Godinne rail accident: investigation findings made public

Coinciding with the terrible accident in Spain, the report on the crash that took place in Godinne on May 11, 2012 has just been published by the Organization for the investigation of rail accidents and incidents, the Belgian body responsible for investigating railroad incidents. It lays out, over 125 pages, the relevant facts, conclusions and recommendations following the collision between two freight trains that forced part of the local population to be evacuated from their homes while the vehicles’ dangerous cargo was removed.

 

Where does the blame lie, then? Like in the best mystery novels, there is more than one “suspect”; both the SNCB, the Belgian rail operator, and Infrabel, which manages the Belgian railroad infrastructure, are under the spotlight. The initial problem was a faulty signal light which remained on green while it should have been on “double yellow” when the subsequent light, a few hundred meters down the track, was on red. Seeing this, the first train applied the emergency brake as it was going round a curve. The second train was unable to see it, resulting in the crash. On paper, the signaling issue – Infrabel’s area of expertise – was the root cause, but, as in the aforementioned novels, there is always a “but”.

 

Why was the light not working? Because it had been damaged by a high voltage surge. The signal box, relays and wiring were black, as if they had been struck by lightning. The Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium confirms that there were no storms at that time. It turns out that other signals were damaged each time the railcar A380 number 339 went by. Investigators discovered electric cables dangling down from underneath it and touching the contact ramps that zigzag across the rails at each signal light. As the railcar passed through, 3,000 volts were sent toward the signal box. The responsibility now shifts, therefore, to SNCB, which owns the railcar, especially as it had already encountered problems in the past, and had only just come out of the repair shop the last time it came through Godinne, on 2 May, nine days before the accident. But…

 

In the meantime, at least 154 trains passed by the same spot, sometimes discovering – to the surprise of their drivers – that there was a green light immediately followed by a red light, forcing them to brake suddenly. Some (maybe all) of the drivers made it known that they had gone through the red light, which they had noticed too late. Only three filled out the official E361 form to report that the contact ramp, also burned out, was not working.

 

The links and relationship between Infrabel and the SNCB prevented the dangerous nature of the situation to come to light. To make matters worse, following receipt of the E361 forms, several Infrabel teams paid the site a visit (on May 6 and 7), carried out certain repairs and decided that everything was back in order. The driver of the first train was, in fact, in the middle of phoning traffic control to inform them of a problem and of the fact that he had run a red light, when his train was struck by another. Who is to blame really? Now the Law will decide.

 

ÉRIC RENETTE

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