Every day millions of people nationwide depend on railways to travel and commute. Americans rely on various types of rail travel including heavy or high speed inter-state, regional, and inter-city trains (such as Amtrak), as well as lighter rail systems such as metro or commuter trains. In addition to passenger trains, freight trains play a vital role in industry and the economy, transporting materials and goods all over the country.
Unfortunately, train and other rail accidents are not as rare as one would expect. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), from 2015 to 2018 there were 46,891 rail accidents, resulting in 3,170 fatalities, and 13,459 non-fatal injuries. Additionally, in 2016 there were 2,049 collisions occurring at public and private railway crossings resulting in 255 fatalities and 852 injuries. The FRA also notes that every three hours a person is struck by a train in the U.S. and that a motorist is 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than a collision involving another motor vehicle.
Types of Rail Accidents
Due to their size and the speed at which they travel, collisions and derailments can result in devastating injuries and death. Rail accidents include:
- Collision with another train
- Collision with another vehicle
- Collision with an object, structure, or obstruction
- Derailments – the most common cause of rail accidents. In 2018 alone there were 1,348 derailment incidents.
- Railway crossing accidents (collision with person or vehicle at a railway crossing). A level or grade crossing is an intersection where a railway line crosses a road or path. A gate or barrier is supposed to block the intersection when a train approaches, preventing cars and pedestrians from crossing the train's path. Vehicles or pedestrians who get caught in the middle of the barriers, or attempt to go around them, risk a deadly collision.
- Passenger falls from a moving train or falls from a train's elevated loading platform (gap) onto the train track
- Fires, explosions of chemical exposure
- Terrorism or sabotage related accidents
Causes of Train and light rail accidents
Train and railway accidents can be caused by one or a combination of various factors. Some accidents are due to human error which may include negligent/careless or reckless actions by the train operators, passengers, or the driver of another vehicle. Accidents may be the result of poorly or defectively designed railways, crossings, safety systems/checks, or the train itself. Mechanical failure of the train or rail systems (e.g. safety signal failures) may also play a role. In some cases accidents or injuries may be the result of intentional acts such as terrorism.
According to 2018 statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) human factors were cited as the most common cause for the majority of train accidents accounting for 694 accidents and comprising 33.2% of all accidents. After human factors (including human error), the next most common cause of rail accidents cited by the FRA in 2018 were track-related causes accounting for 544 accidents or 26% of all accidents. Miscellaneous-related causes accounted for 327 rail accidents or 15.6%; equipment-related causes accounted for 270 accidents or 12.9%; highway-user related causes accounted for 208 or 9.9%; and signal-related causes accounted for 50 accidents or 2.4%.
Human errors include:
- The driver failing to properly line a rail switch or other switch related errors (causing the train to go into the wrong track or derail) –this was the most common human error resulting in an accident in 2018.
- Excessive speed/throttle/failure to comply with speed limits. This was the second most cited cause of accidents in 2018.
- Improper or unsafe rail car shoving or shunting movements
- Improper braking
- Failure to communicate or give or comply with proper orders or instructions.
- Fatigued, impaired or distracted conductor, operator, or other railroad employee
- Improper train or equipment inspection
- Excessive loading
Track, equipment, and signal-related causes include:
- Broken, damaged or worn rails resulting in derailments
- Broken welds
- Broken or malfunctioning switches
- Irregular or improperly aligned tracks
- Improper elevation
- Loose or broken guardrails
- Broken, worn, damaged, malfunctioning or defectively designed braking, acceleration, and safety systems
- Broken, damaged or worn parts (e.g. engine, rims, plates, hub, flanges, wheels, couplers, rods, etc.)
- Mismatched couplers
- Oil, fuel or electrical fires
- Various other types of mechanical, computer, power or signal failures
Miscellaneous causes include:
- Adverse or extreme environmental or weather conditions
- Obstructions on the track
- Vandalism, sabotage or terrorism related incidents
- Other vehicle operator or pedestrian behavior contributing to the accident (negligence, inattentiveness, intoxication, etc.)
Southern California Train and Light Rail Accidents
As a major metropolitan area, the Los Angeles greater metropolitan area has an extensive network of both freight railroads and passenger trains. Freight trains are an essential part of our economy, transporting goods quickly and economically all across the Southland and beyond. Higher gasoline prices and traffic congestion mean an increasing number of commuters are taking CALTRANS and Metrolink commuter trains to get to and from work. Although Southern California is usually thought of as a car culture, according to 2018 statistics Los Angeles boasts an average weekday rail ridership of 344,176, making it the ninth busiest rapid transit system in the United States.
What is the train safety record of Metrolink?
Metrolink, the commuter rail service governed by The Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA), a joint powers authority made up of an 11-member board representing Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. As of 3Q 2019 the Metrolink system operates seven routes running 173 weekday commuter trains on more than 388 miles through Southern California, carrying an average of nearly one 40,000 passengers each weekday.
Because of the geographic extent of the system, Metrolink has more than 800 grade crossings, and about half of them are not separated from vehicle traffic. At some grade crossings approximately 120 freight and passenger trains cross each day. Typically, grade crossing accidents occur when motorists grow impatient and drive around crossing gates or become confused by the design of the crossing intersection. Statistics show that when crossings are removed from accident data, the principal reason for Metrolink train accidents is human error.
Unfortunately, two of the deadliest train accidents in the United in recent decades involved Metrolink trains. On January 26, 2005 a Metrolink commuter train in Glendale, California struck a vehicle that a man intentionally parked on the railroad tracks causing the commuter train to derail and crash into a nearby Union Pacific train that was parked nearby. The train crash killed 11 people and injured over 100 others. The man who parked the vehicle on the track was eventually convicted of murder.
Another deadly Metrolink accident occurred on September 12, 2008 in Chatsworth, California when a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on causing both trains to partially derail. The accident killed 25 people and injured approximately 135 others. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the Metrolink engineer (who was among those killed in the accident) was text messaging someone on his phone near the time of the accident and as a result, failed to stop his train at a red signal and thereby caused the collision. The NTSB also determined that the crash could have been avoided if the Metrolink train had had positive train control technology, which combines various technologies to automatically stop a train before certain accidents related to human error occur.
Since these accidents, the SCRRA, has invested over $500 million to in upgrading safety features along 512 miles of track, including are "sealed" grade crossings, safer rail cars and locomotives, automatic train stops, the nation's first onboard rail video cameras, and the nation's first Positive Train Control high tech system.
A more recent train accident occurred on February 24, 2015 in Oxnard, California when a Metrolink passenger train collided with a Ford pickup truck at a grade crossing causing the train to derail. The accident injured 31 passengers and two crew members. The Metrolink engineer later died of his injuries. The driver who drove his pickup onto the tracks and left it on the tracks eventually pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years probation. Metrolink also subsequently sued the South Korean manufacturer of its passenger “cab cars,” alleging they had faulty parts that failed to keep trains on the track – according to the lawsuit an inspection of the cab car showed that four of the five welds on the carbody weldments for the pilot assembly “exhibited poor fusion and lack of penetration — in other words, they did not securely attach the brackets to the carbody.”
One serious psychological consequence often associated with train accidents is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To read more about this, please click here.
Assisting Train Accident Victims
If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury in a train or light rail accident please contact us for a free, confidential, and no-obligation review of your potential legal claim. The law limits the time in which you have to file a claim, so it is important you contact an attorney immediately.
Contact Taschner Law today for a Free Consultation and see how we can help!