What July’s international rail disasters have in common

Mark Findlay looks at some of the things that the recent spate of train disasters have in common:

This last few weeks has seen an exceptional run of transport disasters; from the toxic fire at Lac Mégantic ,Canada on an unattended freight train on July 6, the derailment at Bretigny-sur-Orge in France on July 12 and then the horrendous crash near Santiago del Compestela in Galicia on July 24.


The Lac Mégantic fire exposed, amongst other things, that the Canadian federal government had allowed single “manning” (sic) of freight trains, even vast 72 car trains of highly inflammable oil. This has been hastily reversed: http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/regulatory/transport-canada-no-more-one-person-crews.html?channel=40  The balkanisation of the US and Canadian rail systems into “short lines”, with more lax regulation and profit motive is also called into question. Again, the driver (engineer) of the train has been blamed, before proper investigation has been carried out.


There’s been little word here about the French accident. It sounds horribly like the Potters Bar disaster of a few years ago, where the last coach of a train suddenly derailed and careered up onto a station platform. That one was down to poor maintenance of points and I suspect that the French disaster had a similar cause. If you can read French, however, the SNCF has had to rapidly check all its points system wide http://www.leparisien.fr/transports/bretigny-les-aiguillages-du-reseau-national-ne-presentent-pas-de-risques-selon-la-sncf-24-07-2013-3004803.php. The sense is clear; they are checking points systems and in particular the “éclisses” (lit. splints)   that hold them together. These inspections reveal that 4% of points have needed “preventative geometric corrections”, 5% of attachments have had to be tightened and 6% of “boutons” (buttons?) also needed tightening. That’s one in 20, which sounds like a shocking total to me on a system intended for frequent, heavy and very fast trains.


The Spanish disaster demands a thoughtful response as there seems to have been more than one cause. The background to this is first of all the nature of the route being followed; the curve is the first one after a long high-speed stretch. Similar disasters (although without the high death toll) have occurred in Britain, the notorious curve at Morpeth (on the East Coast rail line to Edinburgh) has resulted in no less than 3 similar accidents were trains did not slow in time.


However, the Galicia disaster has some particular aspects which are worrying. The Galician comrades draw attention to the lack of automatic speed control on this (high speed) train:“Why did this train not have the traffic management systems required in high speed trains installed?” they ask. Well that’s the first question and if true slams the responsibility straight back with the railway operator RENFE. Why indeed would a train designed for high speed not have the required equipment to detect that a speed reduction for a curve was coming?


A further issue, missed by all so far is why the death toll was so high. Generally trains protect their passengers quite well. The recent French rail disaster just outside Paris involving a high-speed derailment only killed 6, even though the impact appeared to be similar. It could be that the Spanish light-weight “Talgo” carriages offered little protection as opposed to the heavy French rolling stock.


In Britain, there is a limited form of overspeed protection called TPWS https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Train_Protection_%26_Warning_System (this article points out that it has severe limitations and doesn’t give much protection at truly high speeds). Perhaps through luck, there haven’t been many serious rail accidents in recent years, but privatised chaos doesn’t give me much confidence.


It’s early days but it sounds like the driver was distracted and probably forgot where he was. All operating staff like drivers are supposed to have “road knowledge” – i.e.  location of curves, gradients, signals, stations etc, and it appears that he was experienced both with the route and as a driver. He also had a second driver – the investigators should ask perhaps why he/she didn’t warn the first driver. What does seem clear is that the driver was thoroughly distracted by phone calls and computer equipment around him. An investigation should ask how drivers are trained to use the equipment so that it doesn’t result in distraction. E


Essentially the task of driving a train is similar to driving a car. Being able to concentrate on what you are doing is essential. If the driver was required by his controller to be using the phone while driving then the whole process of contacting control and the amount of communication needs to be looked at. Now some sort of radio communication makes sense if it’s like air traffic control (which restricts its communications to the absolutely necessary and has a series of internationally known procedures precisely to avoid this kind of thing).


The Galician comrades rightly ask whether the possibility of exports of AVE trains to Brazil (AVE is the name applied to various high speed train designs in the Spanish state) have affected the way in which this disaster is portrayed. Actually I’m not surprised that the driver was arrested, but I think that involving the criminal law should be the last step, only after responsibility has been fully established by an proper enquiry.


When I trained as a guard back in the 1970s, the old railway enquiry process (actually controlled by the British military!) was like that. The facts were established. Then lessons learned and then finally if someone was to blame action was taken. Historically, prosecutions and involvement of the police were rare, unless a deliberate act (such as sabotage) was involved. That meant that all parties spoke more freely to the enquiry. Now I am sure that there were weaknesses, and of course historically the old private operators would do anything to avoid spending money on safety improvements like better signalling, better (and fail-safe) brakes, stronger and fire resistant carriages etc etc


While each of these disasters has a different specific  cause, there seems no doubt that attempts to blame the drivers are calculated to divert attention from more fundamental problems in the system, problems caused fundamentally by seeing public transport as a cash cow for companies not a social necessity for society..


  1. “The Galician comrades rightly ask whether the possibility of exports of AVE trains to Brazil (AVE is the name applied to various high speed train designs in the Spanish state) have affected the way in which this disaster is portrayed.”

    Spanish train exports have been affected by the Galician disaster.
    But it’s worth pointing out that the train involved wasn’t an AVE, which is based on the French TGV.
    The TGV uses an automatic braking system, wider track curve radii and has yet to experience a single fatality in its 29 years of service.

    The train involved in the Galician accident was an Alvia S-730, commonly known as “El Pato” (the Duck) This is a makeover of the S-130 series. A design compromise developed by Bombardier and Talgo in only 2 years, which had its first test run in September 2011.
    Their aim was to allow high speed trains to use older conventional tracks, such as those in Galicia, which
    the more advanced AVE trains can’t use. These typically don’t have the more advanced automated braking system in place and there seem to be unresolved issues around transitioning between the conventional and AVE-enabled track.

    Making such design compromises is obviously cheaper than fully upgrading the track and safety systems. The Virgin Pendelino is another example of such a compromise. Its tilting suspension allows the Pendelino to negotiate tighter curves than are allowed on the TGV or Japanese Shinkansen.
    But most railway engineers don’t regard this as an ideal solution.

    Moreover, HSR systems tend to be expensive prestige projects, with premium fares that deter many passengers. Their questionable economics have led France and Portugal to reduce investment in new routes.

    Rail unions and passenger groups should certainly resist the development HSR on the cheap.
    Track maintenance, safety and reliability is more important than the quest for ever greater speed.

    “El Pato” is described in more detail here:-

  2. Prianikoff rightly raises the question of high-speed rail per se. I think many people see HSR as a positive development because we are conditioned by the capitalist system to always present “time-saving” in that light. It’s a product of excessively long working hours, weeks, years and lives.

    Perhaps one of the outcomes of the campaign against HST2 will be a new awareness of this issue.

  3. The Rail towns and infrastructure took a beating in 80’s and
    90’s McNulty cuts will result in more tragedy’s S/R has had a
    history on Rail Questions RMT are campaigning at present how cawe support this impoetant public transport issue.

  4. I think you maybe being a bit harsh on the SNCF incident. After any incident, whatever industry, there is a tendency to over react on inspections. What would normally be safe to wait for the next maintenance cycle will get acted on immediately due to the external attention and internal pressure. 5% maintenance on close inspection under the circumstances of a crash probably implies 1 to 2% geniunely require attention. That’s the challenge of maintaining any complex system: it’s almost impossible at any given point to be sure that all aspects of a system are 100% safe. In a system dependent on capital investment there has to be compromises because capital is rationed for public transport. I hear you say that’s the problem and I probably don’t disagree with you but SNCF do a much better job I think, in my limited knowledge, than you give them credit.

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