Several devastating railway accidents, including one in Spain this week that is Europe’s deadliest since 1998, show little sign of being related to the EU’s fast-track effort to liberalise railways and separate infrastructure from passenger and cargo services, a safety official said.
At least 78 people were killed and at more than 150 were hurt in an accident near the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday (24 July), making it the deadliest rail accident since a German train ran off the tracks at Eschede in 1998, killing 101 passengers and crew.
The Spanish crash came 12 days after a French train derailed south of Paris, killing six people and injuring dozens of others.
Authorities were investigating what caused Renfe train to derail, although initial reports said the high-speed train was moving at speeds well beyond the 80-km/h limit as it approached Santiago de Compostela.
Regional police say they were "moving away from the hypothesis of sabotage or attack" after one passenger reportedly heard an explosion as the train derailed.
In France, investigators linked the derailment of an intercity SNCF train to a loose rail joint.
In May, two people were killed when an NMBS Logistics cargo train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed near the Belgian town of Schellebelle, sparking a fire that burned for hours and forced the evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents.
Trade unions see safety at risk
Transport trade unions have long argued that the 12-year-old EU legislative efforts to open national and trans-boundary rail systems and infrastructure are a threat to employee and passenger safety.
In a resolution adopted in May, the European Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents 2.5 million workers, said the Commission-led liberalisation moves could compromise safety and security because of the “cost-cutting pressure” on maintenance, training and staffing.
Sabine Trier, deputy general-secretary of the federation, told EurActiv that it was too early to comment on the French and Spanish accidents because the investigations were not complete. But "our concern is evident," she added, "that one of the consequences of liberalisation is that they are saving money on maintenance."
Referring to the deadly derailments, an official at the EU’s European Railway Agency said there was little sign of a wider safety problem nor a link to efforts to break up legacy rail companies.
“The timing is unfortunate but I don’t think we see this as the start of a trend and we don’t see evidence of that in the data we have so far,” said Chris Carr, ERA’s head of safety.
“We don’t see a link between marketing opening and a deterioration of safety,” Carr told EurActiv, “so we don’t see that as a risk.”
An ERA report published in May said that “while it is impossible to find a correlation” between liberalisation and casualty risk, countries that have moved quicker to open up cargo and passenger markets to competition appear to have “a lower casualty risk” than countries that have been slower to move ahead with liberalisation under the EU’s railway packages.
Both France and Spain fall into the latter category though their casualty rates are in line with countries like Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Britain which have moved to end their traditional state dominance over railways.
Kallas presses for liberalisation
Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas has criticised national governments for their slow motion on opening up rail corridors to competition and to separate train operations from infrastructure management - known as unbundling.
The EU’s Fourth Railway Package, which Kallas proposed in January, would also give the ERA new authority to audit national railway safety agencies. Currently, ERA can conduct audits on voluntary basis.
The EU’s rail safety directive, approved in 2004 and updated in 2008, requires member states to certify and monitor rail operations for safety for both infrastructure managers and companies that run passenger and cargo trains.
Most rail fatalities involving accidents at crossings, trespassers or suicides, according to ERA. Passenger fatalities are rare and have plummeted since the 1980s, ERA figures show. In 2011, 10 people died and fewer than 20 accidents were reported, compared with 227 deaths and nearly 250 accidents in 1980.
Spanish daily El Pais reported that Prime Minister Mario Rajoy’s office reused the same letter of condolence to victims of the railway accident it had addressed to the victims of the earthquake in Gansu province in China last Monday, even leaving in a reference to “Gansu”.
Herman Van Rompuy, European Council president, said: “On behalf of the European Union, I wish to express my full sympathy and support to Spain in light of the tragic train accident near Santiago de Compostela. My thoughts are with the victims and their families.”
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Rajoy, Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: “I am deeply saddened by the terrible train accident that took place yesterday evening near Santiago de Compostela. Such a serious accident, with so many people dead and injured, is a tragedy for Spain and provokes such deep emotions. In these difficult circumstances I feel very close to all Spanish people.
“Personally, and on behalf of the European Commission, I would like to send our most sincere condolences and express our solidarity and support to the families of the victims and those injured.”
"It is with great sadness that I learned of the news of the train crash in Spain, near Santiago de Compostela, in which many people have lost their lives", said EPP Group Chairman Joseph Daul.
"On behalf of the EPP Group, I send my most sincere condolences to the families of the victims of this tragedy, to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who comes from Galicia, to Alberto Núñez-Feijóo, the president of the region of Galicia, as well as to all the people of Spain. I wish them strength to get through this most painful time. I also wish courage to the rescue workers who are currently working to help the victims”, he concluded.
"I was very saddened to hear of the terrible train accident near Santiago de Compostela in Spain …,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “My thoughts are with all those affected and their friends and family. The British Embassy team in Spain are working closely with the Spanish authorities as they respond to this tragedy.
"We know that one British citizen was injured in this accident and the Embassy has been providing consular support."
- 2001: First railway package, which set the groundwork for liberalisation of cargo traffic as well as interoperability
- 2004: Second railway package, which set 2007 as the deadline for competitive rail freight and developed a common approach to railway safety
- 2007: Third railway package, which called for liberalisation of international passenger service in 2010 and provided a bill of rights for passengers.
- 2012: Parliament approves the recast of the first package, which consolidates the 2001, 2004 and 2007 legislation and provides for strengthening regulatory oversight and performance of infrastructure operators.
- 2013: Fourth Railway Package proposed, expanding on past initiatives by calling for a complete opening of domestic passenger rail services to competition by 2019 and strengthening the role of the European Railway Agency (ERA) to allow it to issue safety certificates for trains operating anywhere in the EU.