Santiago Compostela Train derailment


The European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is a major industrial project developed by eight UNIFE members – Alstom Transport, AZD Praha, Bombardier Transportation, CAF, Hitachi Rail STS, Mermec, Siemens Mobility and Thales – in close cooperation with the European Union, railway stakeholders and the GSM-R industry. ERTMS is the European standard for the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) that allows an interoperable railway system in Europe. As an ATP, ERTMS is a safety system that enforces compliance by the train with speed restrictions and signalling status. There are three different levels of ERTMS/ETCS application: L-1, L-2 and L-3, based on the need for existing railway infrastructure

ERTMS aims to enhance railway safety.
The train derailment that happen in Santiago Compostela, in the North of Spain, is a good example of how the ERTMS can be important in improving railway safety.
This is the deadliest train derailment that ever happened in Spain. The train was a member of the Alvia fleet, operated by Spain’s national railway network, “RENFE” (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles).

Chain of events

At 8:41 PM on the evening of July 24, 2013, the Alvia hybrid high-speed train (as the one shown in the image below on the left), en route from Madrid to Ferrol, Spain, was traveling at 195 km/h, and failed to decelerate to negotiate a sharp left curve, with a posted speed of 80 km/h , while passing by the hamlet of Angrois, on approach to Santiago de Compostela.
In this case, human error was a primary factor as the train driver powered the train into a left curve at more than twice the posted speed. Weather and track conditions were optimal and did not contribute to the accident. Visibility was clear. The train was moving along level track so terrain was not a factor. Crash investigators determined that signals and train driver alerts were operational.
All 13 cars came off the rails with many of the carriages careening into a concrete barrier lining the curve, leading to exceptional mortality and injury (the image below shows the concrete wall present in the curve where the accident took place). Among the 224 train occupants, 80 were killed and all of the remaining 144 were injured. 
The accident occurred at the km 84.1 of the line. Data from the train’s black box revealed that 250 m before the start of the curve the train was travelling at 195 km/h and in spite of the emergency brakes being applied was still travelling at 179 km/h when it derailed 4 seconds later.

Figure 1- In the left an Alvia hybrid high-speed train, in the middle the derailment evolution and in the right the result of the impact with the concrete barrier.

European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) accident prevention systems for automatically slowing a speeding train were not activated on the curve where the train derailed. To sum up, although RENFE has proactively installed such devices along many segments of Spain’s national railway system, this safeguard (the Level 2 European Rail Traffic Management System, “ERTMS”) was not available along the A Grandeira curve (shown in the image below as “Crash Scene”).

Figure 2- Overview of the last kilometers travelled by the train before crashing

The train driver’s attention was distracted by repeated mobile phone calls from the railway’s inspector in charge of the rail line leading into Santiago de Compostela. The last of these calls lasted 1 minute and 42 seconds, sufficient time for the train to travel more than 5.5 km and emerge from the final tunnel before the curve. Just as he terminated the call, the train driver, Mr. Francisco Garzón Amo, realized that the train was entering the arc of the “A Grandeira” curve at high velocity. Prior to that moment, he had failed to heed three separate alerts indicating that the train was traveling at excessive speed. In the final seconds, he attempted to apply the brakes but it was too late to avoid the crash.  The train derailment and crash happened so suddenly that within a span of just eight seconds, all 224 occupants onboard were injured, dead, or dying. This transportation disaster was officially declared to be “preventable”.

ERTMS role

If the ERTMS system was available in the area of the accident, the following procedure would have been very likely to take place:

  • Km 77.6: a text message announcing the transition would have appeared on the Driver Machine Interface (DMI) of the train, which was travelling at 200km/h
  • Km 80.1: the DMI would have shown a message with a yellow flashing frame and would have emitted an acoustic signal asking the driver to acknowledge the transition by tapping on the screen, and
  • if the driver failed to acknowledge the message within 5 seconds, service braking would have been applied continuously until the driver had acknowledged the transition or the train had stopped.


As mentioned previously, this accident resulted in many casulties and was mainly due to human error, therefore being considered “avoidable”. Human errors are hard to avoid and even more hard do predict due to its unpredictability.
In this situations what can be done is prevent human errors.
Specifically in this situation, the use of ERTMS, as explained before, would have been enough to avoid such a disaster, since the train would automatically stop, if no action to stop the train was taken by the driver.
ERTMS was not activated on the curve where the train derailed, and if it was, the outcome would have been completly different.
To sum up, the use of Automatic Train Protection systems (ATP), could help prevent this type of accidents.


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James M. Shultz, Maria Paz Garcia-Vera, Clara Gesteira Santos, Jesús Sanz, George Bibel, Carl Schulman, George Bahouth, Yasmin Dias Guichot, Zelde Espinel & Andreas Rechkemmer (2016) Disaster complexity and the Santiago de Compostela train derailment, Disaster Health, 3:1, 11-31, DOI: 10.1080/21665044.2015.1129889

F. Puente, “ETCS: A Crucial factor in Santiago accident inquiry,” International Railway Journal, 2015.

S. Vizoso, “Five years on, Galicia train crash shines spotlight on security of Spain’s rail network,” El País, 2018.

Other References