Buried in a pile of EU press releases dropped en mass one day in late January was a slither of good news for Spain’s long-suffering rail disaster victim associations and survivors: a call from the European Commission (EC) for Spain to correctly implement EU rules concerning railway safety.

As part of the EU’s monthly package of infringement decisions, the Commission said it had sent a letter of formal notice to the Spanish Government after discovering its “safety processes do not meet the requirements of EU railway safety legislation.”

Specifically, the EC said it had identified shortcomings in the way the Spanish Commission of Railway Accident Investigations (CIAF) – a Madrid-based division of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport – investigates and analyses rail accidents and incidents.

The announcement follows a slew of recent media reports that have scrutinised the work of CIAF, and years of campaigning by survivors and victim associations, who say railway investigations are flawed because CIAF teams include operators and infrastructure managers who may be implicated in accidents.

The Santiago de Compostela derailment

While the Commission’s spokesperson said the January infringement letter was not a reference to any one specific accident, many have linked the decision to the 2013 Santiago de Compostela train crash, the deadliest railway accident in Spain in four decades.

The accident occurred when a high speed Alvia train travelling at more than double the permitted speed limit derailed at a sharp bend – known as the Angrois curve – just outside of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwestern Galicia region. The incident cost the lives of 80 people, injured more than 100 and made headlines around the world.

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“Many survivors, campaigners and rail analysts strongly disagreed with the CIAF report.”

Both Renfe and Adif, the state-owned companies that operate and manage Alvia trains, pinned the blame on the driver, Francisco José Garzó, who had been speaking to a conductor on a company cellphone moments before the crash and had therefore failed to break in time.

A subsequent investigation by CIAF, published in June 2014, gave credence to this version of events. The 266-page document argued that “driving staff failed to follow the regulations contained in the train timetable and the route plan.” Rail bosses from both Renfe and Adif were absolved of responsibility.

Many survivors, campaigners and rail analysts strongly disagreed with the CIAF report, however. They questioned why rail officers in charge of the train and rail network had not factored in the possibility of human error – particularly at a bend as potentially dangerous as the Angrois curve – and had failed to put in place technology that could mitigate it.

Conflicts of interest

Critics felt key information was missing from the CIAF report because the team in charge of the investigation included safety directors from both Renfe and Adif, as well as a consulting firm called Ineco, which is owned by the Transport Ministry, all of whom may have had vested interests in clearing their organisations’ names.

“The Spanish rail investigation body depends entirely on the Transport Ministry,” said an article in the International Rail Journal. “Its president and its five board members are directly appointed and removed by the minister. When an accident occurs an ad hoc investigation team is formed, and it is always composed by a member of the CIAF secretariat and two safety executives from both Adif and Renfe.”

A victim association raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest with then Minister of Public Works, Ana Pastor, just two months after the crash. But it was told the investigators were “good professionals,” according to Jesús Domínguez, the spokesman for Plataforma Víctimas Alvia 04155.

“ERA argued that the accident should have been mitigated through proper safety measures.”

It wasn’t until 2015, when a new study by a separate judicial investigation was published, that the campaigner’s concerns began to gather steam. The study found that the lack of a working European Rail Traffic Management System (ETCS) – a technology designed to break a train that is exceeding a designated speed limit – on board the Alvia was a major contributing factor to the accident. A number of senior executives from Adif were subsequently interviewed but all criminal investigations were dropped later than year.

Undeterred, the Santiago de Compostela victim association took its efforts to the European Commission, who later requested the European Railway Agency (ERA) launch its own study. In 2016, ERA published its findings, questioning both the independence of the CIAF and the content of its 2014 report.

Despite the Spanish Government’s confidence in the “good professionals” of the CIAF, ERA said the involvement of Adif and Renfe was in fact a breach of EU regulations concerning conflict of interest and that the accident had not been “independently investigated as required by the Railway Safety Directive”.

Like the 2015 judicial study, ERA argued that the accident should have been mitigated through proper safety measures, and questioned why “the emphasis of the CIAF report is put on the direct cause (one human error) and on the driver’s (non-) compliance with rules, rather [than] on the underlying and root causes.”

The struggle continues

Shortly before ERA published its findings – and possibly in anticipation – the judicial investigation in Spain suddenly changed course. In 2017, charges were brought against Andrés Cortabitarte and Antonio Lanchares, former security directors of Adif and Renfe. Though the case against Lanchares was later dropped, proceedings continue to this day against Cortabitarte, as well as the driver Garzó.

“The safety of Spain’s rail network and the independence of its accident investigation commission remain under serious scrutiny.”

While the decision to press charges has again undermined the findings of the original CIAF investigation – which found Garzó solely responsible – the Santiago de Compostela victim association says it is still struggling to convince the government to reopen the investigation, and has recently met with EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc, as part of its ongoing campaign.

Though the Spanish Government says it has now modified the composition and functioning of CIAF, the EC’s recent infringement decision suggests there is still work to be done.

How the Spanish Government responds to the notice remains to be seen. What is clear is that almost six years after the Santiago de Compostela crash, the safety of Spain’s rail network and the independence of its accident investigation commission remain under serious scrutiny.