Commentary: Why all the recent train crashes?

It’s been a rough few months for rail safety, with any number of horrific crashes and derailments causing death and injury around the world.

While the National Transportation Safety Board says it’s fast-tracking (no pun intended) its probe into the May derailment and collision of two M8-equipped trains on Metro-North, we’ll still have to wait until October for public hearings.

Meantime, one of Spain’s famous AVE high-speed trains literally flew off the tracks on a sharp curve, killing 79 passengers; two French commuter trains collided in a station; and the small town of Lac Megantique, Quebec was turned into a deadly inferno when unattended tanker cars rolled down a hill and exploded.

What’s going on here and what can be done to prevent these kinds of incidents?

Reassuring and frightening

I’m no expert on the engineering of railroads, so I’ve spoken to several people who are; what they’ve told me is both reassuring and frightening.

Safety: Trains, whether passenger or freight, are still extremely safe. When accidents occur, the damage can be horrific, which makes for great television. But the statistics are that you’re four times likelier to die in a bus crash and 28 times likelier to die in a car crash than on a train.

Standards: U.S. rail cars are manufactured to much higher safety standards than European or Asian trains. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sets standards of survivability based on “crash worthiness,” while the foreign systems aim for “crash avoidance.”

Of course that means our trains are heavier and less fuel efficient, especially at high speed. But they’re built with crumple zones, like your car.

Acela: Amtrak’s Acela is hardly the fastest train in the world, but a former FRA member told me he thinks it’s the “world’s safest for crash worthiness.”

Before Amtrak ordered the bespoke train sets, they brought over a Swedish tilt-train (the X-2000) and Germany’s ICE trainset to demonstrate the potential of high-speed trains between Boston and Washington. I had a chance to ride both, but while they garnered great PR for Amtrak, neither of the trains (among the best in the world for the time) met U.S. safety standards, then or now.

Testing: All new U.S. rail equipment is put through rigorous testing at an FRA facility in Pueblo, Colo., a giant race track for trains. Trains are tested for speed, acceleration and braking as well as how they operate in extreme heat and cold. Amtrak is now testing new locomotives at the facility prior to their deployment on the Northeast Corridor.

Preventing human error: When a train engineer is on the phone, texting friends or ignoring his professional duties, there should be technologies that can intercede.

After a fatal MetroLink commuter train crash near Los Angeles in 2008, the FRA mandated that all railroads install “positive train control” by 2016. The system of signals, sensors and automatic train controls will cost the railroads $22-plus billion.

A former senior FRA official, speaking to me on background, said the system is a desirable goal but “completely unattainable” by the current deadline due to lack of money and technology.

Tanker cars: Unlike other freight cars, which are owned by the railroads, tanker cars are owned by the shippers. They often carry propane, chemicals and fertilizers, some of which can be lethal if spilled (anhydrous ammonia, chlorine).

Yet, because the railroads are “common carriers” they must carry these shippers’ cargoes, even though they have no control over the safety standards of the tanker cars carrying them.

As a former railroad official told me, “if these chemicals aren’t being carried by rail, they’d be on the highways,” where accidents are much more common.

Travel and transport by rail is already safe. But we must have the will and find the ways (money!) to make it even safer.

Jim Cameron, a rail commuter from Darien for 19 years, is a member of the new Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. Reach him at or