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.