Spanish train driver released from custody

Woman from US dies from her injuries bringing death toll of Santiago de Compostela crash to 79

The driver of a Spanish train that derailed, killing 79 people, was released from police custody last night, but still faces unspecified criminal charges after testifying for two hours before a judge, media reports said.

Francisco José Garzón (52) had been under arrest since a day after Wednesday’s accident, on suspicion of reckless homicide. The media reports cited police and court sources but did not say what criminal charges the judge brought against Mr Garzon. The conditions of release were that he check in regularly with the court and surrender his passport, the reports said.

A woman from the United States who was on the train became the latest victim of the accident yesterday, when she died from her injuries, bring the death toll to 79. Another 70 people are still in hospital, of whom 22 are in a critical state.

The funeral for the victims is due to take place this evening in Santiago de Compostela, where a week of mourning has been declared and the city’s annual religious festivities cancelled.


The crash, the worst rail accident in Spain for four decades, happened as a train travelling from Madrid to Ferrol in Galicia came off the rails just outside the city of Santiago de Compostela. The train was reportedly travelling at about 190 km/h around a curve with a speed limit of 80 km/h when it derailed, throwing carriages into the air and piling several on top of one other.

Interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said on Saturday Mr Garzón would be formally charged with “reckless homicide” because “there are rational reasons to believe he could have an eventual responsibility regarding what happened”.

The main issue for investigators remains why the train did not brake sooner ahead of the curve where it derailed. According to several media reports and interviews with witnesses who spoke to Mr Garzón after the accident, he was aware that he had been going too fast.

One theory seems to be that he was distracted, although El País newspaper said the police do not believe Mr Garzón was talking on the telephone just before the crash. The train's black box, similar to that of an aircraft, will also be key.

No automatic braking system
It has been revealed the stretch of track on which the crash occurred does not have an advanced automatic braking system, like much of the rest of the line. However, the president of the Adif railway administrator, Gonzalo Ferre, said that "no stretch of track" is dangerous if speed limits are complied with.

However, while the authorities seem to point to human error rather than technical failure, there is anxiety at how the Santiago de Compostela accident could tarnish Spain’s reputation as a world leader in rail links. The premier of the Galicia region, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, warned that “certain companies or high-speed rail providers” competing with Spain in the rail industry for lucrative contracts might try to exploit the tragedy.

“Spain, when it comes to high-speed rail and high-speed rail safety is one of the best countries in the world, although some countries might not like that fact. That’s not a political opinion, it’s a technical one,” he said.

Since opening its first high-speed line between Madrid and Seville in 1992, Spain has created a network of 3,100km, surpassed only by China, at a cost of €45 billion.

Spain has exported its own high-speed model. Having recently secured a major contract to build a link in Saudi Arabia, the country is also competing to build a planned route between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
– (additional reporting Reuters)

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain