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Spanish judge to question driver of train in deadly crash

Francisco Jose Garzon Amo has been discharged from hospital and will appear before a judge today.

Image: Lalo Villar/AP/Press Association Images

THE DRIVER OF a train that hurtled off the rails killing 78 people in Spain is to appear before a judge for questioning Sunday, facing possible charges of reckless homicide.

Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, 52, refused to answer police questions Friday from his hospital bed, and the case was passed to the courts.

He was taken to a police station on Saturday after being discharged from hospital and will appear on Sunday before a judge who will decide whether to press formal charges.

Under Spanish law, a suspect can be detained for a maximum of 72 hours before being heard by a judge.

‘Reckless homicide’

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz told reporters Saturday that Garzon Amo faced possible charges of reckless homicide. He was speaking during a visit to the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela where the crash happened.

The train was said to have been travelling at more than twice the speed limit on a curve when it was flung off the rails on Wednesday and slammed into a concrete wall, with one carriage leaping up onto a siding.

Regional authorities now say that 78 passengers died and 178 were injured in the accident.

It was Spain’s deadliest rail accident since 1944 when hundreds were killed in a train collision, also between Madrid and Galicia.

Regional health officials said 71 people were still in hospital, including 28 adults and three children in a critical condition.

Eight foreigners were among the dead — a US citizen, an Algerian, a Mexican, a Brazilian, a Venezuelan, an Italian, a national of the Dominican Republic and a Frenchman.

Claims driver was speaking on mobile

Spanish media published photographs of the man they identified as Garzon Amo after the crash, with blood covering the right side of his face.

The driver should have started slowing the train before reaching a bend that train drivers had been told to respect, the president of Spanish rail network administrator Adif said Saturday.

“Four kilometres before the accident happened he already had warnings that he had to begin slowing his speed,” Gonzalo Ferre told Spanish public television TVE.

Daily newspaper El Mundo, citing sources close to the investigation, reported Saturday that the driver was speaking on his mobile telephone at the time of the accident.

And El Pais, citing unidentified sources in the investigation, reported that the driver, while still trapped in his cab, told railway officials by radio that the train had taken the curve at 190 kilometres (118 miles) an hour. That is more than double the 80 kph speed limit for that section of track.

Driver with firm for 30 years

State railway company Renfe said the driver had been with the firm for 30 years, including 13 years as a driver.

He had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times during his time with Renfe, company president Julio Gomez-Pomar told private television Antena 3.

Some media reports described Garzon Amo as a speed freak who once posted a picture on his Facebook page of a train speedometer at 200 kph.

A caption read: “I am on the edge, I can’t go faster or else I will be fined.” The page has since been taken down.

But Garzon Amo also has his defenders.

“He is an excellent professional,” said Antonio Rodriguez, who joined Renfe alongside Garzon in 1982. “It is the first accident he has ever had.”

Questions about track’s speed signalling system

Renfe said the train — a model able to adapt between high-speed and normal tracks — had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident.

But experts have raised questions about the track’s speed signalling system.

Since high-speed trains use the route, it has been equipped with an automatic speed control system known as the European Rail Traffic Management System, under which a train’s brakes can be automatically applied if speeding.

But the secretary general of Spain’s train drivers’ union, Juan Jesus Garcia Fraile, told public radio that the system was not in place at the crash site.

Many of the passengers were said to be on their way to a festival in honour of Saint James, the apostle who gave his name to Santiago de Compostela.

The city’s cathedral will host a memorial service on Monday for the victims of the crash.

- © AFP, 2013

Read: Spain train driver detained for ‘reckless homicide’
Read: The arrested Spanish train driver is refusing to answer police questions
Read: Three days of mourning in Spain after deadly train crash

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