Passenger trains safer way to travel than cars

Riding the rails.Amtrak photo via Facebook
Riding the rails.
Amtrak photo via Facebook

Many Americans are worried about the safety of train travel in the wake of last week’s deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. But statistically, driving to the train station is more dangerous than riding the train.

“Notwithstanding Amtrak’s Philadelphia tragedy, which Amtrak has acted to ensure will not be repeated, trains are a very safe way to travel — far safer than the private automobile,” said Ross Capon, consultant and president emeritus of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “Indeed, the most important safety statistic in transportation is the huge difference between the automobile and all forms of public transportation.”

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, of the 35,594 transportation fatalities in 2012 in the United States, 33,782 occurred on the nation’s roads. Train fatalities accounted for 557 fatalities, with the vast majority of rail deaths being trespasser and grade-crossing accidents, not passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board reported 34,678 U.S. transportation fatalities in 2013 with 32,719 highway fatalities and 891 rail deaths.

The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York City, found that over the past 15 years in the United States, 55 train passengers were killed. But about 60 automobile drivers and passengers die in car crashes every day. And a 2013 study from Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage, published in the journal Research in Transportation Economics, found that between 2000 and 2009, a person was 17 times more likely to die in a car than in a train traveling the same distance.

Last year, Amtrak’s Acela Express and Northeast Regional services carried a record 11.6 million passengers along the Northeast Corridor, which stretches 453.3 miles from Boston to Washington.

Amtrak said in 2010 that it needs $52 billion for repairs and capacity expansion on the Northeast Corridor over the next 20 years to handle a projected 60 percent increase in commuter and intercity trips.

Some rail infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor dates back to the 19th century, including the sharp curve where Northeast Regional train 188 derailed last week, killing at least eight, including a Jewish midshipman and tech company executive.

“The track with the curve that caused the Amtrak derailment was laid down in the 1860s, during the Civil War,” history professor Albert Churella told the International Business Times.

Rail safety experts believe positive train control, or PTC, a safety system that slows or stops trains to avoid high-speed derailments, would have prevented the accident. In 2008, Congress mandated the installation of PTC by the end of 2015. But the railroad industry overall is behind schedule. However, Amtrak is on schedule to meet the deadline. After the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered Amtrak to install automatic train control, or ATC, a different technology than PTC, which is more comprehensive but also more expensive, in the area where the derailment occurred.

Proponents of high-speed rail have called for the Northeast Corridor to be supplemented by a new dedicated high-speed rail line with top speeds of 220 mph. The Japanese government is interested in exporting that country’s maglev (magnetic levitation) technology, with financial assistance in construction of a part of a maglev line that would whisk passengers from Washington to New York City in less than an hour at a top speed of more than 300 mph.

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Related: As Amtrak resumes service, communities cope with loss

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