this derailment.  That is very regretful and reminds me of those text messaging commercials, showing the danger of being distracted.  However, like I mentioned I pretty sure that overall this Santiago de Compostela derailment was NOT a setback for high speed rail in the US.

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