Spanish train crash mystery: Investigators examine why driver was travelling at twice recommended speed, as 13 bodies remain unidentified

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Francisco Jose Garzon last year posted a picture on his Facebook page of train's speedometer registering 200kph

Spanish medical experts are yet to identify 13 bodies and almost 100 people remain in hospital after the country’s worst rail disaster in more than 40 years, with investigators trying to establish why the train was travelling at such an excessive speed.

A judge in Santiago de Compostela has already been assigned to the case, and ordered police to begin questioning the train’s driver, 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon, on Friday.

Mr Garzon only suffered minor injuries in the crash, which killed at least 80 people and saw more than 160 hurt. The eight-carriage service broke up and slammed into a wall as it rounded a bend near Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain at around 8.40pm on Wednesday.

The train from Madrid to Ferrol was thought to be travelling at 190kph (120mph), more than double the 80kph limit on that section of the track. The impact was so great that one of the carriages went up an embankment and came to rest several metres above the rails.

A makeshift morgue was set up at a sports centre close to the crash site yesterday, and in the evening King Juan Carlos of Spain made a visit to the area to speak to the crash’s survivors.

“All of Spain is united in grief with the bereaved families,” the king said, as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared three days of official national mourning.

While hospitals in the city were overwhelmed by residents arriving to donate blood, hundreds of others who should have been celebrating the now-cancelled Festival of St James went to the site of the disaster to watch cranes picking the mangled train carriages off the tracks.

The British embassy in Madrid confirmed that one Briton was among those injured.

The driver has been placed under formal investigation, and though under police guard he has not been arrested. A second driver, who is not thought to have been in the cabin at the time of the crash, was being treated in hospital.

According to Renfe, the state-owned company that operates the train, Mr Garzon said over his radio before the accident that he was going too fast, shouting as he went into the bend: “I’m on 190kph!” After the derailment – which caused explosions that set parts of the wreckage on fire – he asked the nearby station: “I’ve derailed – what do I do?” He then added:  “I hope there are no dead, because this will fall on my conscience.”

Julio Gómez-Pomar, the president of Renfe,  told Cadena Cope, a Spanish radio network, that Mr Garzon had been working for the company for 30 years and had been driving trains along the track where the accident occurred since 2010.

The investigation is likely to examine Mr Garzon’s Facebook page, which was taken down this morning but not before Spanish news outlets had seen photographs he had shared of his train’s speedometer registering more than 200kph.

In reply to the picture, posted in March last year, a friend had written: “If you get caught by the Guardia Civil [Spanish police], you’ll be left without your [licence] points.”

Mr Garzon replied: “It would be fun to speed parallel to the Guardia Civil and pass by them making their speed radar jump, he-he, what a fine the Renfe would get!”

While human error may have played a part in the disaster, the train’s computerised safety systems are also being examined. The curve where the accident happened is controlled by an automatic speed-monitoring system that is standard across Spain’s railway network, and is designed to stop trains or slow them down if the driver ignores the signals or speed limits. The train contains a black-box style recorder that is now in the hands of investigators.

Yesterday Santiago de Compostela should have been celebrating one of Europe’s biggest Christian events that draws pilgrims from across the continent to celebrate the apostle whose remains are said to be held in the city’s cathedral. Instead locals were dragging victims from the wreckage, some alive, some not.

At the side of the tracks bodies were lined up and covered, with the sound of mobile phones ringing from the wrecked carriages and from under the sheets covering the dead.

The Minister for Transport, Ana Pastor, gave her condolences to the families of the victims and expressed her hopes for a quick recovery for all those injured. “It is very important that families, victims and citizens learn the cause of what happened,” she said. “We are focused on attending the families and victims, so everything is done as quickly as possible.”

A Renfe spokesman said speed control systems on its services are usually determined by the type of train, but the company has refused to disclose the set-up on the service that derailed. The Alvia class 730 was only put into service last year and had passed routine safety inspections on the morning of the crash. It has a top speed of 250kph on high-speed tracks and 220kph  on normal rails. Spanish trains are among the newest in the  world and the country’s safety record is significantly better than the European average.

Fatal train crashes: Safety failures

5.10.1999  Ladbroke Grove, London

31 people died and more than 500 were injured when two trains collided in west London. The crash was the second fatal incident on the line in two years after the Southall crash of 1997, which killed seven and injured 139. Although the driver failed to read warning signals correctly, Automated Train Protection systems, which were not in use across the whole network, could have prevented the accident.

31.03.2003 Waterfall, NSW, Australia

Train derailment  left seven people dead, including  the driver. The  driver suffered a  heart attack and  the train sped out  of control, hitting  a curve with a  60kph limit at  117kph. The so-called  “dead man’s brake”, a fail-safe that is meant to cut  power in the event  of a driver becoming incapacitated,  did not work because, in this instance,  he was too overweight.

25.4.2005  Amagasaki,  Japan

Seven-carriage train derails near Osaka, with the front two carriages smashing into a block of flats. 106 passengers were killed and more than 560 injured. The driver is thought to have been trying to make up time after overshooting at a station and reversing. The train was going at 116kph around a bend with a 70kph limit when it derailed. The train was fitted with an ATP system, but only one that activated when a train broke a red light.

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