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Spain train driver on phone at time of deadly crash

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The driver of a train that derailed in Spain killing 79 people was on the phone to a coworker at the time of the accident, while the train was racing at nearly twice the speed limit, investigators said Tuesday.

The train's two data recording "black boxes" showed that moments before the crash the train was travelling at 192 kilometres (119 miles) per hour, said the Superior Court of Justice of Galicia, which is leading the investigation.

"Seconds before the accident the brakes were activated. It is estimated that at the time of the derailment the train was travelling at 153 kilometres an hour," it said in a statement.

The speed limit at the spot where the Madrid to Ferrol train derailed on Wednesday on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela is 80 kilometres an hour.

The driver of the train was speaking on his work phone to staff members of state railway company Renfe and appeared to consult a map at the time of the accident, the court added.

"Minutes before the train came off the tracks he received a call on his work phone to get indications on the route he had to take to get to Ferrol. From the content of the conversation and background noise it seems that the driver consulted a map or paper document," it said.

The eight-carriage train flew off the tracks on a bend and ploughed into a concrete siding about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Santiago in northwest Spain.

A US woman critically injured in the crash died in hospital on Sunday, bringing the toll to 79 including nine foreigners. It was Spain's deadliest train accident in decades.

Examining judge Luis Alaez on Sunday charged the driver, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, with 79 counts of reckless homicide and released him under court supervision.

Garzon, 52, admitted during his court appearance Sunday that he had had a "lapse" of concentration, Spanish media have reported.

Several newspapers said the driver told the judge he had confused the stretch of track he was on at the time of the accident with another part of the route.

"He believed he was on a different section of the track and when he started to slow down it was too late to keep control of the train," El Pais wrote.

Garzon had been warned to start slowing the train four kilometres before the spot where the accident happened, the president of state railway track operator Adif said last week.

Adif is checking all tracks and security systems in its network in the wake of the accident, a company spokeswoman said.

"This is a precautionary measure. After what happened, the protocol is to review all systems to confirm that everything is working properly," she said.

The train was on a route that uses both high-speed and conventional track. On the high-speed sections a sophisticated security system automatically slows down trains that are going too fact.

The accident happened on a conventional section of the track where it is up to the driver to respond to prompts to slow down.

Renfe has said Garzon had been with the firm for 30 years, including 13 years as a driver, and had driven trains past the spot of the accident 60 times.

The train had no technical problems and had just passed an inspection on the morning of the accident, Renfe said.

Hundreds of mourners attended a memorial mass for the victims on Monday in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela which was broadcast live on Spanish television.

After the service Crown Prince Felipe and other members of the royal family went from row to row in the cathedral, clasping the hands of the bereaved or kissing them on the cheeks.

Many aboard the train were Catholic pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela's internationally celebrated annual festival honouring Saint James, a disciple of Jesus whose bones are said to rest in a crypt beneath the altar of the city's cathedral.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130730/spain-train-driver-phone-at-time-deadly-crash