A string of spectacular, deadly train crashes around the globe has raised fresh questions about the safety of rail travel in the U.S. and abroad, and federal regulators have implemented new rules based on one of those accidents.
But a look at the safety records of America’s railroads shows that fiery derailments, collisions and other fatal incidents — like those in Spain, Canada, France and elsewhere in recent weeks — are increasingly rare.
“The record speaks for itself. Having said that, you want to look at every event and review it to see what you can learn from it,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director at the National Transportation Safety Board. “There is no question that [federal officials] are paying close attention to all of these accidents.”
U.S. train accidents declined by 43 percent from 3,019 in 2004 to 1,734 in 2012, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. While classified as “accidents,” many of those incidents were minor and resulted in no deaths or injuries.
The railroad administration last year reported 701 railway-related deaths, the vast majority of which involved pedestrians being struck at crossings or cars smashing into trains.
Nine people died last year as a direct result of “train accidents,” a definition that includes events such as derailments or train collisions, though those numbers do not include light rail or subways such as the Washington area’s Metro system.
Those figures pale in comparison with the number of deaths on U.S. highways each year. The NTSB says 32,367 lost their lives in automobile accidents in 2011. Putting the numbers into greater perspective, 758 people died in recreational boating accidents in 2011. Adding every form of marine accident, such as commercial fishing boats, brought the toll to only 800, the NTSB said.
Although the U.S. has the world’s safest railways, federal officials are reacting to recent events.
The Federal Railroad Administration two weeks ago issued an emergency order establishing new safety guidelines for trains carrying hazardous materials.
The move was a direct result of the July 6 crash in Canada, where a 73-car train carrying crude oil barreled through Lac-Megantic, Quebec and killed 47 people. The train had been left unattended overnight and its brakes failed to keep the cars from rolling into town and causing immense damage, death and injury.
The need to move massive amounts of natural gas and oil generated by hydraulic fracturing from the center of the continent to the coastal markets — and the prominent use of trains to move the fuel — has only intensified the debate.
Among other things, the new regulations stipulate that “no train or vehicles transporting specified hazardous materials can be left unattended on a mainline track or side track outside a yard or terminal, unless specifically authorized.”
Had such rules been followed in Canada, some analysts say, the Lac-Megantic disaster could have been prevented or its impact lessened. As much as 1.4 million gallons of oil were spilled into the town, and the company at fault — Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. — filed for bankruptcy protection late last week in Canada and the U.S.
The Quebec incident is just one recent accident that has rail regulators and the train industry under increased scrutiny.
On July 24 in northwestern Spain, nearly 80 people died in one of the worst crashes in recent European history. The train, which was going much faster than recommended, left the tracks as its driver talked on a cellphone to an onboard ticket inspector, highlighting perhaps the most significant danger on railways worldwide: operator error.
“It’s pretty straightforward. You had a guy going twice as fast as he should’ve on the phone leading to the crash which indicates that the rail line apparently doesn’t have a policy concerning the use of cellular devices while the train is in operation,” Mr. Goelz said.
Other recent accidents in Europe have put the focus on operator errors and on the lack of fully implemented safety systems.
On July 12, at least seven people died after a train derailed outside Paris and smashed into a station. On July 29, a driver was killed and dozens injured when two trains collided head-on in western Switzerland.
On Monday, the latest gruesome incident occurred as a train in Patna, India, plowed into a group of Hindu pilgrims at a crowded station in the eastern part of the country, killing at least 37 people, The Associated Press reported. A mob infuriated by the deaths beat the driver severely and set fire to coaches, officials said. The pilgrims thought they could force the train make an unscheduled stop to pick them up, and news reports said protesters blocked firefighters from the station in Dhamara Ghat, a small town in Bihar state, from attending to the wounded.
Those accidents could have been avoided with proper safeguards, said Lou Sanders, director of technical services at the American Public Transportation Association.
“The Europeans have a system which they call the European Train Control system. It’s a multilayered system that’s employed in some places but not in others. If it were fully deployed, some of their accidents would’ve been mitigated,” he said.
In the U.S., rail companies continue to put into place what is known as “positive train control,” which includes collision avoidance technology, speed restrictions under certain circumstances and other measures. The 2008 federal Railway Safety Improvement Act called for the system to be fully implemented by December 2015.
Much of the work has been completed, but an extension will be needed to achieve 100 percent compliance, Mr. Sanders said.
“Billions of dollars have been spent already and more is to come to deploy that system,” he said.
Even with those precautions, analysts say, accidents can never be eliminated entirely. The rail, airline and other transportation sectors have what is called the “swiss cheese” model, with holes in safety systems combined with operator error and other factors.
“Eventually the holes will line up just right and an error will come through. What you’re trying to do is eliminate as many of those holes as possible,” said Curtis Morgan, program manager and assistant research scientist at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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