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The Most Common Train Accident Causes

Railroad tracks

On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak train bound for New York derailed at a sharp bend in north Philadelphia. Eight people aboard Amtrak 188 were killed and over 200 other people sustained injuries in the train accident.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the train was going over 100 miles-per-hour in a zone with a posted speed limit of 50 miles-per-hour. The NTSB spent a year investigating why Amtrak 188 derailed and found that the train’s engineer took the curve with too much speed because he was distracted by radio transmissions and lost situational awareness.

In the Amtrak 188 train accident, human error cost eight people their lives. But is human error the most common issue among train accident causes?

Discovering Train Accident Causes

According to the Scientific American, 54,889 of the 58,299 train accidents in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were train derailments. That means that 94 percent of all train accidents are derailments.

Most train derailments do not cause serious injuries or deaths, like the Amtrak 188 derailment. This is because most trains traveling in the U.S. are carrying cargo, not passengers, and most train track miles cover rural, unpopulated areas.

George Bibel, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of North Dakota and author of the book “Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters,” characterizes most train derailments as “relatively benign,” comparing a typical derailment to someone walking along a street, falling down, then getting back up and continuing on their way.

Still, train accidents that don’t result in any injuries can still have serious consequences, as evidenced by the sharp rise in oil train crashes. In 2014, an oil train hauling 9,000 tons of crude oil derailed at a curve along the Kiskiminetas River in western Pennsylvania. Twenty-one tanker cars derailed in the accident, spilling out an estimated 4,300 gallons of oil.

In 2015, an oil train derailed in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, resulting in a massive oil spill and several large fireball explosions. A total of 378,000 gallons of oil were spilled, and the post-derailment fire burned for four days, destroying a home and forcing over 1,000 local residents to evacuate the area.

On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific oil train derailed in the Columbia River Gorge near the Oregon-Washington border, releasing an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil and sparking a massive fire that took 14 hours to put out.

Aside from creating serious environmental catastrophes, these accidents all have one thing in common: they were all caused by track failure.

Broken Rails and Welding Are the Most Common Cause of Train Accidents

According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), broken rails and welding are the most common cause of train accidents in the U.S. Broken rails and welding are the cause of over 15 percent of all train derailments. They are twice as likely to cause derailments as the second and third leading causes—track geometry, which includes train alignment, gauge and elevation issues (7.3 percent), and bearing failure (5.9 percent).

Other common train accident causes:

  • Broken Wheels – 5.2 percent
  • Train Handling – 4.6 percent
  • Wide Gauge – 3.9 percent
  • Obstructions – 3.5 percent
  • Buckled Track – 3.4 percent
  • Track-Train Interaction – 3.4 percent
  • Other Axel / Journal Defects – 3.3 percent

According to FRA statistics, track failure accounted for nearly 44.9 percent of all train accidents between January of 2000 and February of 2015. It may come as a surprise to some, but human error only accounted for 28.9 percent of all train accidents over the same time period.

In a review of 31 oil train crashes between 2013 and 2015, roughly 59 percent were caused by track failures. Of those crashes, roughly two-thirds resulted in oil spills, fires, or explosions.

Rail safety experts are currently looking into whether the weight and movements of oil trains are leading to more and more track failures. In the coming years, it is likely that the volume of oil trains traversing the country is only going to increase, so it is all the more vital that we understand the problems and come up with suitable ways to fix them.

Some have suggested that more vigorous visual inspections of track would help eliminate track failure derailments. This summer, federal investigators blamed Union Pacific for the June 3 Oregon crash, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track.

Railroad companies own their own track and are thus responsible for both maintenance and regular inspections. Sarah Feinberg, the administrator for the FRA, says the agency asked the rail industry in 2012 for recommendations on setting new standards to address track safety, but both sides have failed to reach any sort of consensus on the subject.

This is not to say that some railroads aren’t investing in their own infrastructure. After all, it is in their best interest to ensure that they don’t lose money on freight damaged in a train derailment. BNSF, for example, spent $5 billion on maintaining its own track in 2014.

This comes in stark contrast to government-owned Amtrak, which has been notoriously underfunded for years. Amtrak’s lack of funding has led to an increasingly deteriorating track, especially in the Northeast Corridor, where the Amtrak 188 derailment happened. Congressional failure to address this issue, and provide adequate funding could have disastrous consequences for passengers, not to mention the potential legal liability of Amtrak.

The Amtrak 188 accident reminded us of just how costly human error is. When the government determined the cause of the crash, it created a firestorm of calls for tighter train safety regulation, including the need for technology like positive train control (PTC), which safety experts agree would have prevented the crash. That firestorm did result in the installation and activation of PTC over track that should have been protected long before. It should not take a disaster, and the resulting public outcry, to force safety improvements that the railroad itself acknowledges saves lives.

PTC will go a long way toward eradicating human error related train accident causes. Though if we lack regulation to ensure high standards for the nation’s railroad tracks, we will continue to see more and more track failure derailments.

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