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Train travel still safe, records show
When a silver Amtrak train loaded with 452 passengers and crew twisted off the track and crashed north of Orlando on Thursday, four people died, 133 were injured and fears about rail travel were rekindled.
The scene of crumpled rail cars strewn side by side recalls past accidents: the 1991 derailment of a Miami-to-New York Amtrak train that killed eight people; a 1999 Amtrak collision with a steel truck south of Chicago that killed 14; and Amtrak's most deadly and spectacular crash -- a 1993 Mobile, Ala., disaster that killed 49 when a boat struck a railway bridge, sending a Miami-bound train plunging into the bayou.
But despite the dramatic stories of crashes and derailments, state and federal records show that trains remain a safe way to travel.
While the number of passenger and freight train accidents is near a four-year high, deaths and injuries from derailments and crashes between trains remain rare. Six people were killed on trains in all of 2001. That's down from 17 deaths five years earlier.
Rail crossings can be deadly
And the overwhelming majority of people killed in train-related accidents -- more than 96 percent -- don't die from derailments or bad tracks. They are killed trying to cross tracks, either in cars or on foot.
Nationally, 418 people lost their lives last year racing to try to beat a train or trapped in a vehicle caught across the tracks. Another 505 pedestrians died, many of them classified in Federal Railroad Administration records as "trespassers" because they were in railroad yards or on railroad property.
According to federal officials, 96 percent of all train deaths fall into those two categories. Figures in Florida follow a similar trend.
The percentage of people killed in railroad accidents also is small compared with other forms of transportation such as car accidents (73 percent), pedestrians hit by cars (about 11 percent), or people killed on motorcycles (about 6 percent), according to U.S. Department of Transportation records.
Train accidents, including rail-crossing deaths, cause a bigger share of deaths (about 2 percent) than airlines or buses, which each account for a small fraction of 1 percent of transportation deaths.
The biggest risk from trains is at railroad crossings or getting too close to trains, stressed Warren Flatau of the Federal Railroad Administration.
"Rail is the safest mode of surface transportation," Flatau said. "Injuries and fatalities on passenger trains are relatively infrequent on Amtrak or commuter trains. The bottom line is rail-passenger transport is safe."
But rail-safety advocates say the risks remain too high for crashes, derailments and hazardous-waste spills. They blame old equipment, lax inspections and overworked rail employees.
Just a month ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation to slow down freight trains after a CSX train loaded with coal lost its brakes on a hill in western Maryland, crashed into a house and killed a sleeping 15-year-old boy.
Critics including some in Congress have accused the railroad industry of cutting corners on maintenance and safety to save money, which the industry has denied.
The Railroad Safety and Inspection program for Florida's Department of Transportation has two state inspectors who work with federal inspectors in checking rails. The Federal Railroad Administration, which has eight inspectors to cover Florida, has main responsibility and can levy fines.
The Federal Railroad Administration focuses its safety efforts on tracks that carry passengers and hazardous materials, where there is greater risk, officials said.
Bob Gallamore, director of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, who was deputy director of the Federal Railroad Administration during the Carter administration, said that makes sense. Overall, railroad safety is good, said Gallamore, who worked on a railroad-industry project to reduce train collisions.
But Gallamore said more emphasis should be put on safety performance rather than bookkeeping regulations.
"We need better use of technology to predict when a rail might fail," Gallamore said. "It's harder and it's more expensive, but it needs to be done."
Track blamed in Iowa crash
A recent Amtrak accident in Iowa that killed one person and injured 96 others also was blamed partly on poorly maintained track and inadequate inspections, according to investigators. Since 1998, Amtrak trains have derailed 258 times, according to federal records, but the Iowa crash was the only derailment that caused a death until Thursday's crash on CSX Corp. tracks.
Amtrak, which serves 46 states and carried an all-time high of 23.5 million people last year, uses tracks controlled and maintained by freight railroad companies for 97 percent of its miles. That often contributes to delays and safety issues, as Amtrak trains wait for repairs or freight trains. The NTSB blamed a 1999 Chicago-area Amtrak crash that killed 14 on a truck driver who failed to heed warning lights at a railroad crossing.
The number of train-accident injuries nationally has risen steadily during the past four years and is up 15 percent compared with 1998, according to federal records.
But safety statistics can be misleading.
For example, the number of derailments jumped almost 20 percent in the past four years to nearly 2,200 last year. But more than half of those were freight trains that derailed inside railroad switching yards, which are closed to the public, Flatau said. "Dropping just one wheel off the track is considered a derailment," he added.
More than one-third of the 2,954 train accidents last year were caused by aging, dilapidated railroad tracks, according to federal records. But of those, only one death and 45 injuries were blamed on bad track, and the number has dropped in the past three years.
Many rail accidents occur on older, local freight-train tracks with very little traffic, Florida officials noted.
"The mainline tracks that are carrying passengers are generally in good shape," said Bob Hines, head of Florida Department of Transportation's rail-safety and inspection program. "They have a business incentive, and there are state and federal inspectors looking over their shoulders."
While railroad accidents nationally are near a four-year high, more than half of accidents last year were in switching yards, federal records show. Federal rules require reporting any accident that causes more than $6,000 in damage to a train -- an amount that a national train-industry group compares to "a fender bender" for a 100-ton engine costing many times the price of a car.
"Most of the accidents happen at low speeds in the yards," Hines said. "They are a nuisance. But they're not a threat to public safety."
Bob Mahlburg can be reached at email@example.com