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Spain’s train crash was a rare aberration for Europe’s ultra-safe rail system

An injured man sits next to the body of a victim of the Spanish train accident outside Santiago de Compostela. (AFP/La Voz de Galicia/Xoan Soler)

Wednesday night's tragic train derailment in northern Spain killed at least 80 people and will likely prompt serious talks about rail safety, as another recent accident did in Quebec. But incidents like this one tend to obscure one very important point: Trains remain one of the safest ways to travel in Europe, where millions of euros have been sunk into rail safety and infrastructure.

In fact, the most recent safety report from the European Railway Agency -- the E.U. office that, since 2006, has championed rail integration and audited safety of European railways -- complained that the agency has struggled to further reduce passenger casualties in recent years, simply because they are so low already.

As this first chart shows, trains are far, far safer than most other forms of transportation within Europe and about as safe as air travel. You're 30 times more likely to be involved in an accident while riding in a car in Europe than you are while riding in a train, for example:

A study of the train accident rate within the European Union over time shows that the rate of fatal incidents has been declining steadily and is currently hovering around one incident per billion train kilometers traveled. And the report states that many of these actually involve cars crossing train tracks, not mass derailments like the one in Spain on Wednesday.

Here's the passenger fatality data across all European countries, with Spain highlighted. Spain’s passenger fatality risk is almost double the E.U. average but, to be fair, that risk is still quite low.

The very low rate of accidents helps to make sense of this chart showing the raw numbers of significant railway incidents in Europe:

That doesn’t mean that people don’t die in railway accidents, of course. In 2011, the ERA recorded 1,183 fatalities in roughly 2,300 accidents across the E.U. But 98 percent of those fatalities were what the ERA calls “external victims” -- non-passengers who got in the train’s way, either by mistake or as part of a suicide -- and the remaining 38 died mostly in places such as Poland, which has struggled to modernize its safety system, or Germany, which has more than five times as many train tracks as a country like Spain.

Spain in particular has a solid safety record, with only 24 passenger fatalities and 218 incidents between 2008 and 2011. There were 36 train derailments between ‘08 and ‘11, compared to 23 in Italy and 38 in Britain, which both have twice as much rail traffic.

Spain has been cited for one railway-safety problem: Of all the reporting countries, it has the lowest deployment of level crossings, those bars that prevent cars from crossing a railroad track when a train is coming. But that, of course, has no relation to Wednesday’s fatal derailment. Preliminary investigations suggest that resulted from the train’s speed -- between 89 and 119 miles per hour on a curve with a 50 mph speed limit.