Amtrak 188 crash: How safe are America’s trains?

May 14, 2015, 9:57 AM UTC
APTOPIX Amtrak Crash
A crime scene investigator looks inside a train car after a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
Photograph by Joseph Kaczmarek — AP

For the 238 passengers and 5 crew aboard Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 between Washington to New York, which derailed north of Philadelphia Tuesday evening, train travel was not a safe mode of transportation. At least seven people were killed and 200 were injured in the accident.

But if you’re wondering if commuting by rail in the United States is safe, it turns out there’s a more reassuring answer. Train travel is relatively safe — almost as safe as air travel. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes detailed historical safety information by mode of transport that suggests rail travel is not accident-prone, even when you include fatalities at highway-grade crossings and trespassers.

Aviation claimed 447 lives in 2012, the last year for which statistics were available. There were a total of 11,855 railroad incidents in 2014, including 813 fatalities, according to the government. That compares with 11,588 incidents and 707 deaths the year before.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis has detailed safety data that paints a more nuanced picture of rail safety. A deep dive into the numbers by the Washington Post also suggests train travel is reasonably safe. “Train is probably the safest mode of transportation we have in America,” says Rick Campbell, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based CTC, Inc., which specializes in railroad crossing safety and technology.

Several high-profile rail accidents have raised questions about the safety of trains, but he says travelers need to put the numbers into perspective. Statistically, America’s highways are far more dangerous, and a single road accident with 7 fatalities would not cause this much soul-searching.

Critics, however, say the American rail system can do better. “We’re less safe than every other rail system in the developed world,” says Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies, American Enterprise Institute. “We have a really, really sub-par railroad system, when it comes to safety.”

Hassett recently conducted a study on worldwide rail safety, which concluded U.S. rail safety was so dangerous compared with the rest of the developed world, that he had problems putting it on a chart (he eventually did).

For example, in order to be injured on a train, a passenger would need to ride the French railroad for 4.9 million miles or the German railroad for 4.1 million miles. But you’d need to ride America’s railroads for only 84,300 miles, on average, to sustain one injury, his report concluded. Adjusted for passenger miles traveled, Amtrak’s passengers get injured 58 times as often as those on French railroads.

Andrew Dupont, a partner at the Locks Law Firm in Philadelphia, which represents clients in transportation-related cases, agrees that rail operators can do better.

“Trains can be safe if they are properly operated on railways that are properly maintained and if hazardous materials are transported away from residential areas and in appropriate containers that prevent releases of toxic chemicals,” he says. “However, what we are seeing are a number of inadequate protections or outright safety failures that are placing communities at risk.”

Amtrak declined to comment on its safety record. A representative referred me to a statement that said, it would be “inappropriate” to comment as it investigates the derailment. It added, “We are supporting fully with the NTSB and other agencies as part of the ongoing incident investigation.”

Meanwhile, some passengers — especially those who rely on trains to get to work — are concerned. Carolyn Stone, a regular commuter on the Long Island Railroad from Nassau County to Manhattan, says a February rail accident in New York’s Westchester County already had her focused on rail safety. In that incident, a commuter train collided with an SUV, killing 6 and injuring 15.

“I think about where I’m sitting on the train,” she says,” says Stone. “I wonder whether I should avoid sitting in the first car. I also look around at the windows and thought of how to exit in an emergency and mitigate potential death, dismemberment or other injury.”

Interestingly, where you sit on a train doesn’t really matter, says David Jackson, a physics professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “No seat is more safe than the rest,” he adds. “In theory, in the case of a head-on collision between two trains, the back is generally safer since the front cars will absorb more impact; however, in the event of a train derailment, all bets are off.”

That seems to be the takeaway: Trains are safe but they could be safer. Indeed, according to a Reuters report late Wednesday, investigators confirmed that Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 was operating without an advanced safety technology that can prevent high-speed derailments. The system, known as “positive train control” can automatically slows or stop trains that are moving too fast or heading into a danger zone.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who rode Amtrak every week before this incident and said he plans to ride again when the the Northeast Corridor reopens, told Fortune via email that Amtrak needs better funding, to prevent a future rail disaster.

“There is significant room for improvement,” he said, adding that he was committed to “not just maintaining, but expanding our investment in Amtrak.”