NY Metro North Derails: Is Train Travel Safe?

Blood on the Tracks

But compared with these three modes of transportation, highway travel is a bloodbath: The NTSB reports that 32,367 deaths in the United States were blamed on roadway accidents, including more than 4,400 pedestrian deaths. More than three-quarters of these deaths (25,865) involved passenger cars, motorcycles, light trucks and vans.

It's difficult, however, to compare the safety records of different modes of transportation. While vehicle and train accident rates are usually cited on a per-mile basis, that analysis doesn't work as well for airplanes, since the vast majority of air accidents occur during takeoff and landing, not in midflight.

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LIU JIN/Stringer/AFP/Getty

There are railway safety innovations that might have helped prevent the New York City train accident. Positive train control, or PTC, is a technology that can automatically stop or slow a train before train-to-train collisions, high-speed derailments or train travel on tracks that are off-limits due to repairs or maintenance, according to the Association of American Railroads.

By 2015, PTC must be installed on all rail lines that carry passengers or certain hazardous materials, per the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. While it's not certain that PTC would have prevented the New York City train accident, it is designed to automatically slow trains as they approach bends in the track such as the one where the high-speed derailment occurred.

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