The Amtrak train that derailed in May, killing eight and wounding more than 200, left plenty of frequent travelers wondering about the safety of railroad transportation.
Though airline crashes are often more visible and spectacularly awful, statistics tell us that rail travel is riskier than commercial air travel (which, in fact, is the safest form of long-distance transportation in the United States).
Thirteen people died in Amtrak accidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That number includes people hit by trains. Rankings in safety, according to a 2013 study published in Research in Transportation Economics, show the No. 1 riskiest mode of transportation is auto travel. The thousands of people killed in auto accidents beat rail travel accident numbers by a wide margin, but rail travel is still four times as dangerous as bus travel. And both are still less safe than airline travel.
Sadly, many high-profile rail accidents in recent news have been the result of human error, recklessness or sleep deprivation.
Remember that although rail accidents often claim more lives at a time than auto accidents, trains are still a relatively safe way to travel—and increased scrutiny of the rail industry may result in increased safety standards.
In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a safety advisory in June, calling for railroads to identify locations along their routes where trains need to reduce their speed by more than 20 miles per hour. The administration also called for additional signage alerting engineers of the maximum authorized train speed through the system, with particular emphasis at curve locations where significant speed reductions are required.
Personal safety tips
Operation Lifesaver, a not-for-profit public education program for consumers about the rail industry, cautions passengers to take these precautions:
- Stay alert. Never sit on the edge of a station platform or get close to it.
- Hold tight to poles or seats and be careful when getting on and off the train.
- Don’t leave your belongings unattended.
- Don’t cross tracks unless you’re at an explicitly marked crossing.
In addition, every traveler should adopt the Homeland Security motto, “If you see something, say something,” reporting suspicious activity or safety lapses that could harm you and your fellow travelers. Amtrak encourages travelers who notice something to speak with on-duty officers, station personnel or the train crew members. You can also call the 24-hour call center (800-331-0008) or 911 to report anything unusual aboard your train.
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