World and Nation

European rail crashes hint at gaps in increasingly precarious system

PARIS — In the wake of a fiery train crash this summer in northern Spain that killed 79 people, investigators, survivors and passengers are demanding to know why the rail line entrusted the train’s safety with a sole driver who had publicly boasted about past speeding and was talking on a mobile phone seconds before the derailment.

But even as the crash, near Santiago de Compostela on July 24, has focused attention on potential management lapses in the Spanish rail network, it was just one in a recent spate of deadly accidents involving passenger and freight trains — in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland — that have raised troubling questions about a European rail network that has been the envy of much of the world.

Over the past 12 years, the European Union has pushed to transform national rail systems into a single market, as a critical element of the Continent’s economic and political integration. However, the crashes have revealed many of the same lapses in oversight that have bedeviled other efforts at cohesion, including monetary union and common food safety policies.

Starting next year, the EU plans to spend $30 billion in 28 countries on transportation, much of it on rail modernization, to integrate about 20 interconnected national rail networks. Yet, even after years of such investment, member states have struggled to instate a sophisticated, unified system as state-owned monopolies gave way to private, competing train operators.

The result is a sometimes-confused patchwork of old and new systems, where high-speed 21st-century trains often run on 19th-century rails made for slower trains and less traffic. The most advanced automatic braking systems are frequently absent at important junctures, while more responsibility for safety falls on drivers who have been left alone in the cab due to budget cuts that reduce the number of train employees.

While each of the recent crashes in Europe had its own circumstances, these factors were shared, according to different countries’ trade unions, which contend that the accidents reveal not so much the failings of any one driver than those of an increasingly precarious system.

“This is a system that is more vulnerable from our point of view; it’s totally in transition, changing from an old system to a new system,” said Sabine Trier, the deputy general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation. “A series of accidents in such a short period of time and in countries that normally have sophisticated systems raises a lot of questions.”

She added: “In the 10 years to create a single, competitive market, we’ve seen old state-owned companies strive to become more productive. What we have experienced over a long period is a reduction of personnel to increase productivity.”

Train officials and some rail experts, however, say the technology and staffing in place is sufficient, pointing to a safety record that has significantly reduced passenger deaths since the 1980s. For them, the series of recent accidents is a regrettable coincidence.