Are US Railways Safe?

This May, a Pennsylvania Amtrak train going 106 mph careened off the tracks, killing eight people and injuring 200. It’s easy for commuters to feel the pit of fear in their stomachs every time another passenger train accident occurs. Transportation experts maintain that the railroads are perfectly safe, while news outlets emphasize the need for change. Americans traveling by rail reasonably want to know: “ARE America’s railways safe to travel?” However, the truth is difficult to sort out from the statistics, as these crashes involve so many moving parts.

Train accident statistics

According to CS Monitoronly five people died in Amtrak accidents from 2005 to 2014. There are only 0.5 deaths per billion miles traveled on Amtrak and commuter rail lines put together. When you compare that to the six deaths per billion miles for car and truck travel, railroads are looking generally safe.

To put things into perspective, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told NBC News they’ve carried 300 million passengers since the 1987 crash in Maryland that killed 16 people without a single incident until the most recent crash that killed eight.

Washington Post data expert Christopher Ingraham reports that Amtrak has experienced fewer accidents in recent years, from 2000 to 2014:

  • Total accident rate per million passenger miles: Dropped from 4.1 to 1.7
  • Derailments: Dropped from 80 to 28
  • Track problem related accidents: Dropped by two-thirds
  • Human error related accidents: Dropped by over half
  • Equipment problem related accidents: Negligible rise
  • Fatalities are rare, typically in the single digits each year.

“Taken together, these numbers suggest that Amtrak is making progress on track repair and on better training its operators and putting better safety standards in place.”

Although reported injuries are technically “on the rise,” Ingraham implies that these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. Increasing ridership and trains running at fuller capacity contributes to higher accident statistics. Furthermore, the statistics of FDA injuries “includes all injuries that befall a passenger on a train… things like heart attacks, or to a person falling on a train after losing balance.”

Train accident lawyers say some stretches of US railway are safer than others

“Many of the statistics cited are national and do not reflect the dangers commuters face in their own backyards,” remind Long Island railroad accident attorneys Edelman, Krasin & Jaye. “The New York City metro has 10 of the most dangerous railroad crossings in America, including six on Long Island alone.”

There are many factors that increase the risk factor, including the prevalence of high speed commuter trains passing through dense population areas at speeds up to 80 miles per hour, as well as the fact that there are still 2,677 at grade crossings controlled only by primitive lights, gates and bells in New York.

“It can cost $40 million to update a dangerous stretch of track, so it’s likely we’ll be filing many more Long Island train accident lawsuits in the years to come,” the New York attorneys add.

US vs. European rail lines: a comparative safety analysis

One could also argue that comparing train accidents to motor vehicle crashes is like comparing apples to oranges. A better portrait of US railway safety can be gathered by comparing American and European train systems. The American Enterprise Institute completed such a comparison in 2012.

Author Kevin A. Hassett writes, “Based on data spanning the period 2004-12, for example, to expect one transit-related injury, a passenger would need to ride the French railroad for 4.9 million miles or the German railroad for 4.1 million miles. Yet he would need to ride America’s railroads for only 84,300 miles, on average, to sustain one injury.”

He adds, “Even the worst rail systems in Europe are superior to the Amtrak-dominated American railroad system” – with the one exception being Lithuania, which is “comparatively dangerous.” He recommends ending federal subsidies to Amtrak, allowing the company to liquidate, and letting private enterprises step in to buy and fix up individual stations and routes.

Eliminating variables that lead to train accidents

A large scale shakedown of the railroad industry may be in the distant future, but for now, the discussion is centering on ways to eliminate the variables leading to these freak train accidents:

  • SPEED: The NY Times points out that the latest accident marks the second time in two years in which “a passenger train traveling well above its speed limit has derailed, leaving a trail of death and injuries.” The derailed train was going 106 mph around a 50 mph curve for reasons unknown. “And for the second time, existing technology that might have prevented the accident was missing,” the newspaper stated. Though Amtrak has installed positive train control technology on parts of its rail network, it was not available on that heavily-trafficked stretch of Pennsylvania track. Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters the accident would not have occurred, had the system been installed on that section of rail. “The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that railroads design a PTC system that would automatically slow or stop a train,” says Philadelphia railroad attorney James J. McEldrew III, adding: “Now it’s time to fulfill the federal mandate before another tragedy strikes and more lives are lost.”
  • CROSSINGS: The Federal Railroad Administration says at-grade railroad crossings are involved in about 270 fatalities each year. These crossings have red-and-white gates that come down on either side of the road to warn drivers of oncoming trains. Thomas Johnson, president of the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants and Investigators told The Scientific American a better alternative is a grade separation crossing, where the train or the cars go over the other on an overpass. At the very least, an additional set of gate arms, known as a “squad gate,” can make it more difficult for cars to drive around and get stuck on the tracks. Fatalities at crossings have decreased by 54 percent as the systems are slowly updated. “We have thousands of crossings, so you’re not going to fix them overnight,” Johnson says. There is much work to be done in trimming brush and trees, repairing broken lights, and eliminating buildings that obstruct a motorist’s view of oncoming trains. “It’s a teeter-totter effect between how much convenience you want and how much safety,” he explains.
  • HUMAN ERROR: David Clarke, a railroad expert at the University of Tennessee, warns, “We’re depending heavily on the human engineer to correctly obey and interpret the signals that he sees and also speed limits and other operating requirements.” Human error is a big problem in places like New Jersey, where 58 percent of the 611 train derailments over the past 20 years involved mistakes made by train operators. This type of accident occurs at twice the national rate, “occurring an average of more than once a month.” Some say that is all the more reason to prioritize technology that automatically controls speed and other variables on the trains.