Spanish train driver investigated; 80 dead

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Published Jul 26, 2013 at 05:00AM

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — The grainy video lasts little more than 10 seconds, but long enough to show the blazing speed of a Spanish passenger train bound for Santiago de Compostela that bounced against a curved wall and thundered off the track like a twisted toy.

Emergency workers were still picking through mangled debris Thursday, hours after 80 people were killed in one of Europe’s worst rail accidents in recent years. With the footage from a security camera, investigators were exploring clues, focusing on the train’s speed and a middle-aged driver who relished high velocity and boasted about breaking speed records on his Facebook page.

The driver, Francisco José Garzón Amo, with more than three decades of experience, is now under investigation by a judge who has ordered the collection of all recordings in connection with the crash. On the day of the wreck, he substituted for another driver at the controls just 60 miles before the crash, according to Spanish news reports.

Garzón’s Facebook page, deleted late Thursday morning, included a photograph and exchanges that portrayed a taste for speed, and perhaps even recklessness. One photo posted in March 2012 showed a speedometer needle stuck at 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph) and his giddy remark: “I’m at the limit and I can’t go any faster or they will give me a fine.”

After one of his friend’s made a joking reference to speeding, Garzón replied, in capital letters: “Imagine what a rush it would be traveling alongside the Civil Guard, and passing them so that their speed traps go off. Hehe, that would be quite a fine for Renfe, hehe,” referring to the Spanish rail operator.

On Thursday, Spanish news media reported that the driver had said the train’s speed had been 190 kilometers per hour, more than double the limit in the stretch where the train derailed.

Most high-speed lines that are part of the European Rail Traffic system are covered by a sophisticated GPS-based surveillance system that constantly monitors trains’ speed and that automatically brakes them at speed limits.

Slower trains and trains crossing urban areas in Spain and other European countries use a less intrusive system that warns the driver with sound and lights at excessive speeds, but does not automatically brake the train, according to María Carmen Palao, a spokeswoman with Spain’s ADIF rail infrastructure company.

The accident, she said, took place roughly two to three miles outside the station at Santiago de Compostela, in the “transition zone” between the two systems. The wreck occurred on the Galicia line, run by the rail operator Renfe and opened in 2011.

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