Ten days ago Spain suffered its worst rail crash since 1944, in Santiago de Compostella. 79 passengers died.
The crash took place on a new 90 km section of track between Santiago and Ourense. This is built for high-speed operation at 220 km/hr, but currently limited to 200 km/hr by signalling limitations. However, the accident was on a sharpish curve before the station, with a limit of only 80 km/hr. There is a single signal for deceleration.
Just before the accident, the driver took a mobile phone call from the ticket collector, requesting an additional stop before Corunna (and well beyond Santiago) to let off a family of passengers. There was no urgency for the call. [Update from comments:> the handset may well have been a rail=specific 2-way radio, not an ordinary mobile, but it makes no difference to my argument.]
The magistrate investigating legal liability for the accident – there is of course another technical investigation under way – has blamed the driver for going too fast against signals and the route plan. He has not given weight to the phone call; it’s unnecessary to fix the driver’s responsibility, and perhaps he wanted to avoid the impression of blaming the unfortunate but surely innocent ticket collector and the family he was trying to help.
However, common sense suggests the phone call was significant. The driver was experienced and not fatigued – he only took over at Ourense, and knew the track well. The weather was clear. There does not seem to have been any equipment failure (as opposed to design flaws). The phone call is the standout differentiating factor. There’s a mass of evidence that phone calls are distracting to car and truck drivers and responsible for a good many vehicle accidents and deaths.
The USA lags well behind international practice in legislating against the use of mobile phones at the wheel. 66 countries, covering the great majority of the world’s population, have bans. Only seven US states are reported by Wikipedia as having general bans (California, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey). Several others have footling partial bans on learner drivers, at night, near schools and so on.
Contrary to intuition and folk wisdom, hands-free phones make little difference. It’s the speech that’s distracting, not the use of one hand.
Just turn it off.
PS on signalling
For high-speed rail buffs only. The track section is designed and equipped for the latest ERMTS in-cab signalling which among many other goodies brakes the train automatically if speed limits are exceeded. That’s the system in use on the true high-speed AVE trainsets on the lines going out from Madrid to Barcelona and Seville. But the line doesn’t run all the way to Galicia, and the section to Ourense is still under construction. The short high-speed track to Ourense is a vanity regionally-driven anticipation, using Iberian gauge. The ALVIA trainsets like the one that crashed are expensive electric/diesel hybrids with dual-gauge bogies (not SFIK implicated). The manufacturers of the trainsets and the signalling between them have not been able to get the complex ERMTS software to work properly. (Source: El Pais.) For now the ALVIAs have to use the older and less capable ASFA system – which does not include automatic braking. It’s rated up to 200 km/hr, but in hindsight this looks a mistake, along with the single trackside signal to announce the drastic speed reduction.