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After crash, Spanish officials defend lucrative train industry

Spain has pinned its hopes on high-speed rail to diversify its struggling economy.

In the aftermath of last week’s deadly train derailment in Spain, as the human tragedy gives way to the security and legal investigations, all sides are working hard at defending their interests – especially the state rail industry.

Spain has the world’s second biggest high-speed railway system with 3,100 kilometers (1,900 miles), trailing only China. It’s one of the country’s signature success stories that President Barack Obama lauded. It’s also a profitable high-tech industry, precisely the kind Spain needs to remodel its construction-dependent economy.

At least 79 people lost their lives, and more than two dozen remain in critical condition, after the train connecting Madrid and the northwestern Galician city of Ferrol on the Atlantic Ocean derailed just minutes from entering the Santiago station with more than 220 on board.

The train was reportedly traveling at more than twice the speed limit and the driver, who is under police custody, is due to testify in court Sunday. It was Spain’s worst train accident in more than 40 years, although rail travel here, and generally in Europe, is statistically safer than any other mode of transportation.

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Behind the scenes though, the rail industry and officials are going out of their way to defend the safety and record of the high-speed system given the economic stakes. Many others, including rail unions and fellow train drivers, are disputing the sole responsibility of the Santiago driver, even if there is little doubt the train was speeding. 

The court will weigh these and other narratives, often conflicting, that have emerged from the tragedy.  

The investigation into the accident has only begun: The train equivalent to black boxes haven’t been reviewed. But Transport Minister Ana Pastor said drivers are responsible for disregarding safety guidelines, echoing the broader government conclusion that human error caused the tragedy.

The two state railway companies, Renfe in charge of trains and Adif in charge of rail infrastructure, have also publicly ruled out safety issues and suggested the accident was the driver’s fault. The train makers, which include state-owned companies, also suggested speed was the cause.

Protecting a cash cow?

Indeed, some of the preemptive defense of Spain’s railway industry is coming from officials, to the point that some are raising conspiracy theories.

“It’s obvious there are a lot interests involved, including a lot of economic interests from some companies or high-speed [system] suppliers,” Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, regional leader of Galicia, said candidly on Saturday. 

Mr. Feijóo was referring to several multi-billion euro contracts that Spanish consortia are competing for around the globe, including a 12 billion euro plan to connect Rio de Janerio and Sao Paulo in Brazil ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Some mega projects that have been awarded include one in Kazakhstan and a 6.8 billion euro line to connect Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Spanish companies are eyeing a 14 billion euro connection between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia and one in California to connectSacramento and San Diego, along with other proposed projects.

Bigger investment than roads

The Spanish rail industry’s combined revenue in 2012 was 4.8 billion euros, of which it exported 2.8 billion euros, after 21 percent growth. The industry employs 18,000 people. And the government has allocated some 25 billion euros in state investment in its infrastructure plan until 2024, more than in road infrastructure.

The stakes for both private and public interests is best illustrated through the prized Brazil contract. One of the conditions to qualify to tender offers is to have had no fatal accidents in the previous five years.

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That explains why Renfe, Adif, and other companies, along with government officials have all insisted that the Santiago derailment is not technically a high-speed one because it happened on conventional tracks that the train switched into a few kilometers back as it entered Santiago.

Indeed, the train and tracks involved don’t travel at the top velocities of other high-speed rails in the country. The locomotives used in this route are specially designed to be able to switch between conventional and high-speed tracks –which are wider and slower.

Still, the state railway companies include the segment as part of its high-speed rail system, the first leg of work to connect Madrid and Galicia that will end in 2018.