Across the country each day many Americans use various means of rail transportation. In recent years we have experienced a wave of widely reported train accidents that are concerning to many and have resulted in significant injuries and fatalities. In 2008, the rate of accidents was 41.1 per million compared to 58.7 in 2017, where there were 12 fatalities. Over the last decade, train accidents that were not associated with roadway crossings or derailment are said to have dropped considerably.
D.C. Meets Rail Safety Requirement
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) implemented a process of state certification that requires compliance by April 15, 2019. This State Safety Oversight (SSO) Program will exclude those not certified from receiving any federal funding. The local Fire and Emergency Management Service currently manages the D.C. Streetcar network. FTA Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams recently announced that D.C. was the first in the nation to receive SSO certification. Approximately 30 states must be certified by the approaching April deadline.
Wave of Recent Train Accidents
- December 2017: A new Amtrak route in Washington State had a train reach 80 mph in a 30 mph stretch and drop several train cars that derailed onto the highway below killing three people.
- January 2018: Amtrak's Silver Meteor train near Savannah, Georgia had three cars derail as it was approaching a station stop.
- February 2018: Amtrak's train connecting New York and Miami was carrying 139 passengers when it struck a CSX freight train that was parked in Columbia, South Carolina resulting in two fatalities and over 100 injuries.
- February 2018: A high-speed Amtrak Acela train connecting D.C. and New York had two cars that broke from the train during a Tuesday morning commute.
Amtrak Problems & Investigation
With many investigations still underway by the National Transportation Safety Board, Amtrak withheld comments on the recent train accidents. They did acknowledge they were “saddened by the loss of life and injuries”. Richard Beall, a train operational safety expert, says the news has unfairly attributed all of the accidents specifically to Amtrak. He feels the investigations may reveal that liability also rests with others. He says some early indications suggest that external causes existed and thinks Amtrak is taking actions to “strengthen the safety of operations”.
The Industry Cites Improvements
Following the negative publicity, several railroad industry members have countered with data suggesting the industry has demonstrated improvements in train accident safety. The American Association of Railroads (AAR) says many of the published statistics regarding accidents are inaccurate and that rail safety is better than ever.
The AAR claims the rate of train derailments in 2016 reached an all-time low. They cite investments of $635 billion over the past 30 years to improve the structural and equipment aspects of operations. This spending translates to $27 billion per year allocated for maintenance and revitalization. Congress recently implemented requirements that “positive train control” systems be installed by the end of 2018. This allows for GPS controlled braking and incident alerts in the event of problems.