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Concerns raised over Santiago de Compostela crash investigation

08 Jul 2016

SPAIN: Questions have been raised by the European Commission about the conduct and findings of the Spanish investigation into the high speed derailment at Santiago de Compostela on July 24 2013, which killed 81 people and injured another 150.

Last October, the Commission asked the European Union Agency for Railways to review the work of Spanish accident investigation body CIAF, and in particular its final report. Confirming on July 8 that her department had received ERA’s ‘advice’ document the previous day, Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc insisted that ‘transparency is the key’, and said the Spanish authorities ‘have taken steps in the right direction’.

ERA concluded that the accident had ‘not yet been independently investigated as required by the Railway Safety Directive’. Taking into account ‘the very serious nature of this accident’, the agency considers that a new investigation should be opened ‘that meets the requirements of independence and addresses as a minimum the weaknesses identified’.

ERA felt that the Spanish investigation ‘did not comply with requirements in articles 21.1 and 21.2 of the Railway Safety Directive’ to ensure the independence of CIAF from any infrastructure manager, railway undertaking or other party ‘whose interests could conflict with the tasks entrusted to the investigation body’. In particular, it highlighted the inclusion of ADIF, RENFE and Ineco staff on the investigating team.

In its advice, ERA expressed concern that the investigation had placed sole responsibility for the accident on human error and had therefore failed to investigate other contributing factors adequately. The agency pointed out that national investigation bodies are supposed to ‘establish exactly what, how and why the accident happened’ in order ‘to learn lessons and prevent similar accidents in the future’.

‘The emphasis of the CIAF report is put on the direct cause (one human error) and on the driver's (non-) compliance with rules, rather on the underlying and root causes’ which ‘are most likely to include the organisational actions of ADIF and RENFE.’ The investigation did not consider sufficiently the design of the line, the train or the signalling arrangements. The report mainly focused on the actual derailment, without analysing the impact of the subsequent collision of the train with a lineside retaining wall and the resulting fire in the rear generator car.

‘The proposed safety recommendations seem to arise from the topics discussed and not from a well-understood and established causation chain leading to evidence-based conclusions’, ERA suggests.

A response from CIAF issued by the Ministry of Development on July 7 insisted that its investigation had looked at all of circumstantial aspects of the accident, ‘including those considered relevant to the aims of the investigation’. It pointed out that its investigation did not determine responsibility for the accident, which had been addressed by a separate judicial investigation. That concluded last October when the driver was charged with 80 counts of ‘reckless manslaughter’. CIAF also pointed out that infringement proceedings initiated by the Commission ‘had been concluded on terms favourable to Spain’. It noted that ERA had expressed no objections when the initial report into the accident was submitted in July 2014.

In the light of the ERA findings, Galician politicians are now calling for an independent investigation by international experts to address the wider issues surrounding the accident.