Monday, 29 July 2013


The worst thing about the Spanish rail crash is that it should not have been possible in 2013.

When a disaster of this kind occurs it is easier for everyone to say "it was a accident waiting to happen"; for the papers to scream "Rail chiefs (hospital chiefs / education chiefs / army chiefs &c.) were told 94 times about failings in x, y and z". It is less easy, less palatable, to witness a crash the causes of which it should no longer be possible to create.

Since its inception, the rail industry's general approach to safety appears to have been one of trial and error. Rail travel is today the safest mode of transport, for the passenger at least, but this is only because so many people have died in such a wide variety of crashes since man first put wheels on to rails. After every disaster, we try to design out the cause from the way in which we run the railways. People die, but we tell ourselves this is not in vain because no-one will die again for that reason.

But this has happened before. I blogged a couple of months ago about the Moorgate Crash, after which the inquiry said that London Underground should install automatic modes of protection to its trains to ensure that they stop when they ought to and only ever travel at the correct speed. Since then, railways across the world have installed safety systems which either involve a computer controlling every last movement of the train or, more commonly, still require a person to drive the train but with the safety net of a computer which will stop the train if that driver overspeeds or passes a signal at danger.

Spain's very modern AVE high speed rail network utilises a version of the second system, so what went wrong? Certainly it would seem that the driver failed to brake the train as he should have done, although without having seen the black box download we don't know that for sure. He has been arrested, charged and bailed in a move which looks uncomfortably like scapegoating, and the Interior Minister's comment yesterday that "there are perfectly rational reasons for arresting him" makes it seem that he feels the need to defend against such accusations. Why did overspeed protection not kick in? Is it in use on AVE, and if not, why not?  Why, after a straight run of some eighty kilometres followed by a sharp cut in the speed limit to a reported 80kph (50mph), was the fate of a trainload of people left to the judgement of a single human being? Why have more people died and been maimed because of a systemic fault that we identified and thought we had rectified so many years ago?

Investigating the actions of the driver is of course the right thing to do, and it is possible that the charges brought against him will stick. But unless the investigation looks seriously at why the system failed so catastrophically, not only will any successful prosecution of the driver be a serious miscarriage of justice, we will be leaving the door open to exactly the same thing happening again.

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