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

Spain is in shock after nearly 80 die in a train crash. In the U.S., we call that Thursday.
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A partial view of Santiago de Compostela, where the train was arriving. (PHOTO: FROARINGUS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

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

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.