Trains are the rugged workhorses of U.S. freight and passenger transport, but as reliable as they are, rail crash incidents do happen, and when they do, the results are often tragic. It’s not difficult to imagine why, as trains possess far greater mass than anything on the road and can obliterate anything that strays in front of them, including cars and even commercial trucks. The staggering reality of these accidents has prompted action by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is responsible for maintaining train safety. However, the FRA’s demands for additional safety measures have received pushback from companies operating trains, and this obstinance has likely resulted in additional accidents and injuries.
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON CAUSES OF A RAIL CRASH?
On the road, driver error is responsible for more than 80% of all traffic accidents. Human error is a constant threat among train operators as well, and accounts for the majority of accidents in the industry. Some of the most frequent instances of operator error include:
- Failure to latch a track switch or to lock the switch once it is latched.
- Pushing train cars down the track without having someone monitoring the area ahead for any obstacles. This is known as “providing point protection.”
- Not lining up track switches correctly, resulting in improper latching.
- When pushing train cars down the track, failing to keep this movement under complete control at all times.
- Allowing cars to obstruct other trains, usually at spots where adjacent tracks converge.
- Not removing a derail when it is encountered.
An alert, attentive engineer will be able to reliably avoid these common sources of human error, but fatigue can remove an operator’s ability to notice and assess emerging threats. The National Sleep Foundation organized a survey with thousands of train operators, and found that 2/3 claim they do not get a good night’s sleep very often. The survey also found that nearly 20% of operators have had a near-miss due to their fatigue.
A rail crash, no matter how it is caused, can produce devastating results. The FRA maintains records on all train crashes throughout the year, and in 2015, there were 11,305 train accidents. Of them, 8,530 resulted in injury, while 792 resulted in fatalities. The rate of accidents involving injury or death is much higher for trains than it is for any other vehicles.
The FRA has attempted to combat this by pushing for Positive Train Control (PTC). In 2008, the Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, and one of its stipulations was that train operators must install PTC on its lines by the end of 2015. That has not come to pass, as many operators have pushed back and asked for deadline extensions. PTC uses modern communications technology and automation to prevent serious accidents, such as derailments and train to train wrecks.
Although trains are only popular for commuter travel in specific transportation corridors, they continue to circulate important freight shipments throughout the United States. Because they represent a major threat to other vehicles and pedestrians, they need to be handled by operators who are alert and armed with technology that prevents rail crashes and saves lives.