What’s Causing All These Train Accidents?

train derailed

Commuting by train is much safer than traveling by car, but you might not know that from all the train accidents in the news lately. It seems as if a month doesn’t pass by without another high-profile train accident that leads to injuries or deaths.

Most recently, a collision in South Carolina killed two train operators, but that’s just the latest in a string of deadly train accidents going back to 2015. What’s causing these accidents, how can they be prevented in the future?

Despite the headlines, commuting by train is still significantly less dangerous than commuting by car. More than 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2017, according to an estimate by the National Safety Council. On the other hand, there were a total of 828 train related fatalities in 2017, according to the Federal Railroad Association.

Dr. Allan Zarembski, a railway civil engineering and safety expert from the University of Delaware, also doesn’t believe the number of headlines accurately represent train safety trends. “Statistically, there has not been a significant upturn in safety issues in the railway industry,” he told Vice News in an interview.

“If you look at the ten-year trends, the recent trends, and the long-term trends, safety is on a consistent improvement basis,” said Dr. Zarembski. “Do we occasionally have a hiccup where you have a small period of time where you have an upsurge? In some cases, yes. But there doesn't seem to be something fundamental in the industry.”

Now appears to be one of the “hiccup” periods Dr. Zarembski mentioned. However, commuters are still understandably concerned about train safety given the number of headlines devoted to high-profile train accidents. It may be worth looking into what can be done to avoid similar “hiccups” in the future.

The Most Recent Train Accidents and Their Causes

The most recent headline-grabbing train accident happened just outside Columbia, South Carolina early on February 5. The Amtrak commuter train was heading to New York City when it was mistakenly switched onto the wrong track and collided with a stationary cargo train.

The crash killed the the Amtrak train engineer and one of its conductors, in addition to spilling thousands of gallons of fuel. The sequence of events that caused the accident are still unclear, but preliminary news reports suggest a switch was mistakenly left in the wrong position and diverted the passenger train onto the wrong track.

That accident happened less than a month after a different Amtrak train carrying members of Congress to a retreat in Virginia collided with a garbage truck on the tracks. The collision killed one of the truck’s passengers and injured two others. Several people on the train were injured as well, according to The New York Times. The accident is believed to have been caused by the truck driver, who attempted to go around the railroad crossing gates after they were down.

Aside from collisions, another type of train accident is a derailment. The most recent derailment happened in December 2017, when a train making the inaugural journey on a new route between Seattle and Portland derailed, killing three people and injuring about 80 others.

The accident happened when the train entered a curve in the tracks while going far above the speed limit, causing it to derail. At the time of the derailment, part of the train was going over a highway overpass and a portion of the train toppled onto the crowded highway below.

Such high-speed derailments are not all that common, but a similar accident occurred in Hoboken in September, 2016. The accident occurred during the morning rush hour at one of the busiest train terminals in the New York metro area.

As the New Jersey Transit train approached the station, it failed to slow down and hit the bumper block at the end of track. The train went over the barrier and through the rail concourse, coming to a halt just before hitting a wall in the station’s waiting area. It was later revealed the train operator had undiagnosed sleep apnea, which may have been the cause of the accident.

Philadelphia was the site of another deadly train accident the same year, when a Savannah, Georgia bound train plowed into a railroad backhoe parked on the tracks. The two workers operating the backhoe were killed and dozens of the train’s passengers were injured.

That accident was initially reported to be the result of miscommunication, but it was later revealed one of the track workers killed had taken oxycodone and the other had taken cocaine, while the train engineer had marijuana in his system, according to The Washington Post.

Philadelphia was also the site of a deadly crash in 2015. This time, a New York City bound train pulled out of 30th Street Station barreling at 100 mph into a 50 mph turn, derailing the train. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured.

Amtrak eventually settled with the crash’s victims for $265 million. The derailment was reportedly caused by the train’s engineer, who was distracted by news of another train and lost his bearings.

Based on the information about all these accidents, it seems there are a variety of train accident types and causes. Some accidents involve collisions with something on the track while others involve the train derailing because it was going too fast. Others can be attributed to human factors such as miscommunication, drug use, and fatigue.

Is there anything being done to make sure such factors don’t lead to another accident?

There is no one-stop-shop solution for train accidents, but there are a number of measures that train safety advocates have pushed for to help lower the number of train accidents and derailments in our country:

Positive Train Control Can Help Prevent Speeding Accidents

The number one proposed solution for eliminating speeding-related train accidents is installing an automatic braking system known as positive train control. The system works by embedding transponders in track beds about every two miles and programmed with speed limits for the next stretch of track, according to the New York Times.

When trains pass over the transponders, they calculate the train’s speed. If the train is going too fast, the transponders sends a signal to the engineer, who has a short time to respond. If the engineer takes too long to respond or fails all together, the PTC system will slow or stop the train.

PTC was supposed to be installed on all train tracks nationwide by 2016, but Congress has extended the deadline and PTC is still not close to being installed everywhere. The industry cites the cost — an estimated $10 billion — and complexity of installing the life saving system on every track, but have gladly spent money on new trains, stations, and passenger amenities since Congress first mandated PTC be installed nationwide, according to the New York Times.

There are limitations to PTC though, and it won’t be able to stop every train accident.

“Positive train control is designed to prevent overspeed accidents such as the Washington State one (in 2017) and the one in Philadelphia (in 2015),” Dr. Zarembski told Vice News.

However, he went on to say, “Positive train control has absolutely no effect whatsoever on the vast majority of track-caused derailments or equipment-caused derailments, which represent between 50 and 60 percent of all derailments. Is positive train control a means of preventing certain classes of accidents? Absolutely. Is positive train control going to prevent all types of accidents? Absolutely not.”

Train Operator Screening Can Help Reduce Human Error Train Accidents

So what can be done to prevent the rest of train accidents, such as collisions with other trains and objects on the tracks?

Improved communication between railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and train crews will certainly prevent some accidents, but making sure companies have sober and alert employees may be among the most important accident prevention methods.

Sleep apnea must be considered a serious concern after it potentially caused the 2016 train accident in Hoboken and a separate incident in Brooklyn three months later, according to the New York Times.

Additionally, a new drug screening protocol that now screens for opiates should help prevent victims of the opioid crisis from operating trains and holding other transportation jobs. The previous drug screening protocol was introduced in the late ‘80s, which left gaps in the screening for semi-synthetic opiates like oxycodone that are far more prevalent now.

However, until a technology comes along that can prevent all train accidents, there will always be a risk to taking the train.

Injured in a Train Accident or Derailment?

When you get on a train, you trust that it will be operated safely by a trained and alert individual. However, as much as train companies may try, accidents continue to happen. If you were involved in a train accident, one of our attorneys may be able to help you recover compensation for your injuries, pain and suffering, among other damages.

You have a limited amount of time to file a train accident claim, so time is of the essence. To learn how a train accident attorney may be able to help you, fill out our free, no-risk case evaluation form today.

By caitlinw