Traffic

Spanish government blames toll road operator for Christmas freeway chaos

Opposition criticizes lack of planning and calls for ministers to answer questions in Congress

Snow caused chaos on the AP-6.
Snow caused chaos on the AP-6.Hernán Rodríguez
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The Spanish government is investigating Iberpistas, the operator of the AP-6 tollway northwest of Madrid, after thousands of vehicles were trapped for up to 18 hours in the snow over the weekend. Many drivers complained about a lack of information about the situation

Public Works Minister Íñigo de la Serna told EL PAÍS that the aim of the investigation was to gather information and make an assessment on whether to take the matter further and impose sanctions against the road operator.

The minister said that while the government owned the infrastructure in question, Iberpistas had “management responsibility” when it came to the snowy conditions and that the company was in charge of “ many of the decisions,” including when to close access to the toll route. The road operator was also required to have the necessary means to deal with such situations, the minister said.

The head of Spain’s General Directorate of Traffic, Gregorio Serrano, says “I have not considered resigning.” He said chaos on the AP-6 had many causes but did not concede there had been errors in the government’s handling of the situation.

For its part, Iberpistas said in a media release issued on Sunday that it had rolled out an operational plan for winter road conditions at 9pm on January 5, “under the supervision of the Public Works ministry and Spain’s General Directorate of Traffic (DGT).” It added that it had been in “constant cooperation” with emergency services and with Spain’s military emergency unit (UME), which worked non-stop on Sunday to clear stranded vehicles from the road.

However, De la Serna said the government had only been informed of the situation after the fact, and would now see if the road operator had failed to comply with protocols.

An Iberpistas spokesperson told EL PAÍS that it was standard procedure for the government to open an investigation “in these cases.”

But the public works minister noted that on state-operated roads like A1, the traffic situation in the same snowy conditions “had been resolved” without the kind of problems that affected the AP-6. De la Serna attributed the trouble to the heavy snowfall that was recorded after Iberpistas had already closed off the road to traffic, then reopened it after clearing blocked lanes. “The problem arose with the intense snowfall,” he said.

In response to criticism about the lack of information, the minister said the DGT had been providing weather updates for several days. The DGT also said on Sunday that it had been warning drivers for several days about the expected snowfall with roadside information boards.

Alerts for minimum temperatures active on Monday.

Drivers trapped on the AP-6 “either did not find out about these warnings, or did not take the necessary precautions” given that many cars were traveling “without tire chains,” a fact also noted by Iberpistas.

“Things happen when there are extreme, adverse conditions,” said government spokesperson Íñigo Méndez de Vigo after supporting the executive over its handling of the situation.

But the leader of the Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez, said the Public Works ministry and the DGT must provide “explanations” for the “absolute lack of planning” after the “chaos” on Spanish roads, which saw “families trapped overnight in the cars.”

Íñigo Errejón, a deputy with the anti-austerity party Podemos, also highlighted the lack of planning and the “poor management of the [ruling] Popular Party.”

On Monday, DGT boss Gregorio Serrano admitted he had been in the southern city of Seville during the weekend traffic crisis but defended his actions. “I have not thought about resigning because I have no reason to do so,” he told radio station Cadena SER, noting that internal management of the privately-operated AP-6 tollway was not a DGT responsibility.

English version by George Mills.

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