Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


spain-town

A partial view of Santiago de Compostela, where the train was arriving. (PHOTO: FROARINGUS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Train Crash in Spain Killed as Many as 1 Day of Commuting in the U.S.

• July 25, 2013 • 9:22 AM

A partial view of Santiago de Compostela, where the train was arriving. (PHOTO: FROARINGUS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Spain is in shock after nearly 80 die in a train crash. In the U.S., we call that Thursday.

Here in Barcelona the news of the horrific train derailment last night in Galicia, on the Iberian Peninsula’s opposite coast, has taken two forms. The first involved questions about whether cutbacks in the rail service had led to a mechanical failure. For the past decade, Spain’s government has been cutting funds from its traditional, low-cost train system, while spending billions on a new network of bullet trains, called the AVE, which translates to “High Velocity Spain.” The AVE has been a controversial project because it’s expensive to build and operate. Those costs get passed on, making some journeys now twice as expensive (if three times as fast) as they were with the old trains. The AVE’s buildout has been deeply political, leaving some regions with too much train service and others with less than they need. It’s been a constant debate in this country: An analysis of the AVE project by local economist Germa Bel, recently a visiting professor at Cornell, became an unlikely best-seller here three years ago.

The derailed train was not an AVE, but part of an older, secondary high-speed system called the Talgo. It didn’t help that the train was likely very full, because this weekend is a regional holiday in Galicia, the northeast region where the crash occurred.

Unlike a plane crash or even a school shooting, which are both unthinkable but also somewhat improbable still, a train accident fits a bit too neatly into the Spanish imagination.

So, early this morning, the big question about the crash here was whether money spent on the AVE had left the older system, of which the wrecked train was a part, vulnerable.

Less than a day on from the disaster, that’s looking less and less likely compared to the possibility of driver error—which brings us to the other topic in the air here. The early reports suggested that the train pulling into Santiago de Compostela was traveling as much as twice its speed limit when it hit a curve in the track. A widely-circulating video of the crash shows the train traveling through a cement-walled urban easement, below a highway, at shocking speed, when the second or third car back from the engine skips the rail and hits an adjacent wall, flipping the rest of the train as it goes. (We’re not linking to the video; a lot of people lost family in those cars, and it’s easy enough to find the pictures if you happen to be a transportation engineer.)

Since the video emerged a few hours ago, the conversation is broadening beyond the train system to what this accident means for the Spanish public’s faltering sense of trust in its government. Already we’ve had our first mini-scandal related to the crash, in which a condolence statement from Spanish President Mariano Rajoy contained language apparently cut and pasted from a condolence statement about an earthquake in China, presumably by an unthinking person on Rajoy’s staff. That Rajoy himself is from Galicia, where the train crashed, hasn’t helped the sense that he responded to the tragedy with canned emotion. Rajoy is also neck-deep in a complex, Watergate-like scandal involving illegal payments from his political party’s former treasurer, and this has gotten into the emotional stew around the crash. In a country where many basic institutions are being treated with skepticism, the worst train wreck in 40 years is, besides a human tragedy, a sudden metaphor. Spain is now literally a country off the rails, with fatal consequences. In the cold language of political posturing, this is bad optics.

Rajoy is scheduled to speak in the Spanish parliament next week on the scandal, and it remains to be seen whether the Galicia train disaster will prove a useful distraction for him—the local news is talking about nothing else—or whether it has only deepened the sense of chaos in this country, and sorrow.

The practical fear is also real. Unlike a plane crash or even a school shooting, which are both unthinkable but also somewhat improbable still, a train accident fits a bit too neatly into the Spanish imagination. The crash of a train here has the psychological impact closer to what an elevator’s plunge would produce in New York, or a ferry capsize would in Seattle. Trains are fundamental infrastructure here, at least as important as roads, and every one of Spain’s 46 million people takes them at least weekly. If the drivers or the tracks are unreliable, that really hits home.

That sensation of worry is different than it is in the U.S. The daily death toll on American roads is about 85 people, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, a group which tracks such things. Put another way, the death toll for the worst train accident here since the ’70s is roughly the same as the average loss of life for America’s road system, daily.

The macabre comparison is a bit facile and a bit of a cheap shot. One giant accident doesn’t have much in common with 85 individual ones, and comparing transportation systems by their odds of killing you is reductive: We all know cars are far and away the most dangerous way to move large numbers of people.

The drastically different responses to those losses is still hard to overlook on a day like today. If only by numbers, what happened today in Spain happens every day in the U.S. and appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Here they’re mourning visibly, together, and very angry, also together. In the U.S. these events occur no less tragically, but less visibly, one family at a time.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.