Wrecked trains are always an unsettling sight. Chancing on them on TV, they look like broken toy trains and make us feel like terrified children. But a train crash at 200 km/h, like the one on Wednesday in Santiago de Compostela, in the Spanish region of Galicia, goes beyond even our usual expectations. About a third of its 200 plus passengers and crew died. Everyone else was injured, many of them seriously. Santiago de Compostela, a city that was built a thousand years ago, is today a world centre of mourning.
You could tell that something really horrible had happened once the first pictures arrived: Few people were able to walk out from the train (I recognised a friend of mine, his face red with blood, tottering in shock with his suitcase). The train driver was among the survivors. When he was pulled out the wreckage, he was found mumbling: “We are all humans, we are all humans.” The man has since admitted that he had been driving at more than twice the speed limit. But I think that his first pronouncement sums up better the cause of this accident. We’re all human.
Even if human error seems for now to be the direct cause of this accident, other questions will be asked once the shock subsides; questions that involve Spanish society. Trains have always been a Galician obsession. The region has typically felt abandoned, isolated from central Spain. Regional newspapers in Spain spent decades campaigning for the first railway connecting Galicia with Madrid at the end of the 19th century — or rather complaining because it took almost 50 years.
The story repeated itself with high-speed trains: Galicia was left out from the new railway network when it was initiated in the late 80s, and, like a century before, society, the media, and local and regional politicians voiced their outrage. Until the political compass finally pointed towards us, and the works to build the high-speed network began with a decade’s delay.
Of course, this was part of the building frenzy of the 1990s that we have come to regret so bitterly in our current economic crisis. ‘Spanish high speed’, as it is commercially known, is not just an example of Spain’s economic boom in those years. It is also its perfect metaphor: modernity and velocity, all in one. Experts agreed that it was all very safe.
The sceptics were few and far between. Galicia, they said, didn’t really need a high-speed passenger train to Madrid, but a better regional railway network to connect its widely dispersed population. They were met with contempt. I remember it well: One day on a radio show I dared to point out the difficulties posed by our geography and settlement patterns. I was shouted at by the presenter. “To hell with our geography! It’s not a curse!” he said angrily.
Well, if it’s not, it has certainly come back to haunt us. The bend where this accident happened has a story to tell: It is noticeably sharp, a typical product of the Spanish landscape. There were arguments for having that section of the route remade completely, but Galicia’s particular land tenure regime makes expropriations an administrative nightmare. So the bend was left as it was, and speed was limited there to 80km/h. This should have been enough had the train stuck to the rules. Reducing to 80km/h from 200 in a few seconds was the driver’s job. Not an easy one, though.
Ominously, the very day the line was inaugurated in 2011, many passengers noticed a strange shock when entering that bend. Maybe Spaniards should have listened to their geography, but everybody (politicians, the media, the people ...) was united in their enthusiasm. I don’t mean it as guilt; it will be the law’s business to allocate blame in its usual, never too satisfying, way: Simplifying life’s complex dramas into a series of individual decisions.
It’s only that I can’t help feeling that, at some profound or superficial moral level, we also played our part in the tragedy as a society; that this was the last, most tragic episode of a decade of oversized dreams, fast money and fast trains. But maybe that’s just me moralising to fill the emptiness that comes with grief. After all, like the train driver said: We’re all humans.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Miguel-Anxo Murado is a Spanish writer and journalist.