Turning Too Fast: The 2013 Santiago de Compostela Derailment

Max S
14 min readFeb 14, 2021

Note: Despite my school’s best efforts I don’t speak Spanish at all and relied on translated sources. I apologize for any errors stemming from that.

Background

Santiago de Compostela is a city of 97260 people (as of 2019) in the far northwest of Spain, 457km/284mi west of Bilbao and 190km/118mi north of the Portuguese city of Porto. The city, which is an important pilgrimage-center and forms the destination of various pilgrim’s ways (Camino de Santiago) is the capitol of the autonomous community of Galicia.

The location of Santiago de Compostela in Europe.

The city forms the end of the Madrid-Galicia high speed rail line (LAV Corredor Galicia), a double-track partially standard gauge high speed electrified main line connecting the Spanish capitol Madrid with Santiago de Compostela. The line has been opened in segments since 2007, and is scheduled to be completed by 2022. Contrary to most of the world using the “regular gauge” of 1435mm Spain uses the “Iberian Gauge” for most of its railway infrastructure, which has a higher width of 1668mm. While Spain’s high speed rail network is planned and built with regular gauge tracks parts of the Madrid-Galicia line were built in the Iberian Gauge to allow the trains to continue their journeys on Spain’s regular railway lines. Once the high speed line is completed the wider gauge parts will be replaced by regular gauge track. Spain had to build the high speed lines in regular gauge as they are part of Atlantic corridor, an EU-wide project for international rail transport.

he site of the accident seen from above. The train came out of the tunnel on the right.

The train involved

On the day of the accident RENFE (Spanish national railway) Alvia 01455 was a high speed passenger train from Madrid to the city of Ferrol on the northwestern coast of Spain. Providing the service was Alvia series 730 012, a 13-car dual-mode high speed passenger train made in cooperation by Talgo and Bombardier. The trains came into existence by modifying series 130 high speed trains. A short generator car carrying a MTU V12 diesel engine was added to each end of the train, situated between the motor car and the passenger cars. This allows series 730-trains to run on non-electrified routes, with the 1200kw/1609hp diesel engines powering generators to provide electricity to the motors of the end cars. Talgo refers to the trains as Talgo 250 Hybrid, a misleading label as the diesel engines don’t directly propel the trains at any point. The generator cars have a two-axle bogie, with the other end resting on the shared bogie (“Jacobs-type bogie”) of the forward passenger car. The engine is located above the car’s own bogie, creating a setup that easily produces high yaw-forces (turning around the vertical axle). Only the motor cars and generator cars use conventional bogies, all the passenger cars in between run on single-axle Jacobs-type bogies with a special Talgo-exclusive suspension system. Rather than resting on the bogie the cars are actually attached to the bogie by a U-shaped bracket connecting to the chassis of each car near the roof, meaning the cars hang in the train rather than stand. So while a fast turn makes the motor car and generator car lean out of the turn (similar to what happens when you take a fast turn in a car) the passenger cars are caused to lean into it slightly, similar to someone on a motorbike. These opposite motions have to be absorbed by the couplers and dampers between the generator car and the leading passenger car to keep the train from derailing itself.

A generator car at the depot, showing its own bogie (left) and how it’s mounted on the leading passenger car (right).

Each train weights 383 metric tons in a service-ready condition and can carry up to 262 passengers at 186m/610 feet long. The top speed on electrified tracks is listed as 250kph/160mph on regular gauge tracks and 220kph/137mph on the Iberian Gauge network (due to having 3 rather than 25 kilovolt). Under diesel power the trains still manage to reach 180kph/112mph. To cope with the different gauges found in Spain both the series 130 (which lacks the dual-mode capability) and 730 trains, which were nicknamed “Patitos” (“Ducklings”) due to their beak-shaped nose sections, are equipped with special bogies that allow them to navigate “gauge adjustment mechanisms”, specialized tracks where the track width of the train and track change between two different gauges without the train even needing to stop (the series 730 navigates these mechanisms at 15kph/9mph). The trains are equipped with ETCS Level 1, a safety-system that permanently monitors the speed of the train, local speed limits and the surrounding signals. But after a trial-period showed a series of software-issues leading to delayed trains the system was turned off in November 2012, leaving the Spanish ASFA-system which only notifies the driver of signals and monitors train speed punctually in intervals. It will trigger an emergency stop if the train exceeds 200kph/124mph, but it does not register permanent local speed limits or the train’s adherence to them.

A double-traction of series 730 trains identical to the one involved photographed in 2012. Note the short generator car.

The accident

On the 24th of July 2013 Alvia series 730 012 is departing Ourense at 8:04pm on its way to Ferrol. At the station the driver of the train was swapped out, the train is now driven by 52 years old Mister Amo, who has 32 years of experience, 5 of which with passenger trains and who spent the last two years driving high speed trains. The other driver remained in the driver’s cab, but didn’t operate any controls of the train. The train departed Ourense 3 minutes behind schedule, and was supposed to reach Santiago de Compostela by 8:44pm. The train was carrying 218 passengers and a six-head train crew (some sources claim 247 people on board). Approaching Santiago de Compostela the train was travelling at 200kph/124mph on the last stretch of the new high speed line, having several kilometers of nearly straight track to safely maintain the high speed. The high speed track merges with the old railway line 3km/1.9mi outside Santiago station, forcing trains into a sharp left hand turn alongside a near-vertical embankment. The turn was limited to 80kph/50mph, as indicated by signals on the high speed line over 4km/2.5mi ahead of the turn. At 8:39:06pm the train driver’s cellphone rang as the train was travelling at full speed. On the other end of the line was the conductor, asking about what side the platform in the next station would be on after he’d been asked by a family with young children. RENFE only allows cellphone usage for drivers in emergencies. 37 seconds into the call the train passed the pre-signal E7 at kilometer 80.33, being notified of it by an acoustic signal from the ASFA-system. Upon passing the pre-signal the train driver was meant to decelerate to safely make it down to the speed limit for the upcoming turn. The call ended after 100 seconds with the train driver screaming in fear as his train was inside the last tunnel, travelling at 200kph/124mph just a few hundred meters from the site of the accident. He had realized his location, remembered the upcoming turn and knew that he had made a disastrous error. Leaving the tunnel at 195kph/121mph the driver triggered an emergency stop, knowing he could do nothing but watch the tragedy unfold. The train passed the main signal (the point at which the low speed limit should have been achieved) and entered the turn at 179kph/111mph. The train didn’t stand a chance to make it through the turn, and at 8:41:06pm the centrifugal forces of the train trying to navigate the turn at more than twice the speed limit pulled the forward generator car off the tracks, falling against an embankment. 4 seconds later the driver hit the train’s kill switch, a hopeless act of desperation. The generator car had pulled most of the train off the track already, ripping off the coupler to the leading motor car. Passing under a road bridge the motor car was the last to derail, heading off the track at 153kph/95mph. The motor car fell against the wall next to the track, being pushed back up onto its wheels and taking out a CCTV-camera before coming to a stop severely damaged but upright and structurally intact.

CCTV-footage showing the train derail and take out the camera.
Stills from the video above showing the generator car derail, dragging the rest of the train along.

The rest of the train wasn’t as lucky, with four of the passenger cars rolling over, one ripping in half and one being completely obliterated when the following cars compressed it into the dirt wall. Spilling fuel from the generator cars started two separate fires, with a column of thick smoke soon marking the site of the accident. The rear generator car’s engine was torn out of the generator car by the forces of the collision, coming to a rest atop the wall next to it while the torn shell of the car kept going for a few more meters. Several of the train cars derailed at such an unlucky angle that they ended up being propelled over the neighboring wall onto an adjacent road. It’s pure luck that no pedestrian or car was struck by (what by all means was) a flying 14 metric ton rectangle of steel.

Aftermath

Seconds after the collision the driver, who was trapped in the motor car with minor injuries along with his coworker, radioed dispatch saying he was hoping no-one had died, as those lives would be on his conscience. Unbeknownst to him of the 224 people aboard the train 74 had died in the collision, with another six initial survivors succumbing to their injuries later. 144 people survived with injuries. The victims were from 10 different countries, including Spain, France, the USA, Brasilia and Italy. When rescue crews arrived at the site a few minutes after the accident the driver was freed from the motor car and went on to help in the rescue effort.

Firefighters extinguish the burning rear generator car as their colleagues start climbing into the wreckage.

Pieces of the torn-up train cars, along with passengers’ belongings and bodies of victims were strewn all over the wreckage, not a single train car had remained undamaged or even remotely on the tracks. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the local government leader, visited the site and compared it to a “Dante-esque scene, referring to “Dante’s Inferno”, a 14th Century Italian poem about the different circles of hell. Responders and journalists later linked the sight of the aftermath to the 1998 Eschede ICE Derailment in Germany, a point emphasized when a photo of a train car suspended from cranes during recovery reached the public eye.

One of each train’s cars being lifted out of the wreckage in 1998 (left) and in 2013 (right).

Hundreds of responders soon filled the scene, the Spanish national police alone provided 320 men. Chaplains and psychologists were involved in the response, supporting the witnesses, responders and survivors. Responders worked into the night to rescue the survivors and recover the passengers, handing the site over to the investigators the next morning. Celebrations planned for the next day, a regional holiday, were cancelled and three days of nation-wide mourning were declared by the Prime Minister. The local region of Galicia extended the mourning-period by another 4 days. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia visited survivors at the local hospitals in the following days, demonstrating their compassion for the dead or injured.

Responders tending to survivors next to a train car that had been thrown up onto the neighboring road. Note the roof-mounted suspension mentioned earlier.

Mister Amo was detained either immediately or a few days after the accident (no clear information), with police officers guarding him at the hospital. Investigators allegedly feared that he may try to escape prosecution. Journalists dug up a post he’d made on Facebook in March 2012, showing a photo of a train’s speedometer at 200kph/124mph and writing about how much fun it is to go so fast and how he’d love to drive parallel to a road and trigger a police speed trap at that speed without getting fined.

Mister Amo’s photo on facebook, and his photo of a train’s speedometer at the scheduled top speed.

A few days after the accidents heavy-duty cranes (both for the road and for tracks) were brought in, pulling the wreckage apart to be taken away either on flatbed cars (once the track was repaired) or with flatbed trucks on the adjacent road.

A crane removing the remains of a train car that was torn to pieces in the derailment.

While investigators acknowledged that 200kph/124mph was perfectly normal to drive on Spanish high speed lines they did note that the post and some matching comments made on the post can be interpreted as a perhaps risky obsession with travelling at high speeds. An unproven theory was thrown around that, maybe, Mister Amo had tried to show off to his coworker. The recovered data-logger supported the theory of excessive speed being the cause of the accident, but there was nothing to prove that Mister Amo had been speeding intentionally. Amo insisted that he had taken the photo while a coworker was driving the train, meaning it wasn’t unauthorized use of a cell phone on duty.

The leading motor car at the beginning of the wreckage. Note that the forward generator car is still attached to the first passenger car by the shared axle as it rests on its side.

Investigators criticized the layout of the railway line ahead of Santiago station, with the rather sharp turn following an 80km/50mi stretch of near-straight track where trains are expected to travel at top speed. When the section of the new railway line was opened engineers called the site of the accident “challenging”, but it was up to code and with the high speed line meant to use ETCS L1 there was no chance of excessive speed causing an accident since the trains would be unable to leave the last tunnel too fast. The turn itself was never fitted with ETCS, which was meant to end at the main signal 200m/656ft ahead of the spot where the forward generator car derailed. With ETCS being disabled after the trial-period that safety-net was gone, meaning it was down to the drivers to remember their position and/or spot the pre-signal telling them it was time to decelerate. After the accident RENFE changed the signaling-layout at the site of the accident, instead of a single signal marking a switch from 200kph/124mph to 80kph/50mph the speed is now reduced over a longer distance in steps of 160, 60 and finally 30kph (99/37/19mph). The speed limit are aided by so-called balises, track-mounted programmable transponders which communicate with the passing train’s control systems and can trigger an automatic stop if the speed limit is not obeyed. At the same time RENFE announced a thorough review of its entire network to eliminate any avoidable safety-risk. The European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) harshly criticized Spain for their investigative office for railway accidents (CIAF) not being able to operate independently from the political oversight of the ministry for public affairs, claiming a risk of biased investigations/results. ERA backed up their claim by pointing out how RENFE and ADIF (the company building and maintaining the railway infrastructure) were part of the investigative team, pulling the neutrality of the investigation into doubt. A report by the EPA concluded that this involvement of parties involved in the accident in the investigation was in violation of European guidelines. When a new government was elected in 2018 the risk of biased investigations ceased to exist. Regardless, in 2017 the European Commission decided to run a parallel independent investigation. RENFE also decided to reintroduce and expand the ETCS-system, but by early 2020 the site of the accident still was not covered by the system.

The rear part of the wreckage during recovery, the field of debris was several hundred meters long.

On the 29th of July 2013 a memorial service was held at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, attended among other guests by the Spanish prime minister and a large part of the royal family. The same day Mister Amo was charged with 79 counts of homicide by professional recklessness and an undetermined number of counts of causing injury by professional recklessness. While he was later sentenced to 4 years in jail and banned from driving trains for six years several officials who were also investigated for running the railway-network with lacking safety saw their charges dropped, further fueling suspicions of a biased investigation. Meanwhile survivors and relatives of victims sought over 40 million Euros/48.5 million USD in damages from RENFE, who in turn demanded damages from ADIF. The government at the time blocked a possible trial between the two state-owned groups, but after a new government started work in June 2018 the traffic ministry promised a new, thorough investigation and to finally sort out the mess and erase suspicion of some people being “immune from consequence” due to their job or friends. It’s unknown if any money changed hands since, or if any more people faced charges/were sentenced.

The leading generator car being removed from the site, its bogie remained attached to the motor car.

RENFE faced further criticism even from private enthusiasts, who, in long-winded discussions in various message boards, figured out that the generator car design was recklessly “undercooked”, with the car being overly heavy, having a high center of gravity in an unfortunate spot (relatively high and not centered in the length of the car) and being a bad combination with the suspension design of the neighboring passenger cars. The generator car weights approximately 28 metric tons including 2000l/528gal of diesel, twice as much as the passenger cars, and is a mixture of the passenger cars and the motor cars (the two-axle bogie on the leading end is the same as the motor cars’, just with the motors removed). Several of these discussions and investigations ended up suspecting that the creation of the series 730 had been done on a (too) small budget and in a time-crunch to try and get better high speed connections into parts of Spain that don’t have stations on electrified high speed lines. In some places the suspicion that the development was urged along as a favor to politicians lingered, unable to be disproven.

A section of the (translated) discussion in a German message board pointing out the “makeshift-ish” construction of the generator car. You can find a translation of the full discussion linked at the end of this write-up.

In the days after the accident passerby and relatives of people involved turned the road overpass at the site of the accident into a makeshift memorial, a few months later an official memorial was created at the site with a large concrete pillar topped by a cross. As of June 2019 you can still find flowers, flags and other objects lining the fence of the bridge.

The bridge over the tracks at the site of the accident, photographed in June 2019.

The accident was Spain’s worst rail accident since the El Cuervo train collision in 1972 and Europe’s worst train accident since the Eschede ICE Derailment in 1998. It’s only surpassed by the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people in a terror attack (and thus doesn’t count as an accident). The series 730 is still in use, now with the superior ECTS-system monitoring their speeds. In 2020 a couple of trains were converted into rolling ambulances to transport Covid-patients between hospitals in different parts of Spain.

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A translation of the German message board discussion mentioned above can be found right here, it provided a lot of great information for this piece.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.