Staffing Issue: The 2003 Chinchilla (Spain) Train Collision

Max S
10 min readDec 31, 2023

Background

Chinchilla de Montearagón is a municipality of 4497 people (as of 2022) in eastern Spain, located in the Province of Albacete 130km/81mi southwest of Valencia and 113km/70mi north-northwest of Murcia (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Chinchilla in Europe.

The municipality is crossed by the Chinchilla-Cartagena railway, a branch line splitting off the Madrid-Valencia main line at the town of Chinchilla de Montearagón in the municipality of the same name. The single-tracked unelectrified line is constructed in Iberian Gauge, a wide gauge placing the rails 1668mm apart instead of the standard 1458mm. It opened in 1865, serving both passenger and freight services. By 2003 the line was among the 44% of Spanish rail lines operated under telephone-based train reports, with dispatchers at the stations working out who can send which train at what point. The train drivers weren’t reachable by phone, and the radio-system was reported to be barely functional at best. Furthermore, there also wasn’t any form of an automatic train control system to autonomously trigger an emergency stop if required, regardless of driver inputs.

The site of the accident seen from above today. Note the large curve used to split off and then pass under the mainline. The freight train came from the south (bottom of the image) while the Talgo had just left the mainline to head southbound.

The Trains Involved

Freight Train #83407 was a tanker train running from Murcia to Albacete, consisting of 28 four-axle tanker cars pulled by a single locomotive. Some of the cars carried documentation claiming that they held sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive artificial acid which can cause severe chemical and thermal burns. The train was pulled by Renfe (Spanish national railway) 333.304. The Class 333.3 was a six-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 2000 as the result of an extensive rebuild- and modernization-process on the older Class 333 locomotives from the 1970s. Each Class 333.3 measured in 22.33m/73ft in length at a weight of 120 metric tons. They were powered by a two-stroke V16 diesel engine from GM producing 1875kW/2514hp and could reach 120kph/75mph in standard configuration. The modernization had, aside from the electronics and body shell, also included a new fuel tank, bringing capacity up to 7200l/1902 US gallons. Renfe 333.304, rebuilt from 333.050, had entered service in mid-2002, being barely a year old at the time of the accident. It was staffed by a driver and a driver’s assistant at the time of the accident.

Renfe 333.325, a diesel locomotive identical with the one pulling the freight train, photographed in 2004.

Coming the other way was Talgo 226, an express passenger service from Madrid to Cartagena. The Talgos are a family of articulated trains, with or without their own power cars. The main distinguishing feature compared to normal trains is the placement of the wheels, with the ends of two cars sharing one wheelset rather than each car having its own axles. Talgo 226 was made up of a fourth generation set introduced in 1980, made under the “Talgo Pendular”-brand. These trains had the distinction of the car bodies hanging off large U-frames mounted atop the axles, meaning they were more hanging between the wheels rather than standing on them. The cars were able to lean into curves (hence the “Pendular”-name, likening them to a pendulum) due to their flexible construction, which allowed higher speeds on curvy rail lines. The train was nearly empty at the time of the accident, carrying just 82 people. It consisted of two first class cars, a buffet car and five second class cars.

The back of a fourth generation Talgo train set photographed in 1994, the vents are for the onboard generator.

The Mark 4 Talgos were entered into service alongside the Renfe Class 354 locomotive, which was purposely designed to give a unison look when pulling the trains. The Class 354 is a four-axle high speed diesel locomotive developed by Krauss-Maffei in Germany, replacing the older Class 353 which had been pulling the Talgos until the new Class’ introduction in 1983. Each Class 354 measures 19.92m/65ft in length at a weight of 80 metric tons and is powered by two MTU V16 diesel engines producing a total of 3070kW/4117hp. The locomotives still feature a driver’s cab on each end despite being intended to exclusively pull the Talgo-trains at speeds of up to 200kph/124mph. An oddity is their ability to use all their engine-power for propulsion, with the Talgo trains having their own onboard generator for electricity which makes them independent from the locomotive in that regard. The locomotive involved in the accident was Renfe 353–007, which had been christened Virgen de Begoña (“Our Lady of Begoña”) after a local legend. It carried a crew of 3 at the time of the accident.

Renfe 354–001, identical with the locomotive pulling the Talgo-train involved, photographed at an unknown point in the early 2000s.

The Accident

Talgo 226 pulls into Chinchilla’s train station at approximately 9:30pm on the third of June 2003, intending to leave the mainline and head into the single-tracked branch line to Cartagena. The dispatcher had just received the phone call about the inbound freight train a few minutes prior when the passenger train pulled up to the platform, being meant to wait for the freight train to leave the single-tracked section and pass the waiting Talgo at the station.

The dispatcher turned the station’s exit-signal green at approximately 9:36pm, despite the freight train not having reached the station yet. Guidelines demanded that the Talgo wouldn’t depart until the crew also saw the dispatcher hold up the command staff (a wooden stick with a round colored plate at the end). The dispatcher, who would later insist that he didn’t hold up the staff, suddenly sees the Talgo start to move at 9:37pm, pulling away from the platform. He runs after the train, gesturing and shouting, but fails to get the crew’s attention and can’t do anything but watch the Talgo accelerate into the occupied single-tracked section beyond Chinchilla station, where it soon reaches 180kph/112mph.

The freight train’s crew suddenly sees headlights gleam at them as they approach the curve merging the branch line and mainline 3km/1.86mi down the line from Chinchilla station, travelling at 146kph/90.7mph. It’s unknown if either locomotive’s crew manages to trigger an emergency stop, either way disaster cannot be avoided. The two trains collide head-on at speed at 9:40pm, with the heavy freight locomotive shoving the Talgo’s locomotive back into its generator car before, enabled by the Talgo-train’s low-slung design, it mounts the severely damaged locomotive, crushing its body before becoming stuck atop the leading passenger car. The remains of the Talgo’s locomotive tear open the freight train locomotive’s tank, the spilling fuel ignites and turns the center of the wreckage into an inferno as freight cars pile up around it. 19 people, including both locomotive crews, perish in the accident, with another 46 (some sources claim up to 50) being injured.

Aftermath

Arriving firefighters are met with a sight as if hell itself opened up in the Spanish countryside, with several train cars engulfed in flames as the freight train’s locomotive towers high above the rest of the wreckage, burning like a torch. Their progress in fighting the blaze is painfully slow, experts later estimate that the center of the wreckage burned in excess of 1800°C/3272°F. Local residents are told to stay inside and leave their windows shut as a sulfuric acid leak is feared.

The wreckage as seen the following day, with the remains of the freight train’s locomotive in the center.

Responders have to wait until the following day for the fire to be extinguished and the wreckage to cool down to a level where it can be accessed. Coroners recover the remains of the victims, estimating that the locomotive crews were killed in the collision while the other 14 victims succumbed to smoke and fire. Identifying the dead turns into a lengthy and straining process as the inferno dealt severe damage to both their remains and the victims’ belongings, leaving little beyond a charred shell of the forward cars. The stay-at-home order for the surrounding towns is lifted the day after the accident as well, when recovery crews discover that the tanker cars were just about empty ahead of the crash. The Talgo’s special suspension design is credited with keeping most the train cars on the rails despite the violent impact, preventing derailed passenger cars from reaching the flames and easing the rescue of survivors.

Police officers stand next to the charred remains of a Talgo car.

The dispatcher is detained soon after the accident, facing charges of negligent manslaughter and negligent bodily injury in several cases each. Information about the lackluster safety-equipment of the rail line reached the public shortly after the accident, and it wasn’t well received that there were no systems keeping two trains from entering the same single-tracked section if a train driver and/or dispatcher messed up. Railways are meant to operate under the demand that no single point of failure can cause a catastrophic event. That means if the “human factor” (mainly the driver) messes up there should be another, independent measure to avoid an accident. Most railways handle this by using automatic train control of some sort, systems which, depending on the version/specification, register the setting of signals and positions of trains and will trigger an automatic emergency stop if a train runs a red signal. Their ability to track train positions also means a signal leading into an occupied section of track can’t be turned green. Some railways attempt to compensate the absence of such systems by continuing to use driver assistants, arguing that the second person in the cab could step in if the driver acts negligent/purposely misbehaves/makes a mistake. But multi-man crews are not a guaranteed safety-measure, as this accident, like many before it, has shown.

TV-footage shows part of the wreckage during recovery as another Talgo passes in the background.

The section of track where the accident occurred was actually meant to be modernized, with a company receiving 30 Million Euros a month before the accident to install an automatic train control system. The decision to equip the line with the system had been made after a previous train collision 40km/25mi south of the site had claimed two lives. Unions had spent considerable time demanding improvements to the technical equipment of the line and had hoped that change would finally come, only to be sorely disappointed by the slow progress of the upgrade with work having not even started by the time of the accident at Chinchilla.

The investigation never managed to determine if the dispatcher had merely turned the signal green or also given the signal with the staff, as the Talgo’s locomotive crew died in the accident. There also weren’t any witnesses at the station as it was no longer used to load/unload passengers by the time of the accident. He was still declared to be of significant fault, leading to him being put on trial for 19 counts of negligent manslaughter and 46 counts of grossly negligent bodily harm. The sentence was handed down in 2006, with the dispatcher being sentenced to a suspended 2 year prison sentence and a 4-year ban on working in train-dispatching. The court argued that the former dispatcher, who was already no longer working for the railway, was socially integrated, had two children one of which was handicapped and also couldn’t be proven to be at sole fault, which resulted in the prison sentence being turned into probation as the court saw no advantage in actually jailing him. News reports from the time noted that at the time of sentencing, 3 years after the accident occurred, there still was no automatic train control installed at the site.

A Renfe 354 pulls a Talgo-train at the site of the accident in 2008, passing the monolith which serves as a memorial to the accident.

Spain’s lacking safety-equipment on rail lines would pop up again and again, with one of the more prominent accidents at least partially blamed on it being the 2013 derailment at Santiago de Compostela which claimed 79 lives after a high speed train entered a tight turn at excessive speed. I covered that accident, which also involved a Talgo-train, in installment 56 of this series. There allegedly were vast improvements, but it’s unknown how much of the Spanish rail network is still left without automatic train control as of this article’s writing (December 2023).

The Mark 4 Talgo-trains were retired in 2011, with powered units featuring conventional-looking power cars having taken over the Talgo-services. Some surviving sets appear to be still in storage at two maintenance facilities, reportedly in a more abandoned state than a preserved one. Renfe 354–007 was the second of its type to be written off, being completely destroyed in the collision at Chinchilla. Only 8 units of its type were ever made, with the last 3 being retired in 2009 due to the unreasonable cost of maintaining a type with just three units in service. The sole surviving unit, 354–001, has since been restored and resides at a museum, showing the livery from back when it started service.

The Class 333 is the only type of rolling stock involved to still see regular service, including passenger services (and even Talgo-trains). Eight 333.3 were even upgraded for a higher top speed, making them the 333.4, for that purpose.

Renfe 354–001, the sole surviving locomotive of its type, photographed at a museum in 2011.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.