By Valentin Bontemps
Nine years after a high-speed train crash that killed 80 and injured over 140, a major trial opens Wednesday to determine responsibility in Spain’s worst rail disaster in nearly eight decades.
On July 24, 2013, a train travelling from Madrid veered off the tracks as it hurtled round a sharp bend on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern region of Galicia.
It ploughed into a concrete siding, leaving 80 people dead and about 145 injured in Spain’s deadliest train tragedy since 1944.
During the trial, which is scheduled to run until February, the court will hear witness testimony from 669 people.
The hearing will take place in a cultural centre in Santiago which has been transformed into a courtroom to accommodate the large numbers of lawyers and civil parties involved in the trial.
Two people have been charged with responsibility for the accident — the driver, Francisco Garzon, and the former safety director at state rail operator ADIF, Andres Cortabitarte.
Both are facing charges of “homicide due to gross professional negligence”.
Prosecutors are calling for each to face four years behind bars.
And the victims’ families are claiming nearly 58 million euros ($58 million) in damages, court documents show.
At the time of the crash, the train was travelling at 179 kilometres per hour (111 miles per hour), more than twice the speed limit for that stretch of track, according to its black box data recorders.
Investigators said the tragedy resulted from a lapse in attention by the 52-year-old driver, who ended a mobile phone call with the on-board conductor just moments before the train lurched off the rails.
The courts initially said excessive speed was “the sole cause of the accident”, charging Garzon with reckless homicide and causing injuries.
But its finding that state rail operator ADIF bore no criminal liability was later revised following complaints by the victims’ families who said it was at fault because there was no automatic braking system in place nor sufficient warning signs before the bend.
As a result, the investigation was reopened in 2016 and ADIF’s Cortabitarte was charged.
The families hailed the decision but expressed regret that no politician was held to account — notably Ana Pastor, the infrastructure minister at the time, who had pressured Brussels to head-off a report critical of Madrid.
“Not only was the train derailed but so was justice over these past nine years,” the Alvia 04155 victims’ association said in a statement on Facebook.
It denounced the “slowness” in bringing the case to trial and it would continue fighting “until it was established who was responsible”.