A recent train derailment in Chicago demonstrates just how dangerous these accidents can be. A commuter train car climbed up the escalator at the O’Hare airport stop, injuring 30 people. A federal investigator said that he had never seen an accident quite like this one.
Why Trains Derail
There are two primary reasons that these critical accidents happen. The first is human error and the other is problems with the track (often also linked to human error). In 2007, the Federal Railroad Administration reported nearly 2,000 derailments on tracks all over the country. While many of these accidents cause only minor damage, they can be terrifying for passengers.
In other cases, individuals stand at risk for major injuries. Of those reported derailments, nearly half were the result of track defects, but 28.7 percent were the fault of human error. Remaining accidents were caused by other factors, like mechanical failure.
Some believe that objects sitting on the track can throw a train off course, but the weight of the trains and the typical speeds they travel mean that very rarely happens. In fact, a freight train is generally capable of tossing a 4,000 pound car off the tracks without even getting derailed. There are many factors that play into train derailments, but some of them appear preventable.
Despite Improvements, Derailments Still Happen
In the last three decades, significant improvements in track monitoring have occurred. These improvements have drastically reduced the number of derailments by about 66%, but as the recent accident shows, there is still more improvement needed.
Initiatives that have achieved success so far include visual track inspections, the use of a gage restraint measurement system, and ultrasonic tests run once per year. Ultrasonic tests can clue engineers in to whether there might be small cracks in the rails that could lead to dangerous or deadly accidents.
Track Type and Accident Causes
2012 research from the Transportation Research Record showed that broken welds, or rails, were a leading cause of derailment on main tracks, but human error was more likely to lead to derailment on siding tracks or train yards. Human error can include:
- inadequate braking operations,
- improper handling of the train, and
- failure to use switches properly.
These kinds of errors were most common at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour, although speeding was also a leading problem involving operator error.
When the train operates at faster than 25 miles per hour, human error causes typically disappeared and equipment failures reigned supreme instead. Most common for equipment failure were broken wheels, journal and axle defects, and bearing failure.
Public Policy Now and Later
Recognizing the serious danger posed by train derailments, Congress is hopeful that the improvements to-date will serve as the foundation for even tighter controls. That’s why the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, mandating the adoption of positive train control technology by 2015.
Positive train control is a relatively new technology for the monitoring and evaluation of train movements. Using GPS navigation to identify a train’s exact location and speed, devices can signal whether the train needs to be slowed. Although the technology was mostly developed for preventing train collisions, excessive speed derailments can also be reduced using the same system.
Although positive train control has a lot of potential, it’s not without its challenges, too. There are some technical bugs in existing programs, according to a 2010 Government Accountability report. That report acknowledged that it may be impossible for the 2015 to be met.
It’s clear that more research and a better understanding of red flag issues is critical for reducing train derailments. While human error issues can be reduced with better training and management, there is still a crucial problem with mechanical equipment and defective tracks. When a train lunges from the tracks, it can cause physical damage, but it can also seriously injure passengers aboard and passersby in the nearby area.
A Derailment Epidemic
The Chicago train derailment is sadly just one example of a recent incident with a train derailment. Derailments have occurred in smaller areas but also in big cities with recent examples in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Boston, and New York City.
For individuals on the train or nearby, there is little to nothing they can do to avoid being injured or killed as a result of a train accident. The sheer size and weight of trains, regardless of their speed, make them extremely dangerous. As these incidents illustrate, there is a lot of risk for trains to spin out of control in a matter of seconds, leading to injuries and possibly even death.
To discuss a serious injury or death caused by a train or railroad crash, call Passen & Powell at 312-527-4500.