What Role Did Tracks Play In Santiago de Compostela Crash?
The day after the horrific crash of a Spanish passenger train in Santiago de Compostela discussion is focusing on the speed the train was traveling as it entered the curve where it derailed, killing at least 80 people. One of the train’s operators under investigation, according to authorities in Galicia:
A spokeswoman for the Galicia supreme court said the driver, who was only slightly injured, was under investigation. He was named by local media as 52-year-old Francisco Jose Garzon, Reuters reported.
He has not been arrested, but was under a police guard at the hospital. It was expected he would be questioned on Friday by police, acting on instructions from the judge assigned to investigate the crash, who has access to the train’s data recording black box.
State train company Renfe said the driver was a 30-year veteran of the firm with more than a decade of train driving experience.
Spanish officials said the speed limit on that section of track is 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour.
An Associated Press estimate of the train’s speed at the moment of impact using the time stamp of the video and the estimated distance between two pylons gives a range of 144-192 kph (89-119 mph). Another estimate calculated on the basis of the typical distance between railroad ties gives a range of 156-182 kph (96-112 mph).
If that’s true, as it looks, then it is understandable why the operator is being looked at by Galician authorities for excessive speed. If the operator were responsible, then it would resemble the Chatsworth disaster from 2008, when a Metrolink train operator ran a red light and crashed head on into a freight train.
One of the outcomes of the Chatsworth crash was a Congressional mandate to instal positive train control on passenger rail lines across America. Such systems are now a central focus of the discussion regarding the Santiago de Compostela crash. Spanish newspaper El País focuses on that issue in an article (translation below via Migeru at European Tribune):
Alternating AVE segments with segments of conventional track or of lower specifications occurs at other points of the line. The Alvia train between Madrid and Ferrol, the fastest going through Santiago, travels on different tracks. Between Madrid and Olmedo (Valladolid) it takes advantage of the AVE track. Then, between Olmedo and Ourense it returns to a conventional track, waiting for the completion of the AVE works already underway. Finally, between Ourense and Ferrol it again joins the AVE line, which at the entrance to Santiago goes alongside the old track.
At that moment, the train must brake and when it reaches the tight bend where the accident took place it must leave it speed at barely 80km/h. The velocity drop at that point is very steep: form 200 km/h to 80 in a short time span.
The causes of the excessive speed are still not known. The line where the accient occurred is stil not within the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System), a rail traffic mnagement system preventing a train from exceeding the established speed limit or disobey stop signals, very similar to the automatic alert systems already installed in many European countries. This system is the one deployed, for instance, on the Madrid-Barcelona AVE line in october 2011.
Why was this done? According to El País, it was done to limit purchase of right of way (translation below is mine):
At the entrance to Santiago, although the old route widened, the line loses some of the features of high speed. This was done, in part, to prevent expropriation in a remarkably urbanized area from being much greater than it already was.
In other words, that section of tracks had not yet been fully updated to AVE standards because of a desire to limit expansion of the existing right of way. Spanish higher speed trains often use a mix of dedicated high speed tracks and local shared tracks, as they do between Madrid and Santiago de Compostela.
We can anticipate where that discussion will go next regarding California, which is looking at a similar model on the Peninsula as well as in the Southern California area, at least in its initial phases. California HSR would use dedicated tracks between the Bay Area and SoCal metropolises, and then transition to shared conventional tracks to get to the final destination in downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.
All sections of track that California HSR uses will have positive train control of the kind that exists throughout much of Europe. The Peninsula is looking at installing CBOSS, which is not the same as ERTMS and may not be compatible with another ERTMS type system used elsewhere in the California system.
So we should expect at any moment to hear HSR opponents argue that the Santiago de Compostela crash shows that California HSR is a bad idea because it would run the same risks as the tracks in Spain. But such arguments don’t hold water.
Many European HSR systems use a similar model to that of Spain, where trains use dedicated tracks between cities and shared tracks within them, and do so without incident. We don’t yet know if there was a failure of design or of system operation in this crash. It may well have been a very tragic case of operator error. And California HSR will not operate exactly the same way as the Spanish rail system. There remains every reason to believe the California HSR system operating plan is safe.
At the same time, California should aim higher. The Blended Plan should be a short-term measure, not a long-term solution. The entire route from downtown SF to downtown LA should be as dedicated as possible for HSR service, using a single, ERTMS compatible standard. If additional money and right of way is needed, so be it. Safe and effective passenger rail operations must take precedence.