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Train derailments like the Montana incident are rare, but other railroad-related deaths are on the rise

Over the past decade, three Amtrak derailments have resulted in 14 passenger deaths, including last Saturday’s crash in Montana

Workers stand Sept. 26 near toppled cars from an Amtrak train that derailed a day earlier. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

It’s been a week since an Amtrak train derailed in rural Montana, killing three people and injuring dozens more. Federal investigators are working to determine what caused the derailment, which halted freight and passenger service for days.

Images showing train cars decoupled as others landed on their side raised a question for unsettled travelers: How often does this happen?

According to experts and federal rail incident data, such occurrences — already rare — are becoming even less frequent.

“Derailments that involve passenger injuries or fatalities are extremely rare,” said Allan Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware. “But does the very rare one happen? Yes. But again, it’s a very, very low probability event.”

Industry-wide, derailments themselves aren’t uncommon, but most don’t result in injuries. Amtrak derailments make up about 2 percent of all train derailment involving major railroads across country — a small share partly because the passenger operation accounts for a fraction of train traffic nationwide.

In the last decade, Amtrak has averaged 24 derailments annually, according to data reported to the Federal Railroad Administration. That number is down from about 43 derailments that occurred annually over the previous decade.

The vast majority cause no injury or death, according to the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis. Most are the result of track, mechanical or human factors, such as improperly lined switches, track problems, speeding and issues related to snow, ice or mud on tracks.

In his book “Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters,” University of North Dakota mechanical engineering professor George Bibel describes most derailments as “relatively benign, and can be compared to a person walking down the street, tripping, getting back up, and continuing on her or his way.”

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Amtrak’s recent fatal derailments

Over the past decade, three major Amtrak derailments have resulted in 14 passenger deaths, including Saturday’s crash in Montana.

More than half of those victims were traveling in the Northeast Regional train that veered off the tracks in Philadelphia in 2015, Amtrak’s worst crash in more than 20 years. The train derailed after hitting a 50 mph curve at 106 mph. Eight people died and more than 200 were injured. National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded the engineer thought he was entering the curve that followed, where the speed limit was 110 mph.

Less than three years later, three people were killed and 65 injured when an Amtrak train making its inaugural trip on a new service from Seattle to Portland, Ore., derailed near Dupont, Wash. Amtrak Cascades Train 501 was crossing an overpass when it derailed, toppling cars onto one of the busiest highways on the West Coast. The engineer entered a 30 mph curve too fast due to his inadequate training on the route and the equipment, an NTSB investigation concluded.

Both crashes prompted massive investigations and renewed calls for implementation of the automatic braking system known as positive train control (PTC). The NTSB said the Washington state and Philadelphia crashes could have been avoided if PTC had been installed.

Railroads near full implementation of lifesaving automatic-braking technology

The system automatically applies the brakes if a train is exceeding speed limits. It also can prevent a train from entering the wrong track if a switch is left in the wrong position. And, it can prevent rear-end and head-on collisions by keeping two trains off the same track. PTC rolled out in December 2020 across all U.S. railroads, becoming one of the most consequential investments in rail safety technology.

In north-central Montana, investigators are working to determine the cause of the Sept. 25 derailment. The Empire Builder train was on its way from Chicago to Seattle with 141 passengers and 17 crew members. Nearly a week after the crash, the NTSB has offered no clues about what could have gone wrong, saying the train was traveling just below the 79 mph speed limit when eight of its 10 train cars derailed.

“It is extremely early in the investigation,” NTSB spokesman Keith Halloway said. “NTSB continues to look at everything.”

The NTSB this week interviewed crew members and was planning to wrap up the on-site investigation this weekend. It is expected to issue a preliminary report within 30 days of the crash.

“If there is a root cause that can be addressed, there will be changes,” Zarembski said.

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More deadly types of crashes

Less than 1 percent of railroad incidents that result in death occur because of a derailment, according to an analysis from the Eno Center for Transportation. The two leading causes of fatalities on America’s railroads involve trespassing on railroad property and trains colliding with vehicles.

Those fatal incidents are on an upward trend since 2012, reversing decades of progress, according to the report “Safer Railroading: A Guide Toward Targeted Safety Policy.”

Since 1990, there has been a 60 percent decrease in railroad safety incidents, according to federal data analyzed by Eno. While fatalities declined by 45 percent from 1991 to 2012, the report found incidents that resulted in death are up 31 percent since 2012.

About 16 people are killed in rail crossing and trespassing incidents each week — up from 12 in 2012, according to Eno’s research.

NTSB urges railroads to boost safety measures for workers on the rails

Other incidents, including crashes in work zones and those involving railroad workers, also have drawn attention. The NTSB this week urged railroads to boost safety measures for rail workers. The agency investigated eight accidents involving railroad and transit worker fatalities last year.

While trespassing and rail crossing incidents make up less than one-third of the safety incidents reported by railroads, they are responsible for 97 percent of fatalities, according to the Eno report.

“The response that we’re seeing to the Montana crash is showing that the existing standards that we have are in some respects working. We’re going to try to find the root cause and a solution to it,” said Paul Lewis, policy director at the Eno Center and author of the report. “But we also have to remember that fatalities are occurring on a regular basis and those don’t make national headline.”

Few incidents draw national attention, such as in 2018 when a train carrying Republican members of Congress slammed into a garbage truck at a rural railroad crossing in Virginia, killing a passenger in the truck.

The FRA last year ordered 40 states and the District to implement highway-rail grade crossing action plans, while requiring 10 states that already had developed plans to report how they are implementing them. All states are required to report progress early next year.

The infrastructure package in Congress could improve safety, industry leaders say, with $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants, as well as another $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.

But they say a more coordinated effort is necessary to reduce opportunities for people and vehicles to enter the path of trains. At least 30 percent of rail fatalities involve suicides, according to federal data.

“We can do all kinds of things to make the gates more secure and the signaling better,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association. Another solution would be to eliminate rail crossings altogether, he said.

“The train is still a very, very safe way of travel,” he said. “It could be safer and I think we owe it to the traveling public to make it safer.”