Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Turns out the train operator was on the phone.
The black box recovered from the deadly high-speed rail crash in Spain last week reveals a couple of horribly familiar details from the last moments before the train dramatically derailed: Turns out the driver was on the phone at the time, trying to get what may have been directions from a rail operator, and it sounded as if he was rustling with maps in the background.
From a statement by the court that is now investigating the accident:
From the audio stored on the black boxes it has also been possible de discern that the driver was speaking on the telephone with personnel from RENFE, seemingly with a controller, at the moment of the accident. Minutes before coming off the track, he received a call on his professional telephone to give him directions to follow upon arriving in Ferrol. From the content of the conversation and the background noise, it seems the driver is looking at a map or some other similar paper document.
According to the black box, the train was traveling 153 kilometers an hour (the equivalent of 95 miles per hour) around a bend where the speed limit is set at 80 kilometers an hour. The death toll has ticked up to 79 people, with 22 still in critical condition in the hospital.
The driver, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, has not yet been charged with any crimes, but the BBC reports that his passport has been turned over to a Spanish judge, and his train license has been suspended.
For what it's worth, here is an entirely unrelated new study that found an overwhelming share of teenagers (and their parents) using their phones while they drive.
Top image of a makeshift memorial overlooking the site of the Santiago de Compostela train crash: Miguel Vidal/Reuters.