train vs air vs road safety

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cp

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The two recent Amtrak mini-derailments bring up the important issue of transportation safety. People don't really mind delays, but safety is another matter. We all know that air travel is safer than driving, but where stands rail?

I have a sense that European Rail travel is probably safer than air travel, but what about Amtrak? Amtrak carries probably less than 1% of the airlines' passenger volume, and yet there has been almost as many derailments as air accidents in the past 15 years (that I can remember), excluding Sept 11. Does anyone know where to find some hard data about rail, air and road safety? I am interested in fatality rate per 100 million miles travelled (the usual way to measure safety). Thanks!
 
C

cp

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This is what I was able to find. Does not look good for Amtrak, even with the disclaimer in footnote 4. But these are raw counts, and I am not sure how many are Amtrak passenger fatalities. Does anyone know better data?

Stats
 

Trogdor

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I don't have that data handy. However, the problem with comparing "safety" of Amtrak vs. the airlines vs. road travel is that it's like comparing apples to oranges.

Fatalities per distance traveled is almost certainly going to favor the airlines because the airlines take people longer distances. The most dangerous part of the flight is takeoff and landing, and this is the case whether you're flying 500 miles or 5000 miles. Therefore, commercial air transport, aided by the many long-haul flights out there, is very likely going to have a much lower fatality rate, but that in and of itself doesn't necessarily measure "safety," per se.

Then one must also consider that most derailments are the railroad equivalent of fender-benders on the road (i.e. minor or no injuries, relatively minor damage to the equipment). I get the feeling that the two recent Amtrak derailments fall into this category.

Then we also need to consider which fatalities to include in the calculation. Does a suicide by railroad count in the totals? What about an impatient driver that races around the gates? Should that count as a railroad fatality, a highway fatality, or both? There was at least one incident in recent years (I think in 2002 or 2003) where a logging truck ignored the crossing, and an Amtrak engineer was killed when the train derailed after hitting the truck. Should that count against the railroad? Highway? Both? Other than that, there have only been two or three Amtrak derailments in the last few years in which there were passenger fatalities. I can think of the Auto Train in April, 2002, and the City of New Orleans in April, 2005. Perhaps I'm forgetting another one, but I'm not sure. In the AT incident, I believe four were killed, and, IIRC, there was only one fatality in the City incident. Excluding the Southwest jet that ran off the runway at Midway last year and killed a child riding in an automobile on a road near the airport, there has only been one fatal jet airliner accident in the US since September 11. However, that one incident alone killed around 265 people.

That said, to find data (if they are easily available), try the NTSB.
 

EmpireBuilderFan1976

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This is what I was able to find. Does not look good for Amtrak, even with the disclaimer in footnote 4. But these are raw counts, and I am not sure how many are Amtrak passenger fatalities. Does anyone know better data?
Stats
Fortunately, if you look closely at the information, those figures include non-passenger fatalies. Aside from that terrible Amtrak crash back in the 1980's I think it was, The Colonial in Maryland, I can't think of any Amtrak crashes that have produced more than a couple, if any passenger fatalities. I would say your chances of being in a train wreck verses an airplane crash are high. However your chances of survival in an airplane crash are just about 0, depending on the type of crash. Fortunately this is not the case if you are involved in a train crash/derailment. So I would say, statistically you are less likely to be in a crash while on an airplane. But I think in terms of accident/crash survival you are much safer on a train than in a car or on a plane. Just my 2 cents!
 

Trogdor

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This is what I was able to find. Does not look good for Amtrak, even with the disclaimer in footnote 4. But these are raw counts, and I am not sure how many are Amtrak passenger fatalities. Does anyone know better data?
Stats
I'd be willing to put money on the guess that close to 99% of the *rail* (not "Amtrak," but *rail*) fatalities were people that were not on the train (i.e. suicides, pedestrian strikes, vehicles ignoring crossings, etc.). For suicides, if someone's going to off him/herself, there's nothing much we can do about it; the train is only a means (an alternative to jumping off a bridge or putting a gun to one's own head). For pedestrian strikes or vehicles ignoring crossings, if people are going to ignore rules that are for their own safety, again, there's not much the railroad can do about it. I'd also point out that a good number of those fatalities are probably the result of freight trains hitting automobiles, pedestrians, etc. Then, in order to get a good comparison of the data, you'd have to have some measure such as fatality per 100 million ton-miles, or some useless measure like that.
 
C

cp

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I agree with all replies here. What we should look at is fatalities per takeoff in the case of airlines, and fatalities per mile travelled in the case of Amtrak, including only Amtrak passengers. I'll try to do some research over the next few weeks to see if I can put something together.

In the case of Amtrak accidents, a major one that occured about 10 years ago or so (from memory), and was not mentioned here, was the Sunset limited which collapsed into the Mississippi river after a boat stuck down the bridge just a few minutes before. Not Amtrak's fault, but a tragic accident nonetheless.

I also agree that most train wrecks are fender-bender in nature. But still, for my own pace of mind, I'd like to see some stats.
 

EmpireBuilderFan1976

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I agree with all replies here. What we should look at is fatalities per takeoff in the case of airlines, and fatalities per mile travelled in the case of Amtrak, including only Amtrak passengers. I'll try to do some research over the next few weeks to see if I can put something together.
In the case of Amtrak accidents, a major one that occured about 10 years ago or so (from memory), and was not mentioned here, was the Sunset limited which collapsed into the Mississippi river after a boat stuck down the bridge just a few minutes before. Not Amtrak's fault, but a tragic accident nonetheless.

I also agree that most train wrecks are fender-bender in nature. But still, for my own pace of mind, I'd like to see some stats.
I had forgotten about that particular accident!

Fortunately events like that on Amtrak are pretty rare.
 

RailFanLNK

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Someone once said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!" People at my work have talked about my "lack of fear" when it comes to death. Maybe cuz I beat cancer, maybe cuz I have lost four members in my immediate family. I'm not scared to go! PERIOD!!! Paralysis Through Analysis! My brother was killed in '79 in a small plane crash. I have never liked flying since then but have to if I want to have any kind of life. That is one reason when I rode Amtrak for the first time in March '06, I enjoyed it so much. So with these stats, are they talking about ALL planes or just airlines? I read about small planes crashing here in Nebraska almost monthly and I read about fatal car crashes every day. I very rarely read about a train derailing and people dying.......hardly ever! :blink:
 
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George Harris

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As all have said, the rail fatalities are probably 99.9% not passengers. Most are tresspassers. The Amtrak accidetn in Mobile Bay should more properly be attributed to a shipping accident, as it was the case of brdge knocked out of line by a barge piloted by a man that was lost who did not even knwo that he had hit a bridge. (not my opinion, the accident report.) The only other Amtrak accident with fatalitiies in the double digits that I can think of was Chase, MD, what almost 20 years ago, where a pothead engineer on a set of diesels ignored his cab signals, the wayside signals, the worning horn, ran over a switch set against him, and then we he realized he wa out on the main line, he stopped a matter of seconds before being hit by a train moving at just over 100 mph. Total fatalities, 13 of something like 300 passengers on the train if I recall correctly.

Public transport accident rates are all very low. So low that to attempt to apply statistical analysis is almost meaningless. Automobile accident fatality rates are higher by a factor of 10 at least. Private planes are somewhere in this area. Motorcycle accident fatality rates are something like 100 time automobile fatality rates.

In general we have carried the obsession on transport safety in public transport systems way past the point of diminshing returns. You are more at risk lying at home in bed.

George
 

sechs

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People need to keep in mind that, for passengers, rail accidents are rarely fatal; air accidents are usually catastrophic. I feel that it's been sufficiently proven that being on the road is, by far, the most dangerous of the three.
 

GG-1

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Aloha

I know this queston serious, but should mental factors enter into this. I find flying including the security checks very tireing, while the train is relaxing.

Just my 2 cents
 
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In the case of Amtrak accidents, a major one that occured about 10 years ago or so (from memory), and was not mentioned here, was the Sunset limited which collapsed into the Mississippi river after a boat stuck down the bridge just a few minutes before. Not Amtrak's fault, but a tragic accident nonetheless.
I also agree that most train wrecks are fender-bender in nature. But still, for my own pace of mind, I'd like to see some stats.


The crash you are refering to happened at "Big Bayou Canot" which is NW of Mobile AL. This crash was one of the worst in Amtrak's history. The towboat operator had made a wrong turn into those waters while operating barges in intense fog. Big Bayou Canot is not navigable, and as we already know the one barge struck the span shortly before "Sunset Limited" arrived onto the scene at full speed for the bridge. It simply was too late to do anything. It should be noted the wayside signals didn't drop from clear to stop because the continuous welded rails didn't break or separate at any joint. Fires were fueled by mass amounts of diesel fuel rising to the surface of the water as the locos (which had been topped off at NOL previously) sank into the water and muck of the bayou. We'll stop here. A simple Google search will yield more details to those who desire them.

Fortunately crashes similar to this one are few and far between. One is much safer on a train than they are in an automobile. One is even still safer in an airliner than an automobile. There are tighter safety protocols within agencies such as the FAA and the FRA as well as several others governing accordingly. The amount of automobile drivers compared to the amount of railroad and airline operating personel is substantially huge! Other than the trucking industry (for example) which mostly follows its outlined safety protocols, IMHO this means it is clear to me it is easier to find an unlawful or unsafe (licensed or unlicensed) driver at the wheel of a private vehicle than at the controls of a train or plane. So I personally would much rather take the train or fly before having to resort to driving. On a final note, we have to remember there is some element of risk involved the very minute we put our feet on the floor and start our day. And most of us just carry on about our business being there is no sense in worrying about it. OBS...
 
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RailFanLNK

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Airline flying "tiring"? Sheesh...............its become GRUELLING! :eek: All I can remember saying was this mantra after my trip from "heck" last year. "There's gotta be a different way!" Something I didn't add to my recent rant about my airline trip from heck last year was that I had two friends who didn't have the same flight or airline I had. They left Omaha NE (I departed out of Lincoln) enroute to Toronto via Cincinnatti. They too, got jacked all around the eastern end of the US. They also arrived late to our convention by about 9 hours. Me, I had missed at least 12 hours. We all sat and looked at each other in complete disbelief. I'm kicking myself now cuz we all could have taken Amtrak to Chicago then to Toronto and possibly gotten there quicker. Yes....I said quicker!
 

frj1983

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[ On a final note, we have to remember there is some element of risk involved the very minute we put our feet on the floor and start our day. And most of us just carry on about our business being there is no sense in worrying about it. OBS...

I would have to agree here, life is not risk free. I walk past the Sears Tower every work day on the way to Union Station in Chicago. Do I worry about a plane coming out of the clouds and striking it? No, I'm more worried about the crazy cab drivers on the streets and bicyclists riding on the sidewalks here.

I think and act "safety," the rest is out of my hands and in the hands of a "higher power," and that's where I leave things. I have never felt unsafe riding Amtrak, but I acknowledge that there have been some close calls in my car.
 
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AmtrakWPK

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There have been horrible accidents with all modes of transportation. I don't think anybody mentioned (maybe I missed it) the Auto-Train derailment a few years back in Florida. Then there's the Titanic. The Andrea Doria. The parents of a good friend of mine were on the DC-10 that was taking off from O'Hare years back when an engine separated (fell off) from the wing because the mechanics didn't follow the manufacturer's instructions on how to properly remove and replace the engines for service. Lots of deaths there. And there will always be arguments about the relative safety of one mode over another. I feel safer flying a Cessna 172 myself than I do as a passenger in a 737 going into, say, Midway.

To summarize, though, the most dangerous portion of either a rail or air journey is probably the drive to and from the Amtrak station or the drive to and from the airport. If there IS a transportation accident, You are probably much more likely to survive a rail accident as a passenger on the train than you would as a passenger in either a car or air accident. You are much more likely to emerge from a rail accident without injury than would be the case for either a car or air accident. That really is the bottom line.
 

denmarks

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I agree with all replies here. What we should look at is fatalities per takeoff in the case of airlines, and fatalities per mile travelled in the case of Amtrak, including only Amtrak passengers. I'll try to do some research over the next few weeks to see if I can put something together.
I recommend finding out fatalities/hour of travel though it is probably not available.
 

George Harris

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I recommend finding out fatalities/hour of travel though it is probably not available.
There was something on this order done that appeared in a British safety magazine about 10 years ago. Just for accidents all types, including but not only the fatal ones, walking as a means of transportation becomes more hazardous than almost anything except motorcycles on that basis.
 

JAChooChoo

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I don't have that data handy. However, the problem with comparing "safety" of Amtrak vs. the airlines vs. road travel is that it's like comparing apples to oranges.
Fatalities per distance traveled is almost certainly going to favor the airlines because the airlines take people longer distances. The most dangerous part of the flight is takeoff and landing, and this is the case whether you're flying 500 miles or 5000 miles.
Actually Fatalities per 100 Million Passenger Miles is the best measure since it compares the possibility of dying on trips of equal length.

 

Stats for the year 2000:

Automobiles: .80 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles (drivers counted as passengers for this mode)

Buses: .05 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles

Trains: .03 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles

Airlines: .02 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles

Source: Wikipedia Amtrak Article

 

Or to put it another way, a person's chances of being killed on a coast-to-coast trip of 3,000 miles is:

Automobile 1 in 41,667

Buses 1 in 666,667

Train 1 in 1,111,111

Airline 1 in 1,666,667
 

Everydaymatters

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My first Amtrak trip was in 1977. The reason I chose Amtrak was that there had been a terrible Amtrak accident, I think it was within the 12 months prior to my trip. I believe at that time, it was the worst train accident in US history.

That train accident was my REASON for taking Amtrak!!! There were survivors! Lots of them!

The statistics for plane crashes are rarely good.
 

George Harris

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I f I recall correctly at the time of the crash of the Concorde, the airline industry tends to count aircraft safety in "cycles" A cycle is one takeoff and one landing. The point was made that up to that time, the Concorde had an excellent safety record because there had been no accidents. After that one accident, because there were so few concordes and becuase all their flights were long, it put them near or at the worst in accidents per cycle.

As a poster above said, this is because for airplanes the major hazards are on takeoffs and landings. Also, the high stress events on the aircraft frame and operating systems are in takeoffs and landings.

At the other extreme, recall the flight in Haiwaii several years ago where the top of the fuselage came off in flight? This was thanks to having lots of short flights, despite a reasonable number of hours for the aircraft, the number of cycles was huge and fatigue of the plane was setting in.

George
 
C

cp

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The stats shown by JAChooChoo are in line with my expectations. Today's southbound Texas Eagle hit the back of an 18 wheeler truck about 90 miles north of Little Rock, around 5:30 am. No one on the train even felt the impact. What woke me up was not the impact, but the emergency break that followed. We had to stop for police reports, etc, and arrived in Little Rock 5 hours late. I did fee quite safe in the train, but I feel that the plane is probably safer (although only marginally so).
 

AmtrakWPK

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If there is an accident, I think the train would be the safest mode to be on as a passenger, with the least likelihood of injury or death from the accident. Also, I think you would need to qualify what kind of air transport you are talking about. If you mean full-size multi-engine jet, then yes, probably very safe. if you mean puddle-jumper 10-30 seat commuters, I would suspect that it would be much safer to be on the train, statistically. Commuters tend to have a short stage length, (higher ratio of takeoffs and landings to hours of flight), and have to deal with a number of other things that large jets into major airports don't. Like hostile terrain close to the runway. And less sophisticated navaids.
 

PRR 60

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If there is an accident, I think the train would be the safest mode to be on as a passenger, with the least likelihood of injury or death from the accident. Also, I think you would need to qualify what kind of air transport you are talking about. If you mean full-size multi-engine jet, then yes, probably very safe. if you mean puddle-jumper 10-30 seat commuters, I would suspect that it would be much safer to be on the train, statistically. Commuters tend to have a short stage length, (higher ratio of takeoffs and landings to hours of flight), and have to deal with a number of other things that large jets into major airports don't. Like hostile terrain close to the runway. And less sophisticated navaids.
You are correct about the relative accident rates of scheduled air carriers (14 CFR 121) verses commuter carriers (14 CFR 135)

From the NTSB for 2005:

Scheduled carriers: 0.171 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, 0.293 accidents per 100,000 departures.

Commuter carriers: 2.000 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, 1.176accidents per 100,000 departures.

It should be noted that commuter carriers in 2005 had zero fatalities.
 
C

cp

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This list shows some major rail accidents that have occured since the 1950s. I am not sure if the list is comprehensive or not. However, what is really striking is just how poor is Amtrak's safety record compared to the European railroads. For instance, I could only find two accidents involving France's SNCF, and I am sure that they carry way more passengers than Amtrak. Whan can we do to make Amtrak safer? Yesterday I was aboard a train that hit a truck, and fortunately we were all fine because it hit the back of the 18 wheeler. What if we had hit the driver's cabin, just a few seconds earlier? How many victims could have resulted from a possible derailment? I am not sure if the driver did not observe the gate signal, or if the signal was not working properly. I have noticed, however, that in the US gates generally close only seconds before the train arrival, as compared to the EU where you have to wait more than a minute.

I also read somewhere that Amtrak pays for all liability lawsuits resulting from its accidents, even those caused by the freight RR negilgence. There is obviously something very wrong with this: it means that freight RR have no incentive to invest in safety because they will be bailed out by taxpayer dollars in the event of an accident.

I think what the US needs is to scrap the existing system all together, and instead build a new network of dedicated passenger-only tracks, with minmal grade level crossings. Money should be invested in over/under passes, to minimize the risk of collision between cars and trains.

In this sense, I am not opposed to the dismantling of Amtrak as we know it, provided it is replaced by a better, more modern passenger rail system.
 

AmtrakWPK

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How much of SNCF runs on somebody else's track, like a freight railroad, and how does that compare to Amtrak's situation? How many grade crossings per mile of track does SNCF have, and how does that compare to Amtrak's situation? What kind of grade crossing gate equipment do they run over there, and how does that compare to what Amtrak runs over? How much of SNCF's terrain is similar to what Amtrak runs over? How many miles of track does SNCF run over compared to the mileage that Amtrak's does? How many complete idiots do they have over there that try to beat the train through a crossing? Unless you have all those numbers, a raw accident rate comparison is completely meaningless.
 
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