"I let the train go, I was the one who gave the signal..."
With a week now having passed since the deadly head-on collision between two trains on a single-track section of the Bari–Barletta line in southern Italy, the focus has now switched to the signalling system used and delays in upgrading the network. Late in the morning of 12th July 2016, two regional passenger trains travelling at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) collided head-on between the towns of Andria and Corato in the Apulia region. 27 people were killed, including both drivers and a farmer working in a nearby field who was struck by debris, 54 passengers were injured. The stretch of track is operated by regional rail company Ferrotramviaria, with the collision occurring on a curve, giving neither driver a chance to spot the other train, or attempt an emergency braking procedure.
"An incredible, shocking scene," one police officer at the crash scene told the Italian news agency ANSA. "I saw dead people, others who were crying for help, people who were crying. It was the most terrible scene I have seen in my life."
The train crash occurred on the remaining single-track section of the line between Bari and Barletta. That 37-kilometre (23 mile) section of the line didn't have an automatic alert system that would engage if two trains were near each other. Instead the system relied on 'telephonic block signalling', a system dating back to the 1960s, where stationmasters phoned one another to advise of a departing train and proceeded only if the receiving station confirmed the single track was free.
"I let the train go, I was the one who gave the signal," Andria station master Vito Piccarreta told Italian newspaper La Stampa. But he was adamant he was not the only one at fault. He was quoted as stating "I'm not the only one at fault, everyone is blaming me. But I'm a victim too." Both Piccarreta and the station master at Corato have been suspended as part of an investigation.
In a briefing to Parliament, Transport Minister Graziano Delrio ( @ ) said the the phone system as reported by Reuters; "leaves an entirely human management and is among the least evolved and most risky ways of regulating railway circulation," He said the single rail track used in the area isn't dangerous if "advanced technology is applied."
Delrio confirmed that of the 3000km of regional secondary railways in Italy, a single track is used for 2700km with the remaining 300km of that using telephonic block signalling.
Andria Mayor Nicola Giorgino said the crash was particularly tragic and "paradoxical" as work to begin within a few months to build a second track on the route.
EU funds were made available in April 2012 to upgrade this remaining section from a single to double track. Work on the network should have been well underway by now. According to the national investment and development agency Invitalia ( @ ), the EU Regional Development Fund had approved 62 percent of an €180 million investment into improvements for the north-Bari rail line that included a second track for the Corato-Andria line.
But it was never built. EU officials said the delay was due to "difficulties related to the acquisitions of permissions in the region." As a result, the works are now expected to be completed in the 2014-2020 period, Delrio said, adding that the bidding process was due to start on July 16th, four days after the fatetful crash.
Prosecutor Francesco Giannella said the delay in the track-doubling work would be part of the investigation. "We will investigate on the delays of the work on the line and on the deficiencies in the security system," the ANSA news agency quoted Giannella as saying.
“It is unacceptable that such incidents can still occur in 2016, and even more unacceptable that to speak about ‘human error’,” said Carlo Rienzi, president of the consumer group, Codacons ( @ ) and reported in the Telegraph.
“All the railway lines in the world benefit from the most advanced technology available to avoid collisions, derailments and errors. Today’s tragedy demonstrates how the railway transport in southern Italy is still at an intolerable level” added Rienzi.
Ferrotramviaria's Chief Executive Massimo Nitti, as reported by the Associated Press defended the slow progress of the line development and defended the use of the telephone system which has been in place for over 50 years; "Telephone consent is allowed, it's recognised… Obviously, it depends on the capacity of the line."
The investigation continues, with the government acquiring all the telephone communications between the two stations. The train event recorder from one of the trains was recovered from the wreckage, but the other was completely destroyed.
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