Train Safety Statistics: Are Railroads Dangerous?

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Members of the National Transportation Safety Board and MTA officials observe the damaged car of a commuter train the morning after it struck an SUV near Valhalla, New York, on February 3, 2015. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The explosive crash involving a Metro-North train and an SUV that killed six and injured 15 on Tuesday renewed fears about the nation's second-largest commuter rail system, which also saw six deaths and 126 injuries due to accidents between May 2013 and March 2014.

In the New York region and elsewhere in the U.S., Tuesday's incident has many people wondering whether rail systems are safe. The short answer is yes.

First, let's look at mass transit casualties in the New York City metro area. Dramatically more deaths occur in the subway system than on Metro-North or the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). There were 58 “collision with individual” (CWI) deaths on the city's subway lines last year, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) statistics, and five non-CWI deaths, such as dying on MTA property. Between 2011 and the end of last year, there were 248 subway deaths in total.

For Metro-North, meanwhile, there were 43 total deaths between 2004 and 2013, according to the most recent Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) stats. On the LIRR, a total 84 deaths occurred between 2004 and 2013. Total deaths include everything, such as on-board heart attacks as well as deaths from accidents. (Note: Train safety data aren't compiled by a single agency. An FRA spokesman explained to Newsweek that the agency handles all freight, passenger and commuter rail, not light rail or subways. The FRA doesn’t yet have complete 2014 data.)

Now these numbers don't actually indicate that the subway is hellishly deadly, considering that there are up to 6 million subway riders per day, whereas Metro-North and the LIRR serve only 285,000 and 290,000 riders a week, respectively, MTA data indicate.

“In essence, these numbers have been relatively flat over the past couple of years, which is important to note, considering ridership over the past couple of years has increased,” Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesman, tells Newsweek.

Metro-North crash An image from a WNBC-TV aerial video shows first responders battling fire on a Metro-North train following the accident near Valhalla, New York, on February 3, 2015. WNBC-TV/Reuters

Between 2004 and 2013, there were four accident-based train deaths on Metro-North. In that period, there were also two railroad crossing deaths, which is how the FRA would classify Tuesday's incident. (The FRA has separate classifications for accident-based deaths and crossing deaths. Accidental employee deaths are not counted in the accidental death category.)

There was one other train-car collision at the site of Tuesday's fatal accident, according to an FRA database. A driver was fatally struck by a Metro-North train at the Commerce Street railroad crossing on October 10, 1984.

On the LIRR, total fatalities increased 225 percent between 2004 and 2013. But again, those are total fatalities. There weren't any train accident deaths during that period, while there were 29 rail-crossing deaths.

Across the country, railroad crossing deaths dropped 38 percent between 2004 and 2013. Some 65 percent of rail fatalities are the result of trespassing in areas other than road crossings, FRA statistics indicate.

"About every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train," an FRA spokesman said in a statement to Newsweek. "Highway-rail grade crossing incidents account for 32 percent of all rail-related fatalities. We urge people to remain vigilant, don’t get distracted, and if they see tracks, they should think that a train is coming.” 

Additional national statistics on rail deaths and injuries are available, but they aren't up to the minute. For example, the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) most recent figures on transit casualties are from 2013.

The NTSB reports that railroad deaths went up 6 percent in 2013, to 891 from 840 in 2012. According to the NTSB, "The vast majority of these fatalities continue to be trespassers struck by trains."

The NTSB's statement makes clear a very important point: 94 percent of 2013 transportation deaths—32,719—are roadway deaths. (Aviation and marine deaths totaled 443 and 615, respectively.)

National Safety Council (NSC) data also indicate that train passenger deaths are extremely rare.

"Tragedies do occur, unfortunately, but on an average year, railroad travel is extremely safe," Kenneth P. Kolosh, manager of the NSC's statistics department, tells Newsweek.