THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Two deadly railroad accidents inside two weeks that claimed 80 lives in Spain and six in France have raised questions about train safety across Europe. But experts say rail travel remains one of the safest forms of transport on the continent.
From Communist-era trains in parts of eastern Europe to modern high-speed TGVs hurtling through the French countryside, Europe has a vast array of trains but among the highest safety rates in the world, experts say.
"Accidents like this are incredibly rare," Sim Harris, managing editor of Rail News in Britain, said Thursday.
Spain, which was plunged into three days of national mourning following Wednesday night's catastrophic derailing at Santiago De Compostela, has a better-than-average safety record, said Chris Carr, head of the European Railway Agency's safety unit.
Figures compiled by the European Union show railway accident figures shrinking steadily by about six percent a year in the 28-nation bloc, totaling a 70-percent reduction in the accident rate from 1990-2012.
Even so, a May report by the EU's railway agency says that around 2,400 "significant" accidents occur each year. The vast majority, however, involve collisions with cars at level crossings and people — often suicide victims — being hit by trains. Those incidents kill some 1,200 people a year, the report says.
"If you put together the figures of suicides, unauthorized persons and level crossing users, they dwarf all other fatalities. They account for nearly all of them," Carr said.
Modern safety systems on tracks and in trains help prevent accidents caused by speeding.
An Associated Press analysis of video images suggests that the train that crashed in Spain may have been traveling at twice the speed limit for the stretch of track where it flipped off the rails. Authorities have launched two investigations into the disaster.
Harris said he believes modern high-speed trains in Spain would have been built and equipped a system which first warns the driver of excessive speeds and then slows the train down if the train continues to go too fast.
The system works by using track side radio transmitters to monitor the speed and location of trains. Inside the train, those transmitters communicate with sensors, which are connected to the braking system.
Meanwhile, the European Union requires its member states to set up national safety authorities to keep a close watch on safety measures taken by rail operators — from maintenance of tracks and trains to training of staff.
"There's a lot of monitoring of how countries are doing and it's a fairly robust structure but of course it does require the operators to manage their risks properly and I guess inevitably there are going to be occasions when things don't go right," Carr said.
Faulty parts, poor maintenance and human error are the most likely culprits when accidents do happen.
Poor training of a rail traffic controller was cited as the cause of a March 2012 collision between two trains which 16 killed people in southern Poland, a country whose rail system includes modern trains and stations upgraded in recent years, but also communist-era trains and tracks.
Some blamed the accident on cutting corners to save costs as the country's railroad network modernizes.
"Unfortunately, sometimes economy takes the upper hand over safety," Aleksander Motyka, head of a controllers' union, said after the crash. "A controller needs to do maintenance and other work in the station, or even sell tickets" to save money.
Even in ultra-efficient Germany, which has one of Europe's densest rail networks, accidents can happen.
The deadliest in recent years was the Eschede train wreck of June 3, 1998, which killed 101 people. Investigators believe it was caused by a single fatigue crack in one wheel which caused the train to derail at a switch.
More recently, 10 people were killed in 2011 in Saxony-Anhalt state when a freight train collided with a passenger train.
In France, prosecutors said that a steel splint that jerked loose and knocked one car off the rails was most likely behind the July 12 accident in in Bretigny-sur-Orge south of Paris that killed six people. An investigation is looking at whether nuts or bolts holding the 10-kilogram (22-pound) bar in place were loose, missing or broken, and whether there was a problem in manufacturing or maintenance.
That crash came in a country that prides itself on its sprawling network of high-speed trains known simply by their French acronym TGV and their safety record.
"In 30 years TGVs have carried more than 2 billion passengers at speeds over 200 mph, without a single fatal accident," said the SNCF's Frank Paul Weber.
Associated Press reporters across Europe contributed.