TALLAHASSEE—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.