Is Amtrak Safe to Ride? The Data on Train Accidents

Greg Keraghosian
·Associate Travel Editor
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Emergency personnel at the scene of a wrecked Amtrak train that was headed to New York City but derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

Late Tuesday night Amtrak faced one of its deadliest accidents in recent years when a train derailed on the way to New York killing at least six passengers and injuring hundreds of others.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative team has begun their investigation.

But recent data can shed some light on the question of whether train travel has become more dangerous overall, and specifically whether Amtrak is becoming more dangerous with federal budget cuts on the horizon. In terms of sheer accidents, the answer is that train travel, including on Amtrak, is much safer than it was 10 to 15 years ago. But with a caveat that Amtrak accidents are on pace to rise for a fourth consecutive year.

Dr. Allan Zarembski, research professor and director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware, told Yahoo Travel that he still considers Amtrak to be a safe mode of travel.

"Amtrak does in fact have a good safety record, and a strong focus on safety with a very strong safety record on its high density Northeast Corridor," Zarembski said.

Tuesday night’s accident follows an Amtrak collision in March with a tractor-trailer that was stuck on the tracks, injured 55 people. This is categorized as a grade-crossing accident, as was an Amtrak crash Sunday where a train bound for New Orleans struck a flat-bed truck, killing the truck’s driver and injuring two aboard.

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The scene of a Metrolink train that it a truck and derailed in Oxnard, Calif, in February.  (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Derailment risk will get more scrutiny with Tuesday’s disaster, as will Amtrak’s infrastructure, which critics say is in bad shape and could get worse if Congress follows through on cutting the rail service’s budget from $1.4 billion to $1.13 billion annually.

When we look at Amtrak’s derailment history, however, we see that this category of accident is on the decline. You can search the data yourself on the Federal Railroad Administration site, but when searching for just derailment accidents in recent years, we get numbers in the high 20s. The 2015 total is only through February.

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(Chart: Federal Railroad Administration)

There were only 21 Amtrak derailments in 2010, but looking before that, we see 35 in 2009, 44 in 2008, and 29 in 2007. And the chart below shows much greater derailments in the early 2000s, peaking at 80.

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(Chart: Federal Railroad Administration)

Total Amtrak accidents have also declined since the turn of 2000, though they are on the rise again. There were 67 Amtrak accidents last year, more than in 2013 and 2012. Through February, not including the more recent accidents, Amtrak already had 21 accidents reported. It’s a leap to say they’re on pace for 126 accidents this year, but that’s what the data says right now.  

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(Chart: Federal Railroad Administration)

If we look at total train accidents over the years according to FRA data, they’ve fallen sharply from 2005, when there were 3,266 reported. By 2009 that number fell to 1,912, and last year there were 1,755.

As for passenger deaths on trains, we’re headed for an unfortunate spike this year. There were only five such deaths reported last year, with six in 2013, and five in 2012. Before Tuesday’s accident there were already five passenger deaths reported in 2015, all happening when a Metro-North Railroad train crashed into a car in Valhalla, N.Y., on Feb. 3.

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