MADRID – The driver was on the phone with a colleague and apparently looking at a document as his train barreled ahead at 95 mph – almost twice the speed limit. Suddenly, a notorious curve was upon him.
He hit the brakes too late.
The train, carrying 218 passengers in eight carriages, hurtled off the tracks and slammed into a concrete wall, killing 79 people.
On Tuesday, investigators looking into the crash announced their preliminary findings from analysis of the train’s data-recording black boxes, suggesting that human error appears to be the cause of Spain’s worst railway disaster in decades.
The derailment that occurred late last Wednesday near Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain, left 66 people still hospitalized, 15 of them in critical condition.
According to the investigation so far, train driver Francisco Jose Garzon Amo received a call from an official of national rail company Renfe on his work phone in the cabin, not his personal cellphone, to tell him what approach to take toward his final destination.
The Renfe employee on the telephone appears to be a controller, a person who organizes train traffic across the rail network, said a statement from a court in Santiago de Compostela, where the investigation is based.
From the contents of the conversation and from the background noise it seems that the driver (was) consulting a plan or similar paper document.
The statement on the preliminary findings did not indicate whether such a phone conversation is common between a driver of a moving train and a controller, and it did not say how long the call lasted. It did not name the Renfe official who called the driver, nor did it further describe what plan or document the driver was consulting.
The train had been going as fast as 119 mph shortly before the derailment, and the driver activated the brakes seconds before the crash, according to the statement. The speed limit on the section of track where the crash happened was 50 mph.
Authorities have said that a high-tech automatic braking program called the European Rail Traffic Management System was installed on most of the high-speed track leading from Madrid north to Santiago de Compostela – the route Garzon’s train took. But the cutting-edge coverage stops just 3 miles south of where the crash occurred.
The Spanish rail company has said the brakes should have been applied 2.5 miles before the train hit the curve.
Garzon was provisionally charged Sunday with multiple counts of negligent homicide. He was not sent to jail or required to post bail because none of the parties involved felt there was a risk of him fleeing or attempting to destroy evidence, according to a court statement.