Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The crash - Qs without As; Risk-taking in Spain; And British manners.

So, what to make of yesterday's report that the black box reveals that the Santiago-bound train driver was dealing with a call from his employer (RENFE) when he approached the point at which he needed to quickly reduce speed from 200 to 80kph? Did they know where he was when they called him? Was it because of this he missed the warning sign at the side of the track and only realised too late he was approaching the (tight) bend? Is this why RENFE have yet to make a statement, other than via a magazine article in which the President laid all blame at the door of the driver? Maybe we'll get some answers soon.

Meanwhile, the most cynical comment I've yet heard is that Spain will still be awarded the 13bn euro contract for installation of a high-speed train network in Brazil but will have to pay above-normal levels of 'commission'.

Spain and Risk 1: A teenage boy died in a bull-running fiesta in Albacete, outside Madrid on Saturday last.

Spain and Risk 2: On the building site below my house, some of the 3-4 men working there wear hard hats and some don't. Even when the crane is moving backwards and forwards above them.

Spain and Risk 3: Under the new legislation I mentioned yesterday, pedestrians will be breathalysed if they break (undefined) road rules. And cyclists under 18 will be fined for not wearing helmets in town. Above that age, you can do what you like, it seems.

Spain and Risk 4: You are allowed to drive a sin carnet here without any training or testing whatsoever, though they may not be allowed on the autovías and autopistas. I wonder where else in the EU this happens. Other than Portugal. They are, of course, a bloody nuisance on Galicia's many hills. But live and let live, I say.

Spain and Risk 5: The government has said it's doubling the fine for driving above the (low) limit from 500 to 1000 euros. In this area, Spain has gone from laxity to extreme stringency in the last decade. But it's hard to argue against this, even if the main impetus really is revenue generation

Spanish Language: Tocayo/a means namesake. Apparently it's used when greeting someone with the same name as you - Hola, tocayo/a. This happens a lot more in Spain than elsewhere, of course, given the small pool of (saints') names which has traditionally been available. Compulsory, even. This has its upside; I call all women I meet Maria. Especially those whose name I've forgotten.

British Manners: I was amused to read this tale of a Spaniard who lives in the UK but regularly comes back home:- Puccio realised she had adopted her new home’s attitudes when she found herself getting frustrated by a group of tourists who had stopped in the middle of the footpath and made it difficult for others to get past. “I thought ‘How selfish’, when in Spain I would've been more laid back’.” She has also learnt new ways of dealing with conflict: instead of losing her temper and making a scene, she has developed the British ability to convey irritation in the politest possible manner. Puccio relies on regular trips home to hold on to her Spanish-ness, though she admitted she sometimes finds her Britishness coming to the fore when she sees people riding scooters on the footpath, for example. “I have to remind myself I don’t have to worry about things, that I can just chill out.” 

I may get there myself one day.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The latest on the crash enquiry; Risk; Cyclists, young and old; and PP corruption.

Over at South of Watford, Graeme has always been tough on Spain's politicos and newspapers. Or those from the centre-right to the far right at least. But he's OK and here's his take on the aftermath of the Santiago crash. He's just a little more sceptical/cynical than I am but, then, he's been in Spain longer. And he reads more papers than me.

The right-of-centre El Mundo continues to stress the driver's responsibility while asking no questions about security system(s) which should counteract driver errors. The paper's line is that the train was 'out of control' for 5 to 7 minutes, even though it adds that the driver didn't leave either the cabin or the controls during this period. Nor did he use the phone supplied by RENFE. The suggestion is that - even though he'd done this route 60 times before - he was was disorientated as to where he was and only braked when it was too late. I find this confusing but, as I've said, we need analysis of the black box(es) data. This began today, it's reported. In the interim, I've no doubt that the national government, the regional government, Adif and RENFE won't budge a millimetre from their line that it was all down to the fault of a negligent driver. Which, of course, it may be. Though it would be nice to have some hard evidence of both what happened and what didn't happen.

The left-of-centre El Pais takes a wider and less partisan approach in today's editorial.

You might think that, especially here in Galicia, there'd be heightened sense of risk right now. If there is, it wasn't evident yesterday when the impatient driver behind me drove up my backside the length of a long, slow stretch of nasty bends on the autovia down to Portugal. Nor this morning when I had to brake hard entering a roundabout to avoid being hit in the side by someone coming from the left way above the limit. As usual with men like this - it's always men - he gave me a look which suggested I shouldn't be on the road the same time as him.

Which naturally leads into the subject of cyclists on the pavements and in the pedestrianised parts of town. Essentially one's at permanent risk of being hit from behind by one of these jokers, as they weave in and out of traffic at speed. God help you if you unwittingly step to one side as one of them reaches you. The government has just announced it'll be introducing fines for jaywalkers - desperate times, desperate measures - which seems to me like the right time to start collecting revenue from these blatant law-breakers. Not to mention the scooter and motor-bike riders with their noise suppressors removed!

Which reminds me . . . I realised this week why the world of motorcycling is dominated by Spain. It's because, from the age of about 2, kids here are allowed - nay, encouraged - to career down slopes on little bikes without the aid of stabilisers or brakes. Oblivious to the pedestrians in their way.

Anyway, the focus of popular attention now switches to President Rajoy and what he's likely to say in Parliament this week about the allegations of illegal funding and backhanders to senior party members. Significantly, around 90% of people surveyed don't think he'll say anything revealing and a large majority say they believe the ex-treasurer who's making the allegations more than they do the president. Which, ironically, rather supports his normal stance of saying nothing. The probability is he'll take the classic Spanish defence of - "OK, we did it but the Opposition is worse." Known in brief as "Y tú más!".

Finally . . . Don't bother to try to subscribe to Old Reader. After a week or so of problems, they've effectively closed it down. The Curse of Col

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Spanish Train Tragedy 18. And other things.

The Spanish press is reporting that 'court sources' say the driver admitted to an oversight that led him to be doing nearly 200kph as he entered the 80kph zone and then took the sharp bend. There is no news on what this oversight was and how it came to happen. The more important question of whether controls failed has yet to be answered. The black box data is said to be under analysis as of today.

As we wait, the President of Adif appears to have jacked up his opinion from "The driver should have started to slow 4km from the bend" to "He was warned to slow down 4km from the bend." Again, we don't know who warned him and what they did when they were ignored.

Someone who was on the train has said she looked up just before the crash to see the speed panel reading 210kph. This is odd, as there've been regular statements that the AFSA control system would cause the train to brake if it went above 200kph.

The railway drivers' union has, understandably, expressed concern that Garzón had been formally accused before the extraction and analysis of data from the black boxes. Especially as he was known for his prudence. Perhaps this is why the judge distanced himself from the police decision to arrest him.

A resident of the village near to the accident reports that he heard the driver say he couldn't brake as he came into the bend but this is susceptible to different meanings.

In short, we may now know the legal status of the driver but the rest will remain unclear until we have the analysis of the black box data.

Meanwhile, it's sad to know that it didn't take long for someone to try to take advantage of the crash to make a claim as the alleged partner of one of the victims.

Life, of course, goes on for those of us fortunate enough not to have been involved in this or any other tragedy. Today I decided to take a look at a religious ceremony cited as No. 2 on a list of the 10 oddest 'fiestas' in Spain - in Santa Maria de Riberteme, down by the border with Portugal. I had wondered whether it would be cancelled, as we have 3 days official mourning left in Galicia, but - perhaps because of its non-jovial nature - it wasn't.

The centrepiece of the ceremony is a post-Mass procession of insignia, statues and open coffins. The latter contain people who've had a near-death experience during the last year and it was reported that, apart from a local or two, people had come from Madrid, Barcelona and even Argentina for the honour of sampling the coffin experience and being carried round the village to the sound of a mournful band.

Anyway, I leave you with some fotos:-

Some are less heavy than others.
This one doesn't seem like a good fit.
This one appears to have a built in camera. Or rear-view mirror.

The Spanish Train Tragedy 17

After his first - 2 hour - session with the investigating judge, the driver of the train has been been freed 'with charges'. His passport's been retained and he has to report weekly to a police station. He's also been debarred from driving trains. As if he'd want to.

One wonders where he will go to be safe. Thanks to the media feeding frenzy, his house in Madrid has been ransacked and he must be in some danger of physical attack.

For some reason, the judge has felt it necessary to stress it wasn't he who ordered the driver's arrest, but the police.

The police have formally refuted one of the allegations against him - that he was on the phone when the train crashed. However, there's no news of the opening of the black box and analysis of its contents. Pending a request from the judge, it remains under police lock and key.

The presidents of both Adif and RENFE have yet to hold any sort of press conference or to make a formal statement. In magazine interviews, they've both pointed at driver negligence. As have government spokespeople.

This being Spain, there are a number of conspiracy theories already in circulation and doubtless there'll be more:-

  • There's a figure climbing down one of the stanchions as the train passes.
  • There are a couple of obstacles on the line that derailed the train.
  • One of the carriages exploded before the train came off the rails.
  • The fire in one of the carriages was unprecedented. This never happens with train crashes.

I guess we're expected to think there was some sort of (Islamic) terrorist activity.

Finally . . . El País advises that "The merest question as to whether human error would be enough to cause the catastrophe or whether there was also a security failure is interpreted both by the regional and national governments as an attempt to smear the reputation of the AVE high-speed network in Spain, one of the best bets for internationalising the economy via contracts en Brazil, Russia, the USA and Kazakhstan."

Not as a search for the truth, then.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Spanish Train Tragedy 16

Under English law, the media would be constrained as to what it could say about the train driver accused of manslaughter, only 4 days after the crash. No such restrictions apply to the Spanish media. So it's hardly surprising that the press and TV are rife with alleged comments and actions on the poor man's part. Speaking on his mobile phone at the time of the crash is the latest of these. A previous one was that he had left the cab for 15 minutes, something which would be impossible unless he somehow rigged the 'dead man's handle' that causes immediate braking if it's not moved every 5 seconds.

The black box - which will hopefully prove or disprove everything that's been said - has not yet been opened. The official reason given was that the priority was identification of the dead. This has now been achieved, opening the way to the 'complex' access to the box - possibly before the driver goes before the investigating judge at 9.30 tonight. The task of this judge is not to assess innocence or guilt but to decide whether the case should go forward to trial under a second judge, and possibly jury. This investigative judge is entitled to call for all data in respect of an accused, including a criminal record, if there is one. So he'll doubtless be given a transcript of the Facebook dialogue of a year ago, which many people seem to think is all the evidence needed to hang the man.

The national rail carrier - RENFE - will also declare before the judge, presumablly sticking to their line that it's nowt to do with them and all to do with the driver.

The driver is not compelled to say anything at this investigative stage. Given what trouble his previous comments have got him into, I think it's a safe bet he won't say much tonight.

The police will also attend and have said that they are keeping open all lines of investigation and are discounting nothing.

The driver will have to re-appear before the judge later, after the police have completed all their investigations.

I leave you with the words of a Spanish observer: "People want a spectacle. When something like this happens, they want someone to feed on."

That role is currently being played by the driver, Sr Garzón. In other times and in other places, railway executives have been jailed for criminal negligence. We wait to see whether that happens here. But it'll be a long wait.

The Spanish Train Tragedy 15

The train driver is reported to have been charged with manslaughter, which appears to be a step up from the original charge of culpable recklessness. He is due to go before the investigative judge today. I don't know whether the concept of sub judice exists in Spain but, even if it does, I imagine we'll all know by this evening what has been said to and by him.

A Spanish reader has commented: "Indeed it will be difficult to know the whole truth about what happened, as on other occasions. The official version is likely to be adapted to economic interests. In the interests of Brand Spain and the sale of our rail systems abroad, they are interested in attributing the responsibility to human error. Families believe there was a system failure but politicians want everything to stay confusing so that attention is not focused on them and they can escape. And we Spanish . . . Well, we are learning about the ASFA and ERTMS systems and we distrust everyone and everything. Everyone will believe what suits them.

Another reader advises that it's reported that the black box confirms the train was doing 190kph when it hit the curve. However, I've yet to see any reference to black box data in the Spanish press and I'm sure I'm not the only one who's wondering why it's taking so long. Perhaps we will know by the end of the day as it's hard to believe the judge isn't going to demand it.

As regards the huge contract at stake for the Brazilian high-speed train system, nothing is being said publicly about this but it's reported that senior executives of the Spanish consortium are privately admitting it's been lost to Spain as a result of the accident. Even though it's arguable that the accident was nothing to do with a high-speed as neither the train nor the track was part of the Spanish AVE system. The problem is that this is a technical argument and one not easily taken on board by the Spanish public. Still less the Brazilian public, I suspect.

Finally . . . There was a interview with a despondent local resident who'd tried to help and had had problems with a policeman. This ended with the man issuing a heartfelt "Joder!", or 'Fuck!'. The English subtitles on British TV had something anodyne like"Dear me."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Spanish Train Tragedy 14

As El País has pointed out, not only the Presidents of Adif and RENFE are pointing to the driver as the sole possible cause of the crash but the government, too, is increasingly taking this line. As the paper points out, though, this is just not on. Three days after the tragic event no one has come forward from the two companies to discuss the technical issues and to answer the several questions which have arisen.

As I said earlier, the backcloth to this attitude is the potential loss of a 13 billion euro contract for high-speed rail development in Brazil. So, it's no great surprise to hear Adif and RENFE insisting that this crash had nothing to do with high-speed track, safety systems or trains.

You or I might find this hard to believe but they clearly don't. And it's for this reason that they have to inculpate the driver, insisting that Spain's railways are totally safe so long as the drivers obey the speed limits. Which clearly wasn't the case here. (This, incidentally, is about the only thing everyone agrees on).

So, OK. Let's accept that the train was doing an excessive speed at the bend, possibly even 190kph. And let's agree with the Adif president that the driver should have started to brake 4km from the bend. And let's further agree that his failure to do this was accidental, negligent or deliberate. It doesn't make any difference which.

The real question is - Why wasn't the train slowed or even stopped as a result of the operation of whatever safety system was in place?

And if, as we're told, the answer is - Because this depended entirely on the response of the driver to the signals and warnings he was getting, then the question I'd like to have an answer to is:- If the train was approaching the point where it needed to start slowing down and was doing 200kph, what would happen if the driver had a heart attack here and couldn't act on the warnings?

Are we meant to understand that, with the main driver out of action at this point and the second driver down in carriage 7, there would be nothing to stop the train either coming off the rails at the bend or, worse, smashing into Santiago station?

If not, why not? How do you stop a train which, effectively, has no drivers.

The Spanish Rail Tragedy 13

A reader has kindly supplied a list of 10 questions to add to those I tabled a couple of days ago. There are surely even more:- 
Q1. Where was driver no. 2? 
Q2. If he was in the rear engine, could he have slowed the train? 
Q3. Were a driver to fall asleep, would he stay in his chair, or has it just one leg? 
Q4. If there were a deep ditch between the train and the wall, would there have been fewer casualties? 
Q5. Are the train traffic controllers aware of the train's speed? 
Q6. If so, could they have communicated with the driver(s)? 
Q7. Does the black box record video of the driver and record sounds - Like snoring for example? 
Q8. Is there a non-defeatable "dead Man's Handle" type device fitted in the cab? 
Q9. Are all drivers searched for mobile phones and other misc. electronic play-things before being allowed to take responsibility for over 250 people's lives? 
Q10. Are all drivers regularly breathalyzed and required to provide frequent, randomly scheduled drug test samples?

I understand the answer to Q1 is that driver no. 2 had handed over to the main driver and had gone down to carriage 7. So he can't know what was going on in the cab.

There's a great deal of complexity to the issue of tracks and security systems. Reader Perry has addressed these and provided substantial data in the Comments to my last 2 or 3 posts.

What has recently emerged is that, although the better ERTMS system was installed along  the entire Ourense-Santiago stretch, it won't be operational until other stretches are completed between now and 2020. So, only the less effective ASFA system operated on this stretch and there is no handover from one to the other and no 'transitional' stretch.

Above all this technical analysis - with more to come when the black box data has been analysed - there is the claim that experts are not just surprised but baffled by what happened. Simply put, even if the driver had been negligently driving at 190kph or, worse, if he'd been bent on suicide plus large-scale murder, even the older system should have slowed and stopped the train. So, the most important question of the moment is: Why didn't it? 

Of course, both in the UK and here, some people think all this analysis is pointless. On the basis of the driver's silly Facebook comments of a year ago, they feel due process should be suspended and he should be hung, drawn and quartered without delay. The words 'witch-hunt' and 'mob' spring to mind.

The backcloth to all this is that, apart from any personal or corporate guilt, very big money is at stake for Adif and RENFE. Indeed, one reader has suggested, that as a result of the crash they've been excluded from a Brazilian tender process for high-speed train installations and management there. No wonder they need to have the driver sacrificed.

Which is not, of course, to say the driver is innocent. We just don't know yet whether he is guilty or not. Or whether others should join him in the dock.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Spanish Train Tragedy 12

You have to say that, if you were the president of one of the companies potentially implicated in this tragedy, the driver would be a godsend in terms of deflecting the spotlight from yourself to him. He's made several comments about his actions and his emotions and, tellingly, these have all been leaked and seized on by the media. As you would expect.

Now, however, the driver has decided to stand on his rights and clam up. Officially charged with criminal recklessness, he has declined to declare to the'inspectors of the judicial brigade of Santiago police force'. I guess he has a lawyer by now. No doubt he'll be asking how the police know what happened - or can even guess at it - without the black box and considerable analysis.

Prestige captain - contrasts enormously with the slow pace of things later on in the process. One gets the impression it's more of a priority to blame and charge the driver than to publish the information from the black box.

Others are not keeping their thoughts to themselves.

The president of Adif (the company responsible for rail infrastructure) has pronounced that the driver should have braked 4km before the bend.

The president of the national rail carrier - RENFE - has said that the driver had covered this stretch 60 times and should have been totally clear about what needed to be done. 

It's probable that these two gentlemen have not acted in concert.

The Spanish Train Tragedy 11

Well, if there isn't a concerted government effort to finger the train driver, it's beginning to smell as if there's one.

As I was reading El País at midday - front page headline: 'The Driver Braked too Late' - the waitress pronounced it was clearly the driver's fault. And when I said this wasn't at all proven yet, she responded: "But it's all over the TV".

Below its headline - which can, of course, be read neutrally - El Pais gave a balanced account of current knowledge across several pages. With the usual superb graphics of Spanish newspapers. They certainly quoted the Train Drivers' Union's insistence that the tragedy would never have happened if the advanced ERTMS system had been in place. This system takes over control from the driver and automatically slows or stops the train in dangerous circumstances.

The paper also clarified that the last 4.3km of the line to Santiago didn't have this system. As the train came off the rails 3km from Santiago, this means that 1.3km of track before it only had the older ASFA system. This only sends warnings to the driver if the train exceeds 200kph, meaning it could have come out of the tunnel 1.3km from the bend at 199kph and the driver would not have been warned. Likewise if, as he admitted, he'd been doing 190.

So, the questions remain:-
1. Why was the train doing 190kph when it emerged from the tunnel?
2. Why hadn't the 'foolproof' ERTMS system slowed or stopped the train before the switch to the, now implicated, ASFA system?
3. What information did the driver have about his speed at this point and why did he think 190 was a safe speed when he was familiar with the line and the bend?

There will be more questions than this, of course.

As to possible factors which had nothing to do with either the safety systems or the driver, one engineer has spoken of the possibility of rail displacement well before the bend, essentially meaning that things had started to go wrong well before the crash.

No one will be surprised to learn that, although the curvature of the bend is not considered dangerous per se, making it safer would have cost a great deal of money and caused a lot more (expensive) disruption to the people living near to the tracks.

The fear is that verdicts on this terrible accident will be a long time coming, politically driven and politically comfortable. As with the investigation of the Valencian metro crash of 6 years ago (no one found guilty of anything) and the Prestige oil disaster here in Galicia 10 years ago (trial(s) still in progress) no politician at any risk of being condemned for anything.

Right now, though, the priority is the wounded, and the response of the Spanish people has been highly commendable. At times like this, the word 'solidarity' can be used with only positive connotations.

The Spanish y Tragedy 10

I posted commentary 9 a couple of hours ago and am now adding this:-

As you'd expect, the President's office put out a statement on the tragedy soon after it occurred. Unfortunately, it was a little too soon, as it provided incontrovertible evidence of copying and pasting from a similar statement two days earlier, in respect of an earthquake in China. This did not go down well.

As The Telegraph reported today:- "Mr Rajoy's office said that the prime minister 'would like, in the name of my government and of myself individually, to send my sincere condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives.' But the statement continued: 'I wish to convey my sympathy for the loss of life and the huge material damage that has resulted from the earthquake in Gansu.'

The statement was quickly corrected, but not before Spanish newspapers leapt upon the chance to ridicule their embattled leader. Mr Rajoy is under pressure for his response to a financial scandal which has seen the treasurer of his Partido Popular party in court, accused of setting up a slush fund with illegal donations distributed to party leaders. Mr Rajoy has been accused of receiving illegal payments – something he has repeatedly denied."

We may or may not see Mr Rajoy in Parliament next week. If we do, we may or may not see him speak. Or we may see one or more of his deputies responding to the accusations.

The Spanish Rail Tragedy 9

Attention is now focussing on one of the two drivers to the train, who's in hospital with slight injuries, guarded by the police. This is under the instructions of an investigating judge, who will determine - as is the Continental Civil Code fashion - whether the driver will face criminal charges. As I understand it, as soon as he's well enough, the driver will attend a court hearing, possibly with a lawyer alongside him, to answer questions from the judge. And possibly the police. This is very different from the Anglo-Saxon process, where a judge is only involved after police investigation and after the suspect has been charged with a specific offence.

I'm not sufficiently cynical to say it's a deliberate attempt - Prestige style - to shift the limelight from the government, but it's certainly interesting to see widespread media attention being given to Facebook comments of the driver of some months ago. The Times today reports that: "One contact on the social network told him: 'Man, you are going flat out, brake!!' Mr Garzón replied: 'I’m at the limit, I can’t run any faster, otherwise they’ll fine me.' When someone warned him he could face speeding points, Mr Garzón replied, writing in capitals: 'How good it would be to go as fast as the Guardia Civil and pass them and trigger off the speed camera. Ha, ha, it would be a fine for Renfe, ha, ha.'

Well, my first response is to say that much depends on which definition of 'speeding' you plump for - merely 'going fast' or 'exceeding the legal limit'. If you're a train driver legally doing 250kph, you are certainly going fast and, while it may be adolescent to confess to enjoying this and pretty dumb to express this enjoyment on Facebook, it's neither immoral nor criminal. As for breaking the legal speed limit, my reading of the driver's original text was that he was joking about doing 250kph legitimately on a track which went alongside a road with a Guardia Civil (i. e. Tráfico) radar trap on it. Again, he was expressing childish delight at the train triggering the radar and confusing the Guardia Civil. But perhaps I'm being too lenient. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the black box will surely confirm excess speed at the corner, which will surprise no one, but won't, I believe, help us in understanding why.

Given that it takes some time for a train to slow from 250 to 80kph, there should have been an automatic control system some way before this corner. Maybe even some kilometres before it. If, in fact, there was either no system or an inadequate system at that point - meaning negligence on the part of RENFE (i. e. the government) - expect a lot more shit to be thrown at the driver. While a cortina de humo is thrown up around the government's responsibility.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Some sort of process has begun against one of the two drivers, even though he is still in hospital. In Spanish, he is now 'imputado'. It's not clear that there's a direct equivalent in Anglo-Saxon legal systems. The French24 TV channel this evening said that the driver had been 'taken into custody', which is as close as you can get to being arrested, I feel. Either way, the man will be questioned not only by the police but also by a judge, at the same time, I believe.

The following points emerged from an interview on France24 with a Spanish rail engineer:-

  • The train did not have an automatic braking system going through this curve.
  • An automatic system - the ERMS - is used on the long stretch from Ourense to Santiago but not for the last 3-4km.
  • An automatic system monitors a train continuously and stops the train the second it exceeds the correct speed.
  • A non-automatic system only monitors the speed as the train goes past sensors.
  • The curve exists because it's close to a residential area. Such curves are not uncommon when high-speed trains come into cities. As it's unrealistic to avoid them, it's essential to protect passengers via an automatic braking system. This was not in place at this curve.
  • Railway accidents rarely have just one cause. Usually there's a series of them.
I'm not clear why/how a train could have an automatic system for part of its journey and then only a non-automatic system once it enters urban areas. Perhaps someone could explain. I'm assuming that the infrastructure wasn't in place on the tracks.


So, the driver has been arrested. Inevitable in the circumstances - as it was with the Captain of the Prestige 10 years ago. Somebody has to be seen as the immediate blame-worthy party. No presumption of innocence on the basis that he might have been misled by a malfunctioning signal/control system. What driver would willingly imperil his own life by ignoring the restrictions?

The Spanish are among the world's best in donating body organs and they seem to be flooding towards the blood donation centres.

President Rajoy has appeared on TV, speaking about the tragedy. Thus scotching the rumours that, although head of the government and the state, he doesn't have the power of speech.

When listening to Galego, it's essential to remember that the language kept the Latin Fs, whereas Spanish converted them to Hs. So, the Spanish herido(injured) is ferido in Galego. Always throws me.

Which reminds me . . . Watching a EuroNews report earlier on, they had an English voiceover to a to-camera piece from a Portuguese correspondent. Do they not know the difference between these 2 Iberian languages in Brussels? It would seem not.


The Times carries this report in its latest edition. It also has a 12 second video of the (fast train) hitting the wall. As there's no now doubt the train was going too fast and as the train itself was inspected in Madrid, suspicion now falls on the (not up-to-date) signal/control system which is supposed to stop this sort of thing happening:-

The driver of a Spanish train that came off the tracks on a bend last night, killing at least 77 people in one of Europe’s worst rail crashes, has admitted that it was travelling at more than twice the speed limit
Heading from Madrid to the naval port of El Ferrol, the train derailed and burst into flames at 8.24pm yesterday outside Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern province of Galicia.
Trackside CCTV footage of the crash quickly emerged that showed the train beginning to wobble as it came into the bend before careering off the tracks and smashing into a wall.
The speed limit on that section of the track is 80km/h (50 mph) although a government official claimed that the train had been travelling at 220km/h (137mph).
El País reported, however, that the driver had contacted his base by radio shortly after the crash and told them that he had travelling at 190kph, or even 200km/h going into the bend.
The driver, who has not been named, spoke to colleagues from the wreckage of the train. He told them that he could not move because he had hurt his back and ribs.
“We are human! We are human!” he said, before adding: “I hope there are not deaths because it would weigh on my conscience.”
The site of the crash — at the end of a very long straight — is not included in the European Rail Traffic Management System programme, which automatically stops trains from going too fast.

Apologies, the mourning period will be 7, not 5 days.

Taking us past the point when Rajoy was going to appear in parliament to answer the corruption accusations levelled against him.

Don't know how this squares with the BBC's announcement just now that Rajoy has said there'll be 3 days of 'official mourning'. Perhaps the latter is national, whereas the 7 days is regional.
The Santiago Train Crash 4

Dear me. Just heard Santiago de Compostela referred to as a 'village', on BBC. In fact, it's the capital of the Galicia region, with a population of 96,000.

The President of the national train operator (RENFE) has said there were no technical problems with the train. It had passed a technical examination only yesterday morning, before it left Madrid. More evidence, I guess, that it was human error - on the part of the driver - which caused the horrendous tragedy.
The Santiago train crash 3

The Spanish President, Sr Rajoy, has announced 5 days of mourning.

This had to be done, of course, and there's nothing cynical about it. But it will certainly remove the issue of his alleged corruption from the limelight and probably take the wind out of the sails of his Opposition critics. Will we now have next week's appearance of Rajoy in Parliament to answer the accusations or will it (conveniently) be postponed until the end of August? It's an ill wind . . .

Incidentally, I'm intrigued as to why Ferrol is called El Ferrol in the British media. Its official name since 1982 has been just Ferrol. Old maps?
The Santiago train tragedy 2.

Spanish newspapers offer excellent graphics on occasions like this.

Here is El País this morning.

The green carriage is the one which leapt 5m (they say) to end up on the adjacent road.

The driver is now reported to have said he was doing 190km, twice the maximum speed. Why, we don't know. He's also reported to have said "We're all human" and to have expressed the hope there were no deaths.

These are now said to number 77.

Today is a día festivo in Galicia, in honour of St James, or Santiago.

But there is nothing festive about the region and today's Santiago festivities have been cancelled. This, of course, is because of the tragic train crash last night in which at least 77 people died.

Some, at least, of these were on their way to religious celebrations in the pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela. If I weren't already an atheist, this would make me question the existence of an allegedly benevolent god.

Appropriately, the Atlantic Blanket has descended on us this morning, after weeks of sun.  So, maybe there really are weather gods.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rajoy the Silent, Baby Boredom, Spanish non-Colonies, and Swingtime.

President Rajoy's change of tack via an announcement he'd finally come to Parliament to answer questions about corruption has had the - doubtless desired - effect of kicking into touch the Opposition's planned motion of censure. I'm guessing the PSOE was fooled into thinking the rare event of Sr Rajoy opening his mouth would take place at the end of July, whereas it's much more likely to take place at the end of August. Meanwhile, the papers are compiling lists of the 10 questions that need answering to prove that Spain is a genuine democracy. I predict disappointment.

Sr Rajoy's aides have also announced that this year he won't be taking his holiday in the resort of Sanxenxo ("The Marbella of Galicia" Ha.) but in a rural guest house. The fact there'll be no one there to shout insults at him is surely just a coincidence. The place is called A Casa de Alicia and is a Toprural. Its outstanding feature - apart from isolation - is the questionable decor of the main bedroom. You can see other fotos here. By the way, the single opinion on the place gives it 10 out of 10 for everything. I wonder who that was then.

Rajoy, though, does speak occasionally, if only in a serpentine way. As with his recent pronouncement that "The decisions that are most necessary are the hardest to take". I mean, WTF? As the kids say. Last word on him - One of the papers yesterday has him dressed as a Snow White dwarf, morphing from Mutey to Grumpy. It's better in Spanish.

Switching on Sky News yesterday evening, I got the full blast of the wall-to-wall, 360 degrees coverage of Katie's kid. Or 'Baby Cambridge' as he's allegedly called for the moment. The high spot of all the vamping from the commentators was the breathless statement that Prince Bill was ensuring the child was securely strapped in the baby seat in their (gas guzzling) 4x4. As if there was any possibility that he wouldn't. For me, though, the funniest sight was of something we now take for granted - the police wearing so much gear and paraphernalia that even the skinny ones look like fat-bellied pigs. Which is appropriate I guess.

Unusually, I felt sorry for Penelope Cruz yesterday. The Spanish beauty decided to dar luz to her embryo on the same day as Kate. Internationally, this must have meant a loss of quite a lot of media space. Not sure about Spain.

I must admit I wasn't aware that, apart from the 'enclaves' of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Africa, Spain has not just one but 5 or 6 islands off the coast of Morocco. Some of them complete with fortifications. One is even a Rock (Peñon), complete with a strip of land connecting it to the coast, with the border in the middle of it. Rather like Gibraltar. Fotos here.

Nice to see obits of Bert Trauttman in the Spanish papers.

Finally . . . I had the pleasure of listening to a group of young swing musicians in the main square yesterday. Here's one of their tracks and here's another. Worth considering if you're having a do that needs to go with a . . . swing. Very probably quite cheap.

Publisher's Note: If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may find the easiest way to access it is via an RSS reader. I used to use Google Reader for the blogs I read but Google killed this a month or so ago. There are several alternatives, all free, but I've gone with Old Reader as it pretty accurately replicates Google Reader. But don't go there today as they are experiencing problems.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Good news (twice), Yet more dust and noise, and French follies,

Some excellent news for Spain - June's tourists were a record. As I've said, though, it's also important how long they stayed and how much they spent. In this regard, it was encouraging to read that Majorca has finally decided to stop pitching to British and German drunkards and, in search of big-spending tourists, to "transform the image of the seafront strip, the Playa de Palma". This will involve banning 24-hour drinking and
converting hotels from 4 to 5-star. Good luck to them.

The other excellent news of yesterday was that President Rajoy has finally bowed to pressure and promised to address parliament on the issue of illegal funding of his PP party. This followed a day or so of various PP mouths telling us he would do this when it suited him. In the arrogance stakes, none emerged higher than the Deputy PM telling us Rajoy would "give his explanation at the time and in the manner he feels appropriate." To be followed by the Foreign mInister telling us he'd appear "when he considers the timing to be right". This turns out to be at the end of either this month or the end of August. So, either when everyone is setting off on holiday or when they're coming back from holiday. Can this be a coincidence?

No sooner had I given my car its bi-annual wash than they started to tear up the road with a jack-hammer. The result? A car covered with a layer of tarmac and granite dust. The lovely Ester tells me they're connecting to the electricity grid the 23 houses behind me, finished at least 2 years ago but still unoccupied. Which is odd as there's an electricity sub-station alongside the access drive. I guess this means they've solved the problem of the drive and the first 4 houses being illegal. Anyway, pending completion of the works, we now have regular blasts of metallic thunder, as cars drive over the lids on the trench in the road. Noise and dust, a wonderful combination.

The good news is that I've learned the Spanish for 'jack-hammer' - martillo neumático. Which is closer to the British equivalent of 'pneumatic drill'. So, comparing syllables - Spanish: 8; British: 5; American: 3. Sounds about right. No wonder notices are so much longer in Spanish than in English.

My mother called me yesterday to say my old college (King's, London) had topped a chart of crime rates near British universities. A bit of checking revealed that 1. This is true, but 2. Crime is measured within a 3 mile radius of the main campus. As King's doesn't have one, crime was measured within 3 miles of its location in The Strand. In other words, central London. Likewise, the LSE and University College, London, who ranked shortly after King's. So, not a very fair comparison as no students actually live in central London. But thanks, Mum.

In the late 19th century, after military defeats to Germany, the French were desperate for a great national figurehead. They went with Joan of Arc. In other words, they chose someone who'd been tried and executed, not by the English, but by the French themselves. Likewise, although the Catholic Church later made her a saint, she was tried in an Ecclesiastical Court and convicted of heresy, before being burnt at the stake. By the French. So, an episode rich in irony. By the way, the miracle said to allow sanctification of Joan, was a change in the wind which benefited the French in their attempts to end the English siege of Orleans. Which smacks of desperation to me. Not a coincidence, then? Maybe my Catholic daughter take take advantage of any change in the weather that occurs just before my death. Not much for a father to ask, I feel.

That other French hero - Napoleon - is also rather tarnished. Aside from ending his years in ignominy and exile (twice in each case), he was also an invader of a Hitlerian scale. Not to mention the initiator of a new royal family in Spain. Where I doubt he's remembered with affection. All in all, it was odd to see monuments to the tyrant when watching the end of the Tour de France. By the way, next year's Tour de France will start in England, but in Leeds - not at Waterloo Station.

While I'm on this French theme, my elder daughter told me of this recent conversation with a friend who works in international personnel (or 'human relations' as we now have to say):-
So, Helen. How do you find working with people from different cultures?
Fine. I enjoy it.
Are there any significant differences between nationalities, in terms of being hard or easy to work with?
No, not really. Of course, there are occasionally difficult people from every country, Except for the French. They're always difficult.

Publisher's Note: If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may find the easiest way to access it is via an RSS reader. I used to use Google Reader for the blogs I read but Google killed this a month or so ago. There are several alternatives, all free, but I've gone with Old Reader as it pretty accurately replicates Google Reader. But don't go there today as they are experiencing problems.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Royal nonsense, Spain's languages, Rajoy's defiance, BBC paternalism, Pontevedra's architecture, More owls, and British yobs.

With Duchess Kate about to give birth, I was forced this morning to quit the baby-obsessed Sky News, in search of something more relevant to my life. So, as the sole viewer of EuroNews, what did I get? Would you believe an item on the British royal birth, followed by news of the installation of the new Belgian monarchs? Fortunately, republican France24 had arrived in the 21st century and were covering the Japanese elections. OK, not really relevant to my life but not bloody royal trivia either.

I see that said Belgian king was sworn in in each of the country's 3 official languages. Which would be a nice gesture here in Spain, I believe. Both for monarchs and for ministers. It would certainly help to counter allegations of Spanish linguistic imperialism. And, obviously, it wouldn't mean everybody having to be fluent in Euskera, Galego and Catalán. But too sensible to be adopted, I suspect. Too much for the extreme (and powerful) right wing of the governing PP party.

President Rajoy's latest response to demands he resign because of widespread illegal funding of said PP party is to assert that:- A government is legitimated by elections. In other words:- Bugger off until the next elections. If you vote for crooks, you get crooks. Ahead of said elections - when the country might just chuck him out - it's reported that even 90% of Rajoy's own PP party believe he's guilty of receiving illegal bungs. But politics are tribal here and it's impossible to see many PP voters changing allegiance to some other party, least of all the socialist PSOE. No wonder historian Paul Preston sees the Spanish Civil War still having implications for modern Spain.

Talking of Rajoy, I saw destructora de papeles being used for 'shredder' yesterday. Though the dictionary also gives the shorter trituradora. Which reminds me that I heard the phrase weed-whacker used in a Family Guy cartoon for what I'd call a strimmer. It seems the (American) inventor also called it a weed-eater. Then there's weed-whip and the prosaic weed-cutter. Take your pick. I'm sticking with strimmer. Or desbrozadora in Spanish. And possibly estrimer. Which has a mere 3 syllables.

Lightening the tone . . . In the early years of the BBC, it went off the air for an hour after the evening News every night. This was to allow parents to put their kids to bed. As someone has written - It’s now almost impossible to imagine a corporation, or a society, where that sort of paternalism and cosy collective assumption would seem normal, or desirable.

Last night I got some petrol on my credit card, providing ID and signing the seller's chit. Nothing unusual in that, you might say wearily. True, but this morning I noticed that on my copy was written:- Operation with PIN. Signature not necessary. That'll be the day.

There are very few two-story houses left in Pontevedra, thanks in part to the construction boom that now seems like a bad dream. This one (and the one next door) escaped destruction as the plan to replace them with a 7-storey flat block came too late in the day. Though I doubt they'll ever be restored as single-family dwellings. 

It's interesting to reflect on the fact that all of the city's streets were once flanked by buildings of this design. And that, when cleaned, the granite walls are a mellow yellow that glisten when it rains.

And here - to please Alfie Mittington - is another of Pontevedra's café owls, the result - I like to think - of my pioneering efforts.

Finally . . . The British Foreign Office has a map of where around the world Brits have been arrested for one thing and another. Mostly being drunk and violent, I imagine. Anyway, here it is. One thing of interest is that the numbers are lower in Portugal than Spain. But, then, they are absolute, not relative, numbers and far more Brits go to Spain than to Portugal. Nice to know we don't cause trouble in bits of central Africa. And in Greenland. Though we still managed it in North Korea.

Publisher's Note: If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may find the easiest way to access it is via an RSS reader. I used to use Google Reader for the blogs I read but Google killed this a month or so ago. There are several alternatives, all free, but I've gone with Old Reader as it pretty accurately replicates Google Reader.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The weather, Spanish delays, Catalan attitudes, Continuing corruption, Property bargains, and Spanish English.

Both Brits and Galicians are pretty obsessed by their (admittedly, highly variable) weather. Here in Galicia there's been quite a change in the last few days, with the temperature falling from 35 degrees plus to a mere 22 or so. This has naturally led to the locals returning to their refrain that, after a lousy spring, we're being denied a real summer by the weather gods. Over in the UK, on the other hand, their heatwave continues and, rather than complaining that the summer is the usual washout, they're moaning that it's so hot that hundreds of people are dying as a result. All this endorses the eternal truth - that folk who live under a maritime climate are never happy with their weather.

A few of the people involved in the Concordia cruiser tragedy of a year or so ago have been tried, convicted and sentenced. My reaction on reading this was "Only a year!?". Here in Spain, the trial of those accused after the Prestige oil disaster of 10 years ago continues to wend its way through the courts.

Talking of dilatory processes . . . There's a house in Pontevedra's old quarter for which it's taken 6 years - yes, 6 years! - to get permission to restore it. The process was described as a viacrucis, or a 'way of the cross'. Which is a phrase - like calvario or 'calvary' - I rather like. Work has recently begun on two other long-standing eyesores in the old quarter and I wonder whether they've both been similarly mired in the bureaucratic mud. 

To be more positive, here's a foto of one ex-eyesore, recently finished. Of course, it'll be an eternity before a shop opens on the ground floor. Which reminds me . . . We have yet another frozen yoghurt outlet in Pontvedra. And another place specialising in chocolate products. Is the birth rate booming?

Listening to a BBC podcast on the Scottish drive for independence, I was both surprised and impressed to hear that, if you display any sign of anti-English attitudes, you're immediately expelled from the Scottish Nationalist Party. Contrast Cataluña, where it's obligatory, I suspect, to display a visceral anti-Spanishness.

"L'état, c'est moi". Who said that? No, not Louis XIV but Spain's President Rajoy. Responding to questions about corruption, he replied imperiously "The state will not be subjected to blackmail." Along the same lines, the Minster of the Economy has told us that stability is Spain's main strength. The message being - Don't endanger it by going on and on about corruption in the PP governing party. Stop seeking Sr Rajoy's removal as this will bring about the collapse of the Spanish state. As if. Incidentally, El Roto had a nice cartoon in El País the other day. It was the blindfolded figure of Justice, saying - "Don't seal my ears. Seal my nose."

If you've got between 140,000 and 11m euros lying around and are thinking of investing in a property in Spain, here's a few examples of what you can get for your money. I rather like the look of the one with an 85% price reduction. Some of the rest leave me stone cold.

My friend Phil translates chess stuff from Spanish into other languages. He was saying yesterday how hard it was sometimes to deal with very long convoluted sentences in Spanish. Which reminded me of a thought I've had a few times - viz. that it's always easier to read an article translated from English into Spanish than to read an article written in Spanish. The reason is that someone translating English into Spanish will stick to the shorter, less flowery sentences of the original.

Finally . . . An arresting thought; it takes a minimum of 4 litres of water to make a litre of bottled water.

Publisher's NoteIf you're a regular reader of this blog, you may find the easiest way to access it is via an RSS reader. I used to use Google Reader for the blogs I read but Google killed this a month or so ago. There are several alternatives, all free, but I've gone with Old Reader as it pretty accurately replicates Google Reader.