Another small train accident once again puts rail infrastructure maintenance under the spotlight

A train has crashed into the end-of-track buffer in Mataró, north of Barcelona. 11 people have been injured; all of them with minor injuries except the driver, whose life is not at risk. The Catalan capital’s suburban train network has witnessed 7 minor accidents in the past year. The Spanish Government is responsible for the railways, including tracks, stations, power supply and navigation systems. Many Catalan citizens have demanded an urgent investment in maintenance services.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

February 9, 2012 11:21 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Barcelona’s commuter train network has suffered another minor accident. On Thursday a train crashed into the end-of-track buffer in the coastal town of Mataró, in the north of Barcelona Metropolitan Area. 11 people were injured, including the driver, who was trapped for 40 minutes in the smashed cabin. At close of business, 6 of the injured people had left the hospital and only the driver suffered severe yet not life threatening injuries. The exact causes of the accident are unknown, but it is clear that the train was moving too fast while approaching the station and the end of the track. However, it is still too early to know if the crash was due to human error or a mechanical or technical fault. An investigation is taking place. Thursday’s accident is the seventh minor accident in the network over the past year. None of the previous 6 accidents have caused severe injuries, and 2 of them did not harm anyone. However, the accumulation of small crashes and derailments is raising concern. Many Catalans have criticised the poor maintenance investment the Spanish Government has made in Barcelona’s commuter rail network. The Catalan Minister for Transport, Lluís Recoder, and Mataró’s Mayor, Joan Mora, were critical of the service. Recoder said that the network “is safe but under stress”. Mora was more direct and said; “it is intolerable to have this kind of infrastructure in place”. “We cannot stand this situation for even one more day”, he added. The Spanish Minister for Transport, Ana Pastor, has announced she will travel to Barcelona on Tuesday to discuss the network’s problems and learn about the issues the Catalan Government has been complaining about, as “today’s accident cannot happen again”, she said. However, she defended the current model.

The Spanish Government is responsible for railway maintenance

The Spanish Government is responsible for the maintenance of the rail tracks, the stations, the power supply and the train navigation systems. The Catalan Government is responsible for managing the train service, which includes setting the schedules, deciding on the ticket fares and taking care of the train accessory services, such as cleaning and catering. However, the trains themselves are still run by RENFE, the Spanish Government’s train operator, since the Catalan Government cannot change the current contract.

Historically, the Barcelona commuter train network has been fully managed by the Spanish Government. Many Catalans had been asking for greater investment, focusing on maintaining the existing infrastructure and enlarging the network. Since the Spanish Government had not done so, voices in Catalonia started to ask for the devolution of this power. The inflection point was during 2008 and 2009, when several incidents and long delays in the network lead many Catalans to lose their patience. The Spanish Government agreed to transfer back then part of the service to the Catalan Executive, but still maintain control of the system. The result is that the Catalan Government does not have any control over the railways and cannot change the train operator in the short-term.

Thursday’s accident

Mataró’s accident happened on Thursday morning at 9.45am (CET), when a train entered the station. While preparing to stop at the platform, the train continued and crashed into the end-of-track buffer. The train’s nose, where the driver’s cabin is located, was destroyed. The driver was trapped inside and took fire-fighters 40 minutes to take him out. Initially it seemed the driver’s injuries were minor, but then the diagnostic changed to “severe”, although his life is not at risk. He is the only person with severe injuries, all the rest have only minor injuries. A total of 11 people were injured, 6 of whom were discharged from hospital in the afternoon. The others, except the driver, did not have severe injuries but doctors have recommended keeping them in the hospital for further observation.

Other small accidents this year

Thursday’s crash in Mataró is the seventh incident in the Barcelona short-distance train network in less than a year. None has caused severe injuries, and two of the derailments did not harm anyone. However, the accumulation reveals a maintenance problem. Furthermore, Mataró station itself experienced a similar crash in 2009, when a train also ran into the end-of-track buffer, causing minor injuries in 6 people.

A station that has had minor train crashes was El Clot–Aragó in the north east of Barcelona. A train crashed into another on January 19th and April 28th 2011. Both accidents only caused minor injuries, to 25 and 18 people respectively.  

Furthermore, there have been four minor derailments this year, two causing small injuries and two others with no injuries at all. The derailments causing injuries were in Sitges (3 people with minor injuries) and in Vacarisses (10 people), in March 2011. The two others were last October, in Sant Pol de Mar, and last week in Barcelona’s França Station, and in both cases all the passengers left the trains unharmed and walking to reach the platform.