Are Trains Safe?

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Another Amtrak train traveling the so-called Northeast Corridor -- from Washington, D.C. to Boston -- has derailed. At least seven people have died as of this blog and many more are injured.

The train was traveling from Washington D.C. to New York last night and went off the tracks near Philadelphia. In the last two years, five other accidents along that same route have caused injury and death.

Six Dead After Philadelphia Train Derailment

And that's just in the United States. In July, 2013, a train derailed in northwest Spain, killing 80 people.

It's enough to make one pause and wonder, just how safe is train travel?

The National Transportation Safety Board keeps some statistics, however, the most recent seem to be from 2013. In that year, there were 891 deaths, although the majority of them come from collisions of trains with people or vehicles on the tracks when they shouldn't be. Passenger deaths were low, only 6 died in 2013.

There are actually more deaths and injuries on New York's subway system -- 248 between 2011 and 2014 -- than on trains that service the New York metro area.

In Europe, where train travel is much more common than it is in the States, passenger deaths are higher. Back in 2013, following the horrific crash of the train in Spain, Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post looked into the numbers and found that between 2008 and 2011, Spain had 24 passenger fatalities, Italy had 23 and Britain had 38.

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But compared to other forms of transportation, train travel overall is safer for passengers than car or boat travel.

According to the Paul Waldman of the American Prospect measuring safety by the number of deaths alone isn't a true measure, though. He writes:

In the U.S. in 2011, there were 32,367 road fatalities, 485 air fatalities, and 570 railroad fatalities. The raw number isn’t the proper measure though, because your risk is a function of how far you might go on each mode of transportation. The better measure, then, is fatalities per a given distance traveled. And there too, we see that train travel and air travel are both substantially safer than road travel.

Surprisingly enough, traveling by ferry is more dangerous than flying or traveling by train. See the graph here. And motorcycles by far are the most dangerous. Please, wear your helmet.

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