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Fatal Philadelphia derailment defies trend for safer train travel.

Posted by Luke Upton on May 13, 2015

tpatrick_murphycroppedThe passenger train derailment of May 13th in Philadelphia, which has killed at least eight passengers and injured over 200, many of them critically is the second fatal Amtrak accident in the space of a week. The fatal derailment happened in a suburb of Philadelphia, shortly after leaving the city's main station, the train was heading to New York from Washington, DC and had six passenger cars as well as an engine. At the time of writing it is not known what caused the derailment and the national Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has dispatched a team of investigators to the crash site.*  Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, said seven people had been killed and stated that “It is an absolute disastrous mess,” before adding “we do not know what happened here.” Former congressman Patrick Murphy was on the train and assisted people off the train. He tweeted the picture above right of firefighters assisting passengers in the wreckage.

This is the latest in a series of accidents for Amtrak. On Sunday 10th May, an Amtrak train bound for New Orleans struck a track parked on a railway crossing killing the driver and injuring two people on board. Whilst in March a collision between an Amtrak train and a tractor-trailer stuck on the tracks in North Carolina injured at least 55 passengers. However these recent accidents do defy a recent trend in increasing rail safety according to figures from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Rail accidents and derailments have dropped significantly in recent years, according to FRA figures. In 2014, there were a total of 11,855 accidents on the US rail network, in 2007 there were 13,936, a decrease of 2,081. The total derailments per annum also fell, to 1,241 in 2014 from 1,934 in 2007. With the rate of train accidents per million train miles travelled also falling from 3,393 in 2007 to 2,292 in 2014.

These falls in accident rates are despite the railroads of the USA moving more people and carrying the most goods for a generation. Amtrak ridership is up more than 50% since 2000 and freight traffic as near to an all-time high. The transport of crude oil and chemcials by rail has also risen siginificantly in recent years.

The one area in which safety numbers have not improved significantly are the total fatality numbers, which in 2014 were 813 only a slight decrease of the 851 in 2007. Although it must be noted that these totals include those killed whilst trespassing or on crossings, not just those on the trains themselves. The FRA figures state that accidents related to human error and track defects account for more than two-thirds of all train accidents, while trespassing and highway-rail grade crossing incidents accounts for 96% of all rail-related fatalities.

Our thoughts are with the victims and families of the Philadelphia derailment and all recent accidents. But the facts still point towards rail being a very safe transport choice.

*(UPDATE, 14th May  - Prelimary findings iseem to indicate that the train was travelling at more than 100mph – twice the recommended speed for the section of the track it was on).

(See also: What the crashes and derailments of Summer 2013 mean for the rail industry. and Fireball destroys 14 cars as oil train derails in USA (inc. video).)

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Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton


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