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Driver in Spanish train derailment was talking on phone at time of crash

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 31st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The driver of the Spanish train that derailed and claimed 79 lives was talking on the phone with railway staff at the time of the crash, court officials say. The train was going 95 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, nearly twice the speed limit. The driver, Francisco Jose Garzon, has been charged with 79 counts of homicide and has had his license to drive train suspended for six months.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In addition to the charges of homicide, Garzon faces charges of professional recklessness and an undetermined number of counts of causing injury by professional recklessness. Garzon was also was required to surrender his passport and report to court weekly. Attempts by journalists to contact him have been unsuccessful.

The train was nearing the end of a six-hour trip between Madrid and Ferrol when it derailed last Wednesday as it hurtled around a bend in Santiago de Compostela.


Garzon had received a call on his work phone shortly before the derailment. Garzon was apparently receiving instructions on the way to Ferrol from a Renfe staff member. Background noise suggested he was looking at or shuffling papers, the court said.


Command and control posts in Spain can communicate with drivers at any point during a journey, a spokeswoman from Renfe told CNN. Drivers communicate via radio-telephones known in Spanish as "tren-tierras" or train-to-land. Drivers also use mobile phones if radio-telephones are not working or "when it's considered necessary," the spokeswoman said.


A railroad transportation expert at Ohio's University of Dayton Steve Harrod says he was "stunned" by the report that the driver may have been speaking on the phone shortly before the crash. Harrod says that railroad drivers are not allowed to use cell phones to prevent dangerous distractions in the United States.


According to reports, the Spanish train had passed from a computer-controlled area of the track to a zone that requires the driver to take control of braking and acceleration, Harrod said. 


"It's possible that the driver's phone conversation -- which apparently was part of his official capacity as a driver -- distracted him and he missed the transition from automatic to driver control," Harrod said. 


"He may have been unaware he was in control of the train and realized, 'oh, no, we're headed for a curve.' If that's true, I really don't think it was his fault."


The Renfe spokeswoman told CNN that command and control posts have real-time systems to show each train's precise location at a given time. If this were the case, a controller who would have phoned the train driver might have known the train was approaching a curve.


Of the 79 who died in the ensuing wreck, 63 were from Spain. Others were from the United States, Latin America and Europe. The victims were remembered Monday in a memorial Mass at a Catholic cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.


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