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Spanish Train Driver was on the phone during crash

from: http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-290098/

Spain Train Crash Conductor Was Using Phone

Investigators Say Train Was Traveling at Nearly Twice Speed Limit

A Spanish court says "black box" data recorders show that a train conductor was on the phone and traveling at 95 miles per hour, almost twice the speed limit, when the vehicle derailed, killing 79 people.

By Matt Moffett

MADRID—A Spanish train driver was talking on his work cellphone, evidently to seek route instructions, and traveling at nearly twice the recommended speed when the train derailed on a tight curve last week, in Spain’s worst rail accident since the 1940s.

The driver, Francisco José Garzón had received a call from a co-worker at the state rail company, Renfe, minutes before last Wednesday’s wreck near the city of Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people and injured scores more, a court in the region of Galicia said after reviewing the train’s “black box” data recorder.

“From the content of the conversation and from the sound in the background it seems that the driver was consulting a map or some similar paper document,” said a court statement, which indicated the worker calling Mr. Garzon was probably a Renfe controller. The court added that Mr. Garzon, who is under investigation for negligent homicide, was driving the train at 119 miles per hour just before the wreck, and that a brake was activated seconds before the accident. When the train skidded off the tracks, it was traveling at 95 miles per hour—nearly twice the speed railway authorities have said was recommended on the curve.

Mr. Garzon testified for three hours about the wreck on Sunday in a closed hearing before an investigative judge. According to accounts of his testimony in the Spanish press, Mr. Garzon told the judge he “got lost” at the time of the accident, and wasn’t sure of the route.

“It seems to me he was trying to find out where the h— he was at,” said Jim C. Scott, a Kingsport, Tenn.-based railroad-operations consultant who has a 40-year career in railroading. “If that’s the case, that railroad is in deep trouble.”

A Renfe spokeswoman said “it’s normal in a certain manner” that a driver would be in communication with his base. She added that trains are equipped with a radio telephone system, as well as the driver’s cellphone. Earlier, company officials said Mr. Garzon had decades working for the company and considerable experience on the route.

Mr. Scott, who frequently serves as an expert legal witness in accident cases, said cellphone-related train crashes are becoming more frequent. “It’s something we’re seeing more and more of,” he said.

In one well-known 2008 case, a Metrolink commuter train ran head-on into a freight train in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, killing 25 people. Accident investigators later attributed the wreck to the engineer of the Metrolink train being distracted while text messaging a teenage train buff.

Cellphone distraction figured in at least one previous Spanish rail fatality, that of a 14-year-old girl struck by a train at a crossing in Sant Feliú de Llobregat, near Barcelona, in 2008. According to Spain’s Investigative Commission of Railroad Accidents, the driver told investigators the girl was talking on a phone and didn’t respond when he sounded the train’s whistle during an unsuccessful attempt to brake.

–Richard Boudreaux

contributed to this article.

Write to

Matt Moffett at matthew.moffett@wsj.com

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